Life of the Aerial Lift Bridge

Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The 1930s: 42,775 Lifts

With its conversion complete, the story of the Aerial Lift Bridge—as with the Aerial Transfer Bridge or any man-made structure—became one of maintenance and incidents. The first such event occurred in May 1930. As W. J. Odenthal of Killdeer, North Dakota, and his son were driving north across the bridge in the brand-new car he had just purchased, the bridge began rising to allow a freighter to pass. Mr. Odenthal hadn’t noticed the stop signs and warning bells telling him to stay off the bridge; while pointing out the sites to his son he had managed to drive past the gate before it dropped. When he reached the end of the span, he continued to drive straight off the bridge and, luckily, onto the pier below. Neither he nor his son were injured, but the car was totaled. Safety measures were later added, including gates at either approach to prevent cars from reaching the bridge. When preparing for a lift, warning bells go off and the entry gates close; once all cars have cleared the bridge, a set of departure gates closes behind them. Only after all four gates are closed does an electric relay allow power to the operating handle, ensuring that the bridge would no longer lift with a car on its deck.

The bridge operators could perhaps understand how Mr. Odenthal didn’t hear the bell: they knew firsthand how the canal could play tricks with sound. Less than two weeks earlier, all six bridge operators—employees of the KCBC and the former transfer bridge operators they were training—failed to hear the whistle of the steamer L. M. Bowers requesting a lift. The Bowers’ captain leaned on the whistle, and it was screaming as he split the piers and entered the canal, all the while trying to reverse course to avoid hitting the bridge. Fortunately, an operator happened to look lakeward in time to quickly raise the bridge and avoid a potential tragedy.

The problem was wind. Depending on conditions and direction, the wind sometimes prevented sound off the lake from reaching the operators house over the canal’s center—a sound blind spot, if you will. Green ordered that one operator constantly scan the lakeward horizon until he found a more practical solution. By December the problem had not been fixed, but it was being addressed. On December 5 the Duluth News-Tribune announced that Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge would become “the nation’s experimental station during the shipping season of 1931 when city commissioners will seek development of a system to warn bridge tenders of approaching ships in a storm or fog.” Various companies were invited to experiment and submit ideas for radio sets, “electronic eyes,” or any other device that would report a vessel’s approach. Over three hundred lift bridges were operating in the United States at the time, many located on canals and rivers with similar sound problems; all eyes—and ears—would be on Duluth.

In May Duluth put one of the ideas to the test: the “mechanical ear.” It was simple, really: a radio relaying signals picked up by a microphone. A large tower was erected on the North Pier, just west of the lighthouse. Microphones atop the tower could pick up a ship’s whistle half a mile away on a stormy night. Radio signals transferred the sound back to a receiver in the operators house for monitoring. The papers greeted the innovation with the headline, “Mechanical Ear on Canal Spells Taboo to Spooners.” The article played up the fact that the microphones could pick up conversation on the pier, exposing the escapades of young lovers. Operator Charles Landre poetically set the idea aside: “Young men on the pier with their sweethearts needn’t worry. When the weather is nice and the moon is shining, we won’t have the receiver tuned in, and besides, the microphone is too high up to catch the words plainly, anyway.” (The Coast Guard also maintained a radio tower atop the South Pier from the 1920s until 1985.)

Sadly, young men on the piers were involved in far more dangerous escapades, like trying to hitch a ride on the bridge—a problem that has plagued the operators since the bridge first lifted. In 1934, seventeen-year-old Melvin Halverson, about to begin his senior year at Denfeld High School in West Duluth, grabbed the edge of a beam on the bottom of the span and held on as the bridge began to rise. A person can support his or her own body weight only so long, and Halverson’s grip was fleeting at best. His arms gave out when he was thirty feet in the air. He fell to the pier, hit his head on the concrete, and died instantly.

The next year another near miss with a vessel prompted more safety initiatives. On June 17 the steamer Schoonmaker just missed striking the bridge, which had stopped seventy-five feet above the water when a circuit in the electric system had shorted out. Operators quickly started the emergency engines and lifted clear of the steamer. But they had been lucky: because of ongoing dredging in the canal, the Schoonmaker was traveling slower than normal. If she had been moving at normal speed a collision would have been unavoidable. Rules were changed, requiring operators to raise the bridge while the vessel was much further out, in case the bridge became disabled in any way. The change allowed more time to either fix the problem or reverse the vessel. The city also purchased an electronic failure warning system.

The 1940s: 56,444 Lifts

World War II dominated the bridge’s life in the 1940s. Steel fueled the war effort, and iron ore came from Minnesota’s iron ranges. That ore was shipped through Two Harbors and Duluth, and each ore boat loading in Duluth came and went through the ship canal. Between 1941 and 1945, the bridge lifted nearly thirty thousand times for marine traffic, averaging six hundred more lifts per year than the total average of lifts of each year from 1930 to 2005. It wouldn’t see those levels again until well after the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, making Duluth-Superior an international port.

The Twin Ports war effort wasn’t limited to shipping ore. Duluth and Superior became a center of shipbuilding, temporarily reviving an industry that had largely died out after World War I. Throughout World War II, the Twin Ports’ eight shipyards employed over ten thousand men and women, averaging 10 ships a month while producing a fleet of 230 vessels. Zenith Dredge made 8 tankers and 13 cutters; Superior’s Butler Shipyards built 13 coastal freighters, 12 frigates, and 7 cargo carriers; Globe delivered 8 frigates and 10 ocean-going tugs; Marine Iron and Shipbuilding supplied the Coast Guard with 18 cutters; and 13 plane-rearming boats and 4 sub-chasers came out of Inland Waterways. Together Scott Graff Lumber Company and Industrial Construction Company built 100 landing barges. Most of the ships left the Twin Ports through the ship canal.

In 1944 the City Council looked into allowing rides for sightseers, an idea that would arise periodically throughout the bridge’s life. Commissioner of Public Works Francis C. Daugherty thought it was a swell idea, because a fee for rides could help pay the bridge’s operating costs, which consumed $24,000 annually in salaries, power, and maintenance, along with other occasional major expenditures, such as when the bridge’s gears were replaced in 1949. But the ride idea was deemed too risky, as it exposed the city to potential liability lawsuits.

Sadly, 1944 also witnessed the passing of the aerial bridge’s first and longest-serving superintendent, Leonard Green, who died of a stroke. Frank Lampert, who had worked as a bridge operator since before the lift conversion, delayed his own retirement an took over as interim superintendent before Al Hass officially took over in 1948.

The 1950s: 46,736 Lifts

The Aerial Lift Bridge’s life in the 1950s started with a scare. Tragedy was narrowly avoided in December 1951, when sixteen year-old Minneapolis resident Beverly Brenner ignored warnings and stayed on the bridge’s sidewalk until after it began to raise. As the bridge moved upward, she panicked. Luckily the bridge was only eight feet above the pavement when she jumped. She suffered head injuries and an ambulance took her to St. Mary’s Hospital for tests. That incident aside, the bridge’s life in the 1950s was marked by maintenance. In 1951 its motors were provided with fresh batteries. The new 153-cell unit installed in April filled the bridge’s entire “basement” beneath the South Pier approach. The new battery was safer and consumed less electricity to charge. It was also stronger, easily providing the two hundred horsepower the engines needed to raise the lift span in normal conditions as well as the four hundred horsepower it sometimes required in high winds and icy conditions.

The winter of 1952 – 1953 witnessed major improvements. From mid December 1952 until the end of February the bridge did not raise as bridge boss Al Hass and his nine-man crew gave the bridge the “twice-over”—they never took chances on potential malfunctions. The bridge’s bearings were replaced, one of the gates got a new motor, and the bridge’s entire surface was repainted.

In an article about the maintenance, the Duluth News-Tribune asked Hass what he thought of New York’s new lift bridge over the Harlem River, which could raise 110 feet in ninety seconds “as gently as eggs in a basket,” according to its boasting engineers. “Well,” Hass told reporters, “we don’t carry much in the way of eggs, but our bridge goes up 120 feet in fifty-five seconds, and smooth, too.”

Over the winter of 1953–1954, on the Lake Carrier Association’s recommendation, Duluth officials altered the method vessels used to signal the bridge to raise. Since 1930, incoming vessels signaled bridge operators with three long toots. While navigating in fog, ships traditionally gave three short blasts on the horn. But too often ship captains leaned on their horns too long in the fog, and often bridge operators thought they had been signaled and unnecessarily raised the bridge, wasting time and money and delaying traffic over the canal. And depending on the direction of the wind, signals from boats calling for the aerial bridge to raise often reached the harbor’s other mechanical bridges (the Arrowhead Bridge opened with two draw spans, and the Interstate Bridge was a pivoting swing bridge). So beginning in the 1954 shipping season, captains of incoming vessels had to learn to blow a new signal to request a bridge raising, one unique to Duluth’s aerial bridge: long, short, long, short.

The bridge underwent a major improvement in 1955, when workers replaced its worn road deck with “special steel fabricated surfacing.” The change was considered “an improvement badly needed” by county engineer George Deibler; the old deck still carried trolley tracks, even though Duluth’s street car system had shut down fifteen years earlier. Duluth and St. Louis County shared the $68,000 cost, and the work went relatively quickly, beginning in early February and completed on March 15. Later that summer a paint job started in 1952 was finally finished. After years of problems with the original contractor, bridge operator Hartley Ness, with the approval of the painter’s union, took on the task himself.

The aerial bridge lifted for a big saltie for the first time at 1:15 p.m. on May 4, 1959, as it got out of the way for the 475- foot, 10,000-ton freighter Ramon de Larrinaga out of Liverpool, England. A crowd of about 3,500 had shown up to witness the event on a blustery day marked by high waves crashing into the rocky shore and piers. Cars blew their horns and fire trucks sprayed a salute over the passing vessel, taking the place of fire tugs that usually herald a grand marine arrival (the canal was too narrow).

The de Larrinaga had actually made it to Duluth by 9 a.m. that morning, but Captain Joseph Meade held up entering the canal to wait for dignitaries to gather. He was eventually greeted by Mayor E. Clifford Mork, who presented him with a key to the city and an aerial photograph of the Duluth-Superior Harbor. It was a rather odd ceremony. Chief Good Sounding Sky, an Ojibwe from Sawyer, Wisconsin, stood by dressed in full ceremonial regalia; what his presence was meant to represent was never clear. Also on hand was Greysolon Sieur du Lhut XI, Duke of the Duluth Duchy, who presented Meade with a ducal degree, naming him “Ambassador Extraordinary [sic] of Duluth.” In real life, the duke was J. Palmer Harbison, district manager of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, his honorary title temporarily bestowed upon him by the civic organization Ambassadors of Duluth. Other dignitaries on hand included representatives of the company that owned the ship; Robert B. Morris, executive secretary of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce; and C. B. Green of Peavey, at whose elevator the ship would dock and take on 2,000 tons of oats before moving on to the Cargill elevator to load 4,545 tons of barley.

Duluth could now receive much larger ocean-going vessels, and just a few years later the additional international traffic had the bridge lifting in frequency not seen since World War II.

The 1960s: 52,471 Lifts

As the St. Lawrence Seaway opened a new age for the Duluth- Superior Harbor, the bridge took a big step forward as well. The so-called mechanical ear sound relay system that had helped bridge operators hear boat signals since 1932 was replaced with a very modern way of seeing through fog and other bad weather: radar. In April 1960 the City Council approved the purchase of a Raytheon Model 1500 Radar Radio Positioning Unit at the cost of $4,325. Installed in June, the bridge operators considered it a welcome addition. The radar unit had a range of thirty-two miles, but the bridge operators set it to sweep between a half mile and ten miles out. Now, instead of waiting to hear a horn blast or using binoculars to scan for arrivals, the bridge operators would be alerted to a ship’s approach by a blip on a screen, long before her skipper would even need to blow a signal.

Another change on the bridge in 1960 came from the common- sense mind of Bridge Supervisor Al Hass. Each of the bridge’s 153 batteries lasted about nine years. Hass replaced the tap water in each battery’s cell with distilled water, nearly tripling their life span.

In May 1964 the bridge got a new voice. The four trumpet-shaped brass horns that had greeted ships since 1930 had been “wired, soldered, bolted and patched so many times they were no longer repairable,” according to bridge supervisor Bob Brown. By 1960, the Duluth News-Tribune estimated, the horns had sounded nearly 500,000 times. The new horns—two sets of them—were also used on diesel locomotives; one faced lakeward and the other toward the bay. Federal law required that they blow a tone loud enough to be heard for at least four miles, but Brown said he could hear them sixteen miles further explained that each horn was actually three horns tuned to separate frequencies “like a pipe organ” so that together they create vibrations that result in a much louder signal than if each sounded separately. “Musicians would call it a diminished fifth,” Brown explained.

Along with the horns came a set of synchronized lights that flashed in time with the horns. This provided another tool for the skipper of an incoming vessel: start a stopwatch when he first sees the light, stop it when he hears the horn, and then multiply the elapsed time by one thousand to get how many feet he was from the bridge. Along with radar and radio telephones, the bridge was getting safer all the time for both the ships that passed beneath it and those who used it to cross the canal.

The 1960s also saw an effort to make the bridge much more of a tourist attraction than it already was—and had been since 1905. Officials resurrected the idea that their predecessors had twice dismissed as unsafe: public rides on the bridge as it raised and lowered from June to Labor Day. In August 1965 Charles Cox and Dean Carlos of Higgins Industrial Supply Company installed chain-link fencing along the bridge’s lakeward sidewalk to create a safe enclosure for riders; the bridge operators called it the “Monkey Cage.” Later that month the bridge became a slow and careful carnival ride, and anyone over five years old could enjoy it for twenty-five cents.

“The bridge operators hated it,” current Lift Bridge Supervisor Ryan Beamer said in 2007. It made extra work for them, and also created safety concerns that had nothing to do with the bridge’s practical operation. Supervisor Don Bowen validated Beamer’s words back in 1967: “This passenger thing really has been nerve-wracking,” he told a local reporter. “Now, instead of stopping people, when the bells ring, it’s like a dinner bell. People just come running aboard.”

Those safety concerns became all too real the day one woman panicked. As the bridge began to rise, she opened the gate and ran toward the North Pier. Fortunately operator Richard Lyons was keeping an eye on his passengers and quickly shifted the bridge into reverse. But the bridge lost its race with the fleeing woman. When she reached the end of the bridge deck, it was still twenty feet in the air. She jumped and landed on the pier, but not without sustaining serious injuries. If Lyons had not stopped and reversed the bridge, she very well may have died. Despite the bridge operators’ dislike of the rides, they continued until 1973.

In 1966 the city’s Project Duluth Committee took steps to ensure that the bridge would be a night time attraction as well. They intended, chairman John Grinden explained, to illuminate the bridge after sundown with floodlights. “The Aerial Lift Bridge is the symbol of Duluth,” Grinden said, probably not the first and certainly not the last to make that observation. “We want to do everything possible to promote it to dramatize Duluth to tourists.” The committee hoped lighting the bridge would help make it as recognizable a symbol of Duluth as the Eiffel Tower was for Paris or St. Louis’s Gateway of the West

Arch. The group also wanted to make the Canal Park district more attractive to visitors. Remember, at that time the only thing considered “Canal Park” was the Corps of Engineers Building, the landscaped area surrounding it, and the green space along the South Pier; the entire area south of Michigan Street to the canal was not exactly tourist friendly (see “Canal Park before it became ‘Canal Park,’” page 105.)

The original plan called for fourteen floodlights installed at either end of the bridge and directed so they would light up the bridge but not the road deck—keeping out of the eyes of motorists. Everyone seemed to love the idea. Soon it had the approval of the City, the Corps of Engineers, the Lake Carrier’s Association, and the Coast Guard. The architectural firm of Bean, Gilmore & Hill designed the lighting scheme using the same type of lighting that illuminated Egypt’s Sphinx and the Palace of Versailles in France, 1,000-watt mercury vapor lamps and luminaries, twelve of them mounted on eight poles. The architects estimated the cost at $21,000. A company named Infranor of North America won the contract.

The costs spurred the creation of another organization: the Aerial Bridge Club, chaired by Jack Arnold, public affairs director for WDSMTV, along with former University of Minnesota football great Billy Bye, Annabelle Gallagher, and Rena Pearson. Membership was obtained by donating one dollar or more to the lighting fund, and each member’s card entitled its holder to one free bridge ride. Northland Sign donated a thermometer-style sign that marked the fund drive’s progress and posted it at Lake Avenue and Superior Street.

By early September the group had collected $2,300, and nearly double that by the fifteenth of September. At that time Arnold and Bye suggested that names of each person who donated should go on a scroll to be encased in glass and permanently affixed to the bridge. That spurred a few more donations, and by early November the group had $14,000 in its coffers with donations still rolling in. On Friday, November 11, they had brought in all $21,000 from 10,000 donors.

A bigger ceremony surrounded the first lighting of the bridge than had greeted the Lift Bridge’s opening in 1930. On November 17 a crowd of thousands joined Bridge Club officials and city dignitaries to watch as state representative John A. Blatnik—who called the lights “a magnificent symbol of the rebirth of our area”—threw the switch to turn on the lights. They flickered for a moment, then flashed and grew stronger, bathing the bridge in what the newspaper called a “radiant, silver-blue light.” When the lights reached full power, the University of Minnesota Duluth marching band broke into “Hey, Look Me Over.” After that, the crowd joined the College of St. Scholastica’s choir in a rendition of “God Bless America.”

Few public efforts in Duluth go uncriticized, and so it was with the illumination; detractors said that while the new lighting did make the bridge visible at night, it did “little to make the span more attractive.” Perhaps Essex green was not as popular a color in the 1960s as it had been in 1930. The Project Duluth Committee had an idea: money brought in from bridge rides could not only pay for the new lights, it could cover the cost of a shiny new paint job. Committee chair John Grinden told newspapers he eventually wanted the bridge painted “aluminum” so that it would better reflect the light and therefore “stand out more,” becoming even more of a tourist draw.

With the bridge still unpainted as the 1960s closed, complaints of its condition got louder. A letter to the editor in the Duluth News-Tribune on October 10, 1969, called the bridge’s condition “deplorable” and the bridge itself an “eyesore.” Paint was peeling and rust was clearly visible. The writer wanted to know why the money coming in from bridge rides wasn’t used to maintain the bridge. His concern would be addressed the next year.

The 1970s: 63,395 Lifts

In 1970 the city got serious about painting the bridge. After a false start—the city had grossly underestimated costs—the job was divided into three phases, as Duluth only had enough money for the first phase, surface preparation and spot painting. The other phases, an intermediate coat and a final coat, would have to be spread over a number of years. The job was eventually finished in 1975, and the once-green bridge became silvery aluminum. Painting the bridge was part of a program that included upgrading the batteries and installing a new emergency engine to replace the back-up gasoline engines. Bridge Supervisor Bob Brown, who had replaced Al Hass in 1968, explained that the batteries had worn down prematurely due to overuse of the bridge by pleasure craft.

Brown reported that in July 1970, 1,588 vessels passed under the bridge. “Of that number,” Brown said, “552 passages were for the excursion boats Flame and Flamingo, which constituted 35 percent of all traffic. Sailboats and other small craft made up another 404 passages or 25 percent of the lifts. The only reason the batteries had lasted as long as they had was because of Al Hass switching to distilled water ten years earlier. On top of the additional boat traffic, the bridge experienced increased automobile traffic, with 119,000 vehicles crossing the bridge that June alone.

Besides the new batteries and back-up engine, canal traffic had to be limited to extend the bridge’s life, Brown argued. One possible solution would be to limit lifts by establishing “bridge hours”—a limit on the hours the bridge would raise for anything but “essential marine traffic.” The Coast Guard agreed with him. It sent a notice to mariners that the Guard “will support owners of drawbridges who refuse to open their bridges for vessels capable of sailing beneath the structure.” The same would apply to the lift bridge. Boat owners were encouraged to take down antennas, fishing rigs, false smoke stacks, or anything else that could be easily removed to lower a craft’s height to clear the road span’s bottom. Not only were the pleasure boats wearing out the bridge and causing unnecessary delays, they were delaying larger vessels that needed the canal.

Two years later the problem remained. The Park Point Community Club took up the cause, telling the newspaper that the bridge was being “abused.” Residents were sick of unnecessarily being “bridged,” a popular Duluth term for being stuck in traffic waiting for the bridge to raise and lower. Many Park Pointers were still thrilled by the sight of a thousand-foot ore boat passing under the bridge, but few cared much for other craft. They had long ago learned to ride out the wait by keeping a book in the car to read, and Park Pointers always have an excuse if late: “I got bridged” is enough for any other Duluthian to understand the delay.

By 1972, Brown’s argument hadn’t changed much. In 1971 the bridge lifted 5,873 times, 1,700 for the Flame and Flamingo—both of which, according to Brown, sported “needlessly long radio antennas and false smokestacks.” At an estimated cost to the city of $23 per lift, those two vessels alone placed a burden of $39,000 on Duluth taxpayers. Despite the hullabaloo, officials never put “bridge hours” into place. Not that the perception of excursion boats making the bridge raise unnecessarily ever changed. Tom Mackay, longtime Park Point resident and captain of the Vista Fleet, told reporters in 2005 that “People have cussed at me from their cars. I’ve had people threaten to fire a shot across my bow the next time I cause a delay.”

(The Park Point Community Club made another effort to establish “bridge hours” in the mid-1990s. With the Coast Guard’s consent, the bridge raised and lowered just once every half hour. But after a year the Coast Guard considered the experiment a failure, and the bridge returned to lifting on an as needed basis.)

In 1973 the bridge received its highest honor, a spot in the National Register of Historic Places, “primarily for its engineering qualities,” the Minnesota Historical Society reported. The bridge was one of the few non-buildings in the register at the time, joining what the newspaper called “an elite group of engineering marvels of American history.”

The bridge’s life in the second half of the 1970s was marked by many changes at the helm. Bob Brown, bridge supervisor since 1968, retired in 1974. Harold Bilsey, on the job since 1946, took his place. But Bilsey took charge for just two years before passing the baton to another member of the class of ’46, Richard Lyons, in 1976. Lyons’ tenure at the top also lasted only two years before he retired. In 1978 Don Bowen, who began on the bridge in 1957, took over for Lyons. Bowen would hold the position for four years. (See the appendix for more on all of the bridge supervisors.)

The 1980s: 59,986 Lifts

In 1982 a nineteen-year-old man made the same mistake Melvin Halverson made in 1934: he tried to hang from the bridge as it raised. Frank Weber and his friend, Tom Hanna, both of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, were visiting the canal on a Sunday afternoon in September with their girlfriends. Weber, who Hanna described as “adventurous,” thought he could easily accomplish the feat. The bridge was lifting for a small sailboat, and Weber thought it would only raise about twenty feet and not stay up for long. He was wrong. As Weber began his ascent, he called for Hanna to join him as both girls urged them not to. Hanna didn’t see his friend lose his grip, but when Weber began to fall Hanna rushed beneath him. “I just ran there to break his fall,” Hanna told the Duluth News-Tribune. Weber landed hard on Hanna, breaking his friend’s leg in the process. Hanna’s efforts were for naught; Weber died at the scene. A nursing supervisor at St. Luke’s Hospital said the young man “had so many injures that we are not sure which ones he died from.”

That same year supervisor Don Bowen handed the controls to Steve Douville, already on the bridge for ten years. Douville would guide the bridge until its one hundredth anniversary in 2005.

In January 1985 city councilor Arno Kahn made an effort to bring back the bridge rides. Duluth Public Information Director Jerry Sabick saw the potential of big trouble with the rides: pedestrians crossing Lake Avenue to get on the bridge could cause traffic delays or accidents, human cargo would put unnecessary stress on the bridge operators, loading and unloading riders could delay a vessel’s passage or back up road traffic, and, of course, a number of safety issues came to mind. Sabick also doubted that fees paid by riders could cover the cost of four attendants, building a cage that held fifty people, equipping the bridge with added cameras for safety, and the necessary liability insurance. In the end a warning by the state killed the project: the bridge was about to undergo a $4.6 million renovation, and if it was going to be used to give tourists rides, the state probably wouldn’t help pay for the project, because it would in part be liable if an accident occurred on the bridge it financed.

The project began in the spring of 1986 and called for a refitting of the bridge’s mechanics. Cars had become heavier over the years and traffic increased dramatically, thereby increasing the load—and stress—on the bridge. To reduce structural stress, the operating machinery, housed in the operators house’s top level at the span’s center, would move to each end of the lift span, with machinery houses to contain them—so a new operators house was needed as well. The old battery system of powering the bridge would finally be retired, replaced by standard electricity. The old rivets would go, nuts and bolts in their place. The approaches would be rebuilt; the 1 7/8-inch counterweight cables would be replaced with new cables. Finally, the bridge would receive a fresh coat of paint. Johnson Brothers of Litchfield, Minnesota, took on the project as its general contractor.

A computer system for controlling the bridge’s speed was also added to its arsenal of instruments. “The bridge computer system was a real challenge,” Douville recalled in 2008. “Its ability to control two separate machinery spaces roughly a city block apart was amazing. Raising, lowering, starting, stopping, acceleration, and deceleration at various speeds and under various load conditions was truly too good to be true—the malfunctions ranged from the mysterious to the serious.” As Douville suggests, along with added convenience, it created a few problems. A $1,000 card in the computer frequently acted up, and at least once it shut the bridge down when the span was fifteen feet from fully raised. Whenever the problem occurred, operators were forced to raise the bridge manually, which took about eighteen minutes—nearly ten times the rate under regular power. The computer malfunctioned half a dozen times in 1989, but when you consider that the bridge lifted 6,390 times that year, the problem was relatively minor.

During the bridge’s renovation, workers removed the floodlights installed in the 1960s. In 1987 the Duluth Rotary Club donated $25,000 to pay for new lights, thirty-two high-pressure sodium floodlights that bathed the bridge in a golden glow. Bridge operators lit the new lamps for the first time on July 4, 1987, following the city’s annual fireworks show over the harbor.

Throughout the decade, Canal Park underwent a renaissance. The 1980s saw other major changes in Duluth, not the least of which was extending Interstate 35—which had previously terminated at Mesaba Avenue—around downtown through a series of tunnels all the way to Twenty-Sixth Avenue East. The highway extension in turn created the Lakewalk and Lakeplace Park and added a rose garden to Leif Erickson Park. The short stretch of Minnesota Point north of the Corps of Engineers building to Michigan Street changed as well. The Lake Avenue viaduct came down and Lake Avenue crossed the highway (which replaced most of the railroad tracks) following the path of First Avenue East, which long before had been known as St. Croix Avenue. What had been Lake Avenue north of the old viaduct—the stretch that lead to the bridge—was renamed Canal Park Drive. Industrial complexes and warehouses were replaced by or converted into restaurants, shops, and hotels. Endion Station, originally located at 15th Avenue East and South Street, was moved to the area to save it from destruction due to highway construction. Groups organized to promote the city as a tourist destination dubbed the entire area north of the ship canal and south of the new highway the “Canal Park District” (or, when including the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center and Lake Superior Aquarium, the “Downtown Waterfront”). Soon just about everyone referred to the entire area as Canal Park.

The 1990s: 53,856 Lifts

As the 1990s began tragedy hit the bridge again in what is arguably the most notorious event in the bridge’s history. At 11:30 a.m. on a beautiful Sunday in June 1990, as the bridge prepared to lift to allow the Vista King to pass under it, fifty-year-old Barbara Ann Paplior got on despite the warning lights flashing and bells sounding. She may have been disoriented; her family later said she suffered from manic-depressive disorder and had experienced a psychotic episode just two days earlier. She was almost halfway across when she realized the bridge was rising—and she panicked. Witnesses told the news media that she screamed, “Help me! Somebody help me, please!” If she would have stayed on the sidewalk and not moved, she could have safely rode up and back down on the bridge, but she apparently didn’t know that. She ran back toward the north approach and, when the bridge was thirty to forty feet above the ground, she leaned over and attempted to jump. But she became caught in a V of the bridge’s metalwork, facing west with her legs sticking out toward the lake. As the lift span continued upward, it carried Paplior toward the stationary north tower; dismembered by the rising bridge, she died instantly. Witnesses described the event as gruesome. The bridge’s operators were unaware of the mishap until after it had happened and witnesses called 911.

Later that summer the Park Point Community Club revived its efforts to reduce the number of times the bridge lifted. The club made its request to the Coast Guard because the issue essentially came down to navigating the canal, which necessitated bridge lifts. A raised bridge could back up traffic for “thirty blocks,” the community argued. In just one July day that summer the bridge rose sixty-five times. The group wanted raising restricted to just once every half hour, with exceptions for commercial boats, government boats, and vessels in distress. Once again, the attempt failed; the Coast Guard cited “paramount rights of navigation” for the denial. City officials made another attempt in 1998, but it fell victim to the same fate.

One has to wonder what the Coast Guard—and the Corps of Engineers, city, and bridge operators, for that matter—thought of an event that took place on the bridge in 1994. Twin Cities–based choreographer Marylee Hardenbergh wanted to stage “Bridge Dancing.” More than a dance piece, it would be performance art: a twenty-three-minute extravaganza with dancers on the lift span, in-line skaters atop the piers carrying vividly colored flags, and kayakers in the canal below all synchronized for an audience standing on the North Pier listening to music composed for the event. Hardenbergh managed to cut through all the red tape required, and the show went on. She even got the Coast Guard enthusiastic enough about the project to join in by including two of its boats in the performance.

Calling the bridge the show’s “star” the Duluth News-Tribune’s art critic Dominic Papatola praised the event as an “elegant, ingenious blend of aesthetics and engineering, of form and function, of fancy and reality” and an “inspired spectacle of color and motion.” Over one thousand people showed up to watch the event, which proved popular enough that Hardenbergh and her dancers came back in August 1996 and gave an encore performance.

As the decade—and indeed, the century—came to a close and the bridge moved closer to its one hundredth year, the bridge again required major work. Earlier in the decade it had experienced two major breakdowns. The first, in 1993, unexpectedly closed the bridge for several days. The motors that raise the lift span fell out of synch. The bridge is normally level throughout the lifting and lowering process. The safety system was designed so that when one end of the span was six inches above the other, the bridge would stop. But the system failed, throwing the span out of skew. According to Douville, “the bridge was out of level (from north to south end) by several feet. Anything over 3 feet is serious. My calculations put the span out of level at somewhere between 5 1/2 and 6 feet—enough to scrape the machinery room roof against the tower, shearing off rivet heads.” It took Douville and his crew six hours to correct problem. In 1995 bridge operators discovered that one of the pulleys had slipped out of its housing, and realigning took nearly a month.

Three years later Duluth hired local firm LHB Engineers and Architects and New York’s Hardesty and Hanover—which has specialized in moving bridges for more than one hundred years—to inspect every inch of the bridge. LHB couldn’t have teamed up with a more appropriate company: Hardesty and Hanover evolved from a company established by John Alexander Low Waddell, the man who in 1892 first came up with the idea of a lift bridge in a contest to find a way of crossing the Duluth Ship Canal (the bridge, the first of its kind, was built in Chicago a year later and survives to this day as the South Halsted Street Bridge; see page 32). During their inspection, Hardesty and Hanover discovered a 1/16-inch crack in the southwest sheave’s axle shaft, caused by the extra weight added to the bridge during the 1986 renovation. Each sheave axle is 16 inches around and weighs 5,000 pounds, hefty enough to support the combined weight of the span, counterweights, and cables—half a million pounds for each axle. The shaft was repaired, but it wouldn’t be the only fix the bridge required.

Other issues discovered by Hardesty and Hanover would result in another overhaul that would carry on into the next century and call for replacing nearly every moving part of the bridge. Early in 1999 plans for an ambitious renovation had been set. The project would take over a year and cost $5.6 million, but engineers expected that, except for repainting and normal maintenance, the bridge would require no work for the next thirty years. And the city received a lot of help to pay for the project, with federal transportation grants taking care of 80 percent of the costs and the state kicking in the remaining 20 percent. The work was so extensive the bridge didn’t raise for four months from mid December 1999 to March 2000; during that time anything taller than sixteen feet had to enter and leave the Duluth-Superior Harbor through the Superior Entry. One lane was kept open to allow auto and foot traffic to and from Park Point during the renovation.

Engineers prepared an extensive repair and maintenance list that included repaving the approaches, outfitting the machinery rooms with new motors and control panels (and a new control panel in the operators house as well), installing new guard rails along the pedestrian walkways, strengthening the cable anchorage supports at the counterweights and lifting boxes, replacing pins in the balance chains, rebalancing the counterweights, installing new operating cables (increased from 1 7/8 inch diameter to 2 inch), replacing all four sheaves and axle shafts as well as the pulleys that the cables run on, and reinforcing the structural steel along portions of the bridge atop each tower. The bridge’s lower portion—exposed to road salt during the winters—would be repainted. Finally, the air horn atop the north machinery room would be removed and reinstalled atop the operators house.

The ever-malfunctioning computer-controlled operating system installed in 1985 would also be replaced, but not with another computer system. The new controls operate much more simply; after all, as Duluth Public Works Director Richard “Dick” Larson explained to reporters in 1999, “there are only two things this bridge needs to be told to do: go up and go down.” The old control system was simply more complicated than necessary, explained LHB vice president Joe Litmann.

Work on the project began in October 1999 when a crew from Lunda Construction of Black River Falls, Wisconsin—the project’s general contractor—started moving parts, cranes, and other heavy equipment to a staging area at the foot of the bridge off the North Pier. One crane set up in front of the Corps of Engineers Building, the other alongside the South Pier. For work atop the bridge in the cold of winter, plywood “houses” were built and rigged with heat and bathroom facilities. (In case you were wondering, bridge operators use a bathroom located in the “office” below the South Pier approach.)

One big change during the renovation was that workers replaced the air horn with a quieter horn at the Coast Guard’s request. Folks didn’t like it, especially Susan Mattis Turnham and Connie Bloom, who started a petition drive calling for the old horn’s return. To Turnham, the old horn’s sound was the voice of the bridge, and the new horn had taken away its identity. Bloom thought the new horn sounded “like a car horn,” hardly befitting of the bridge’s majesty. Even the Coast Guard, who requested the quieter horn, complained that the new tooter wasn’t loud enough for boats to hear a mile away, as required. Mayor Gary Doty agreed with Turnham, Bloom, and the Coast Guard—or at the very least, under public pressure he recognized an easy fix when he saw it. In May 2000 he ordered the old horn’s return. Luckily, bridge supervisor Steve Douville had saved the old horn, anticipating just such a scenario.

The 21st Century: 45,872 Lifts (and Counting)

With work on the bridge’s most complete overhaul and renovation finished in late 2000, the bridge entered the twenty-first century in the best shape it had been in since 1930. The next year the bridge marked a milestone when Paula Hanela joined the crew on March 5, 2001, as the first female bridge operator in the structure’s history.

As 2005 approached, the city had done little to prepare for the span’s one hundred year anniversary. It wasn’t until January 2005 that the Aerial Lift Bridge Centennial Committee was created and Mayor Herb Bergson declared 2005 “The Year of the Lift Bridge.” To some, the committee’s name and Bergson’s proclamation suggested that the city had gotten off on the wrong foot; after all, it was the one hundredth anniversary of the Duluth Aerial Bridge; the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge was only turning seventy-five.

Semantics aside, the committee had little time to pull something together. With the theme “Get Bridged” the committee held a logo design contest which was won, appropriately enough, by Dick Green, grandson of original bridge boss Leonard Green. The celebrations kicked off with an event at the St. Louis County Arts & Heritage Center, with guests ranging from Jack Hicken (son of transfer bridge operator John Hicken) to retiring bridge supervisor Steve Douville.

The committee teamed up with Duluth’s Greater Downtown Council to place decorated bridge statues at various locations throughout the city, an idea inspired by the Charles Shulz “Peanuts” statues that graced St. Paul in the 1990s. Individuals or organizations could sponsor a bridge sculpture and decorate it with a theme of their choosing. The Duluth News Tribune, for example, decorated its bridge with headlines from the newspaper of major events that occurred during the bridge’s first one hundred years.

Many local artists got into the act by creating souvenir products such as shirts, mugs, blankets, jewelry, glass etchings, and posters either in the shape of the bridge or featuring images of the bridge. Ken Newhams’ Duluth Shipping News produced a DVD on the bridge, and Dinehery Fence made steel-fabricated replicas of the bridge. Four songs about the aerial bridge were composed, and of course the Park Point Community Club got involved. They gathered three hundred recipes and published them in a book titled Get Bridged.

Local artist Gary Lundstrom—whose Great Lake Design specializes in creating memorabilia featuring landmark images of western Lake Superior, including the aerial bridge—threw himself into the event. Besides creating an entire line of bridge centennial commemoratives, Lundstrom organized the centennial kick-off at the Depot in combination with two bridge history exhibits he designed and created. He also asked the Duluth community to come forward with bridge-related stories, photos, and any older bridge memorabilia they had on their mantles or in their attics. People came forth with all sorts of items bearing images of the bridge, some of the transfer bridge, some the lift. Silver spoons, fine china (pitchers, vases, serving plates, lace plates, cups and saucers), bottle openers, Zippo lighters, antique postcards (one made of brass), salt and pepper cellars, metal items (napkin rings, pen holders, letter openers, spoons, a cigar box), a gold locket, and even a pocket watch with an engraving of the lift bridge presented to Samuel Clark Dick by the residents of Park Point. Dick had been president of the Park Point Community Club in the 1920s and worked almost obsessively on the petition to convert the transfer bridge.

Lundstrom photographed the memorabilia and put the images together with the historic photos he had gathered in a handsome volume with a brushed metal cover called “The Aerial Bridge History Album.” He only made five copies and donated one each to the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center, the St. Louis County Historical Society, the Duluth Public Library, and the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center. The fifth is in his possession. (Lundstrom continues to gather personal stories and images associated with the bridge; contact him through

For the real bridge buffs, retired historian and Park Point resident Jerry Sandvick donned a conductor’s uniform much like those worn by the transfer bridge operators from 1905 to 1929 and provided free “Bridge Tours,” explaining how the mechanics of the bridge work and showing which parts of the bridge are “new” and which remain from the original construction.

Throughout the entire year Duluth News Tribune columnist Chuck Frederick kept track of all the activity surrounding the bridge’s centennial and chased down some great stories about Duluthians and their personal connections to the bridge. His stories were gathered in a special edition commemorative magazine-like book titled Spanning a Century, copies of which can be found at the Duluth Public Library.

In August festivities wrapped up with a celebration at Bayfront Park featuring music from the past one hundred years and an art fair that stretched from the bridge north to the Dewitt- Seitz building. By that point the committee volunteers had become frustrated with the efforts of Mayor Bergson’s administration. Some of the volunteers had invested not only time, but a good deal of money gearing up to celebrate the life of the city’s icon. Many felt that the City had done little to help promote the bridge’s anniversary, and it had gone the summer relatively unnoticed by the public at large. So few people showed up at the August celebration that some of the volunteers said they felt as though their efforts had turned into little more than throwing themselves a party.

But the most significant event of the bridge’s centennial year wasn’t a celebration but a symbolic leap toward the future. Supervisor Steve Douville—on the bridge since April 1972 and the boss beginning May 1982—handed the reins to Ryan Beamer, who first raised the bridge in 1998. Douville’s last lift occurred on his final day of work, March 31, when he raised the bridge for an unscheduled“maintenance lift.” But that symbolic event was delayed as it took Douville longer to reach the bridge operators house than anticipated: the outgoing bridge supervisor got bridged.

With a recently renovated bridge and a solid crew of operators, Beamer looks forward to an uneventful future for the bridge because, as he says, “If the bridge is working correctly and we’re doing our job right, no one notices.” For most people who live in Duluth, it’s hard to imagine the idea that Duluth’s Aerial Bridge could ever go unnoticed. But certainly Beamer and his crew feel the same way as most Duluthians and those who visit Canal Park every year: despite its practical purpose, the bridge always has been and always will be more than just a way of crossing the canal.