Ideas for Bridging the Duluth Ship Canal

Park Point forces the Bridge Issue

Boller’s 1890 plans for a bridge over the Duluth Ship Canal. (Image: Zenith City Online)

With the growing grain and lumber industries keeping its harbor busy with activity and commerce, the Village of Duluth prospered throughout the 1880s. As the harbor became further developed with grain elevators and lumber and flour mills, dredging further improved the canal and bay. By then, two beacon lights and fog a signal had been added to the canal.

The outer harbor had changed as well. The Citizen’s Dock, abandoned in 1880, was “destroyed” in 1886 (as with the dike, remnants of it must have remained for some time, as it is included in both the 1888 Sanborn Insurance Maps and the 1902 Frank’s Atlas). That same year fire consumed elevators A and Q. The breakwater that had served the elevator, neglected since Cooke’s failure, had all but disintegrated. No matter: with the canal, the inner harbor had rendered the outer infrastructure unnecessary. 1886 also saw the creation of the Duluth District Corps of Engineers, a federal body that would, from that point on, be in charge of the ship canal.

As the Village of Duluth prospered and its population grew, it continued to pay off the debt of the defunct City of Duluth; by 1887 it had cleared the books, and the state legislature sanctioned its incorporation: Duluth—from the canal north up the hillside along Lake Avenue west to roughly Seventh Avenue West—was once again a city. Nearby townships, eager to reap the same benefits Duluth would as a city, folded themselves into Duluth’s ranks: by 1888 North Duluth, Portland, and Endion stretched the new City of Duluth’s borders east to about Twenty-first Avenue East while Rice’s Point, including the West End, extended its western reach once again to Fortieth Avenue West. But one portion of the original Duluth Township refused to join the new city: Middleton, now the Village of Park Point.

The problem, as it had always been, was the bridge over the canal; or rather, the lack thereof. Without a permanent solution for crossing the canal, Park Point would remain an independent township. Duluth’s city fathers had long envisioned the bay side of Minnesota Point lined with slips, but it could hardly create that infrastructure on land it didn’t own. So Duluth promised Park Point a bridge. Historian Walter Van Brunt suggests Duluth’s approach wore down the Pointers rather than wooed them with genuine offers: “Finally, being promised a bridge, rather informally and not truly officially perhaps, [the residents of Park Point] surrendered.” In 1890 Park Point technically became one with the City of Duluth, but the canal kept the community separate.

Boller Bridge Design

In 1890 Park Point still did not have its bridge, but it wasn’t as if the city hadn’t been hard at work on the problem. At the behest of the Common Council (Duluth operated under an aldermanic government until 1912, when it switched to a commissioner driven city council system; the city switched to its present mayor/city council form of government in 1956), the Duluth Board of Public Works had hired Alfred Pancoast Boller, a nationally recognized consulting engineer, to produce the first plan to span the canal with a professionally designed bridge. One of Boller’s biggest challenges would be satisfying federal engineers: as the canal and the land adjacent to it was owned and operated by the federal government, no bridge could be built without the federal government’s approval. That acceptance—which proved difficult to gain—as well as the costs of various proposed designs, would delay the reality of a bridge for another fifteen years.

For his 1890 proposal (drawing above), Boller designed a 475-foot swing bridge mounted on a massive masonry pier rising out of the canal tight against the canal’s south pier; nearly half the bridge would actually hang over Minnesota Point when in use. To allow ship traffic to pass, the bridge would pivot on a great turntable at its center—using fifty-eight twenty-inch steel balls as bearings—so that when it was moved to allow a ship to pass, the entire bridge would rest along the south pier wall. The bridge would take fifteen seconds to unlock and another ninety seconds to swing out of the way or back into place. Boller’s report took great pains to show that his bridge would not infringe in the slightest on the passage needed for shipping, allowing 200 feet for navigation. He also designed the bridge’s deck to carry both railroad and horse and wagon traffic and included sidewalks for pedestrians.

Despite the careful consideration to keep the canal wide open for ship traffic, nothing ever became of Boller’s plan. The town simply didn’t have the money. Then, as today, the City of Duluth was all too well acquainted with the difficulty of balancing tax revenue against outlay for the public good. Boller’s  bottom line was $112,000 for substructure and masonry, $114,000 for the superstructure, and $150,000 for construction of the roadway approaches to the bridge. Miscellaneous and contingent costs brought the bill to just shy of $400,000—over $8.5 million in today’s dollars—a figure that the city fathers could not seriously contemplate at the time. Cost aside, city leaders dropped Boller’s idea due to “difficulties and opposition encountered.” Local business owners and captains of industry—including Captain Alexander McDougall, whose whaleboat freighters were revolutionizing Great Lakes shipping—opposed any sort of mechanical bridge: there was too much potential for such a structure to fail and block the canal, preventing ships from accessing Duluth’s harbor.

In an attempt to avoid the potential problems a bridge might create, Duluth turned its attention to a new idea: a tunnel. The city hired Chicago consulting engineer William Sooy Smith to come up with a plan, which he delivered on January 27, 1891.

The Sooy Smith tunnel would take St. Croix Avenue, which ran along the eastern shore of Minnesota Point, underground and below the canal, emerging south of the waterway. (St. Croix Avenue was later renamed First Avenue East and is known today as Canal Park Drive.) Sooy Smith actually drew up two plans: one with three separate tunnels (one each for pedestrian, train, and wagon traffic) and another with four tunnels (the additional passage was also to be used for trains). Towers on either side of the canal would take pedestrians down a stairway to the walkway.

Sooy Smith argued that most of the work could be done in the open air while the canal remained in operation. Then, during the winter when the canal was free of all shipping traffic, engineers would sink great caissons holding coffer dams that contained lengths of tunnel; once engineers put the tunnel sections in place, the dams would be removed. And once the tunnel was operational, shipping traffic would never have to be inconvenienced in the slightest for people and goods to cross the canal. The residents of Minnesota Point would never again require the use of a ferry or risk their lives on a dangerous temporary bridge.

But again finances doomed the project: estimates ran as high as $1.4 million, over $30 million in today’s dollars. The city, which had already expressed reluctance over spending $400,000 for a bridge, was certainly not going to approve a $1.4 million tunnel plan. Nearly two years after promising Park Pointers a bridge, Duluth didn’t even have a viable plan.

So the city held a contest. In October 1891 Duluth’s Board of Public Works asked the Common Council for the authority to advertise a competition for plans and specifications of a means to cross the canal. The designs had to carry passage for rail, wagons, and pedestrians (the first automobile wouldn’t arrive in Duluth until 1900) and work in a way that did not impede canal traffic. The best plan would receive a $1,000 prize. At the end of December the competition was announced in Engineering News. Twenty engineers from across the country heard the call and submitted designs.

Two plans called for a swing arm similar to Boller’s earlier design. Several, including a submission by tunnel designer Sooy Smith, were for sliding bridges in which either one entire expanse or two smaller expanses (one on either side of the canal) would slide back along rails to clear the shipping lane. Two designs involved cantilevering the bridge so it could be tipped up and out of the way

The Milwaukee firm of Arentz & Sangdahl took home the cash for their bi-level, single sliding draw bridge design. The bridge’s railway floor would hang above the roadway for wagon and foot traffic; to make way for a passing ship it would slide straight back 316 feet from the canal along rails. A 116 horsepower electric engine would move the bridge with steel ropes. The engineers estimated its cost at $236,000.

But despite winning the contest, Arentz & Sangdahl’s design was passed over for a cheaper bridge that would “take care of the business for several years, or until such a time as the city felt it was able to tunnel the canal.” The city chose instead a very interesting plan by John Alexander Low Waddell: an aerial bridge whose roadway span could be lifted to allow shipping traffic full use of the canal. The board called the plan “the best adapted to the locality and the most suitable and economic structure as regards both construction and operation.”

Armed with Waddell’s plans, a committee consisting of harbor master J. W. Miller, S. A. Thompson from the Chamber of Commerce, and Henry Truelsen, president of Duluth’s Board of Public Works, traveled to Washington to show the plans to S. B. Elkins, the Secretary of War, under whose jurisdiction the canal operated. But as the group completed its presentation, they were informed that a protest had been filed against the construction of any bridge over the canal. A group consisting of the Lake Carrier’s Association, the Cleveland Vessel Owner’s Association, and others had filed the complaint. Among them was Duluth’s Alexander McDougall, a founding member of the Lake Carrier’s Association. The groups argued that access to Minnesota Point would have no effect on the local economy: only two hundred people called the land spit home, and its land was not needed for dock space. Further, one of Lake Superior’s fierce storms would certainly wash out the bridge. If a bridge were rendered inoperable during a storm, ships would not be able to gain safety by passing through the canal to the inner harbor. They offered three alternatives: continue the ferry service, build a tunnel, or connect Minnesota Point to Rice’s Point using a trestle bridge with a center draw.

The War Department formed a board of engineers to hear the complaint in Detroit in March of 1892. Duluth’s representatives, including Miller, Thompson, and Truelsen along with city attorney S. L. Smith and Alderman Charles Long, laid out their argument. One of the points they made was that Duluth intended to make the bay side of Minnesota Point a contributing portion of the port. Multiple slips jutting into the bay from the Point could result in “twenty-two miles of dock frontage” and consolidate shipping; without a bridge, railroads could not reach those docks, and Duluth would be denied further economic development. They argued that the bridge would serve the estimated 10,000 people who would one day populate the Point. They denied the bridge would obstruct navigation and refuted other claims made by McDougall and his confederates.

But Duluth had to wait until April for the board’s response, which was far from what they had hoped. The board praised Waddell’s design, yet stated clearly it preferred the idea of a swing bridge such as Boller’s idea. And while it sympathized with the people of Duluth over access to the Point, the board decided to base its opinion on “the best interests of all concerned.” The board also declared it did not wish to “establish a dangerous precedent” by allowing a bridge to be built over the canal because it is the very point where a mariner “passes the perils of the seas into the shelter of the harbor” and that “such a point cannot be too free from obstruction, or the possibility of it.” It opposed “the construction of any bridge over the canal at Duluth.” Waddell’s lift bridge was out—of the Duluth picture, at least. In 1895 the plans would be used to build the Halsted Street Bridge in Chicago, and Waddell would become famous for his design.

Duluth was back to one alternative: a tunnel. A very expensive tunnel. The Duluth Board of Public  Works’ 1892 report on the matter expresses the town’s frustration, concluding with the statement, “The day when we will have access to Minnesota Point is probably a long way off.” And if the city felt it had been defeated, consider the disappointment Park Point’s residents faced: they were still cut off, and the government had cancelled all hope of a bridge in the reasonable future.

The city made one last-ditch effort to connect Park Point to the mainland. They ran another contest, this time for a tunnel design, hoping the government would not object to an idea that eliminated a bridge. C. C. Conkling took home the $1,000 prize, but his tunnel never took another step forward. The Board of Public Works report for 1893 mentioned that “legal complications” had arisen and guessed that the issues would likely be carried to District and Supreme Courts before any work could even be considered. Nothing ever became of Conkling’s plans, but it wouldn’t be the last time Duluth entertained the idea of a tunnel.

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