The Aerial Transfer Bridge Begins Operation

Duluth’s Aerial Transfer Bridge, predecessor to the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge, photographed on its first day of operation in 1905. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

An estimated crowd of over five thousand showed up on Sunday, many hoping to ride the ferry. They found disappointment instead: MSS officials did not want to open the bridge on a Sunday because of the potential crowd size; they didn’t want any minor problems in the operation to cause “unfavorable comment” and perhaps even raise fears among “many by whom the new bridge is viewed with distrust.” A good thing, it turned out: that day the power cables feeding the electric motors broke.

Wishing to avoid yet another delay, electricians worked to reconnect the cable, and shortly before 6 p.m. on Monday, March 27, with forty people aboard and Gus Rakowsky of MSS at the controls, “the ferry car commenced regular trips.” That very evening it was making runs every five or ten minutes. The next day the Duluth News-Tribune announced the opening with flair: “Aerial Car Crosses in Teeth of Howling Gale,” it announced, reporting that the bridge operated “without a hitch” despite gale-force winds.

The Duluth News-Tribune’s reporter stayed with the bridge all evening, and his account paints a vivid picture of the bridge’s first day of public operation. Early trips contained an average of twenty to thirty passengers, but by the end of the evening folks were crossing in twos or threes. Throughout the evening the winds picked up, and by 9 p.m. it had “the force of a hurricane.” The wind “shrieked through the trusses,” and in the squall the canal was “a most disagreeable and dismal place.”

The reporter then joined Rakowsky for a trip across the canal in the thick of the storm, the car operating so smoothly its start was “hardly perceptible.” Nearly halfway across the canal the ferry’s almost silent operation was shattered by the sound of broken glass: the wind had broken two windows on the windward side. Once the ferry reached the other side, Rakowsky inspected it for further damage and nailed the empty window frames back in place. As the reporter left, Rakowsky made a prediction: “The ferry boat isn’t doing much business tonight. We are going to cut off her patronage as easy as falling off a log, and Duluth is the only place that can boast of such an [sic] equipment.”

At the City Dock, about two blocks north of the canal, people unaware that the bridge was open to crossing on the steam ferry Annie L. Smith. On his way home the reporter encountered a young couple awaiting the steam ferry. The man said he intended to take the boat as “it makes better street car connections, tonight, anyway.” His companion was more of a romantic, saying, “I don’t know whether I will go across the bridge. There is more poetry in crossing in a boat ‘Rocked in the cradle of the deep,’ don’t you know.”

The Annie L. Smith’s deckhand predicted no decline in ferry patronage, at least not until Duluth took full control of the bridge. “There will be lots of people [to] travel on the Annie L. Smith, more than ever now,” he said. “They will know that the time is short when they can get a free ride on an ocean greyhound such as this.”

The very night the bridge opened the Common Council gathered to figure out who would operate it once MSS had fulfilled its obligation to run the bridge through its first “shakedown” month. One alderman called for bids from “competent electricians” to operate the bridge; another alderman countered that it would be foolish to take control of the bridge from the City. (While the City did advertise for bids, the idea was later rejected, and the bridge has never been operated by an independent contractor. It was a wise decision, as Park Pointers had complained for years about the inconsistent service provided by ferry contractors, and subletting the operation could involve a lot of city time spent on policing the bridge operation.) The aldermen also ordered an arc light placed at the foot of both approaches to the bridge and considered German & Lignell’s plans for waiting rooms. While Common Council records show no reason why, the waiting rooms were never built.

Two days later Major Potter from the Corps of Engineers provided the city with a list of regulations for operating the bridge—since it stood on federal property under the Corps’ jurisdiction, it was up to the Corps to say when it could and could not operate. Safety was obviously a major concern, and ship traffic would always have the right of way (see “Major Potter’s Rules,” left).

While the bridge operated smoothly in the teeth of a gale during its first day, the second day found the car taking rather bumpy rides: a cable slipped, and the source of the problem could not be located that day, so it was left on the south side of the pier for an overhaul. The next day J. K. Lowry of MSS said the drums that the cables ran on were not operating smoothly—but the company had anticipated just such an issue. The problem was that the cogs on the pinion and drums that drove he cables did not properly meet, causing the drum to wobble and, eventually, the cable to release. After some machining to the cogs and tightening of the cable, the bridge was back running by the following Sunday.

April saw more delays, and horses were temporarily barred as workers paved the bridge’s approaches. Atop the car’s cabins, workers installed the two red range lights called for in the operating regulations. General Electric installed an electric brake; speed had previously been controlled by reversing the engines. To keep in step with government operating regulations, McGilvray ordered a bell to announce the ferry car’s movement. The car closed to passenger service for several days as workers stretched a phone cable across the bridge to provide service to Park Point and finished painting the car, according to the paper, in a “very handsome red birch finish.” By May 1 it would be running flawlessly.

The Duluth Evening Herald described another maintenance operation on April 7 under the banner headline “nerve wracking feat by bridgemen.” To gain access to the upper truss, which needed some additional riveting work, two of MSS’s steel workers used the bridge’s cables as an elevator to propel themselves to the truss. They did not want to climb ladders while weighed down with heavy bags full of rivets.

The next day the paper described how the men, with the bags of tools and rivets slung over their necks, climbed to the roof of the ferry car and, just as the car started across the canal, grabbed onto the cable, which “snatched them aloft at a terrible speed.” Fifteen seconds later they came to the tricky part: getting off while the cable kept moving; they only had a fraction of a second to release from the cable and swing themselves onto the truss or they would be dragged through the pulley and either crushed or thrown 135 feet into the canal below. That method of conveyance was “not likely to become popular with the traveling public,” the reporter joked. At the company’s request, the names of the daredevil bridge workers were withheld lest they encourage such “fool-hardiness.”

April 7 also saw what was likely the first boat to pass beneath the bridge entering the canal from the lakeward side. The Bon Ami, a 108-foot wood steamer, had set out for Port Wing and Herbster, fishing towns along the Wisconsin South Shore. The ice forced her back to Duluth, and she entered the harbor’s safety through the canal, and therefore under the bridge. Not until April 20 did the E. N. Saunders come in off the lake to become the first vessel to navigate from Sault Ste. Marie to Duluth and enter through the canal, under the bridge.

On April 8, a bright, sunny Sunday—and the first weekend day the bridge was open to the public—the city wanted to find out if the bridge could operate to capacity. Assistant Engineer Coe wished to see if it could carry fifty thousand people in a single day. The newspaper wondered if there were “enough people in Duluth to test the carrying capacity.” The car had been averaging about two hundred people a trip during busy weekday hours, the paper said, adding that “five hundred people on a trip is no crowd for that car.”

The paper was right. In fact, one trip at 3:30 p.m. that Sunday took 814 passengers—an estimated fifty-five tons of human cargo. The engineers counted 32,595 people boarding the car in one twelve hour and twenty minute span, thanks in part to beautiful weather and an average trip time of just seventy seconds. So many people ventured across the canal that day that during its peak period, between 3 and 4 p.m., Lake Avenue was clogged with people from the canal north to Superior Street—half on their way to the bridge, half on their way back. So many people rode the ferry bridge that day the paper reported that, “the deck flooring was worn smooth.”

That record-setting day also saw the first automobile to cross the canal—which, subsequently, also became the first car to motor on Park Point. The car, an electric Studebaker-Stanhope, was owned and driven by Edward J. Filiatrault, who was accompanied by Dr. Thomas F. Sheridan, a local dentist. On his return trip Filiatrault handed Lowry his calling card so his accomplishment would be remembered. It also may have been a sales gimmick: Filiatrault and Emil A. Nelson owned the first car dealership in Duluth, the Mutual Electric and Auto Co.

As if to reassure the public, the newspaper mentioned that “baby cabs were sprinkled among all the loads throughout the day, many of them being in the care of mothers who had no hesitancy in boarding the ferry with the little ones.” In fact, only once did anyone balk at crossing. Two young women, awaiting a trip across at the north pier, “quailed when they saw the  singular car approach” and turned back toward Lake Avenue. The paper then mentioned a number of “Sunday school” children who boarded without fear. In fact, those who counted the crowds estimated that nearly a third of passengers were children. They also thought that perhaps one-fourth of Duluth’s citizens crossed the canal that day.

Like the two frightened young ladies, not everyone thoughtof the bridge as an improvement. At least one man, describing the bridge in a postcard bearing its image, implied that he missed the adventure of crossing in a boat, writing of the bridge: “Quicker and safer, but not nearly as much fun as crossing on the old ferry.”

A handful of local boys thought the bridge was much more fun. On April 28 the Duluth News-Tribune reported that “half a dozen boys of various ages” dodged the bridge operator, climbed on the girders below decks of the ferry car and rode the ferry clinging by their fingers just thirteen feet above the water. Alone at the controls, Adrian could do nothing to stop them. If they had lost their grip, the boys would certainly have drowned in the canal’s currents.

On May 5, 1905, even though MSS still had five months left on their obligation of guaranteed flawless operation, the City officially took possession of the bridge and placed it under the jurisdiction of the Board of Public Works. While the bridge had officially opened for business, work continued throughout the summer. In June workers installed lightning arrestors—spires that rise from the corners of the bridge’s north and south towers.

But soon after the City took possession, the bridge stopped operating smoothly. Several of the wheels inside the truck had broken. Inspectors discovered that the truck system that the girders holding the ferry car rode on had been engineered too rigidly. MSS was called back, under the terms of their contract, and made repeated attempts to remodel the old truck system. But it was still not operating properly in October, when Mayor Cullum wrote the Common Council that “it cannot be said . . . that their six months’ trial has been entirely successful.” He urged the Council to “consider these matters in their financial settlement with the Bridge Company” and, if the City Attorney advised, delay final payment to the company until they fully resolved the problem. City officials reinstated the ferry service while the bridge underwent these repairs. As the year ended, MSS was still hard at work on the problem.