Casualties of the Duluth Ship Canal

Engineer Dresser’s car is pulled from the DUluth Ship Canal in July, 1916. (Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

The Duluth ship canal can be a very dangerous place when gale-force winds stir up its waters. The stormy night of April 28, 1914, when water washed over the ship canal’s piers and struck the aerial bridge’s gondola car (see page 48), also took a life. Twenty-four-year-old laborer Sivo “Stans” Sanden, a resident of the Torvilla Hotel a few blocks north of the canal, bet a companion one dollar that he could walk the North Pier from end to end. Setting out from beneath the aerial bridge, Sanden darted from one light post to the next, hiding behind each post as the waves crested, then running to the next post before another wave breached the canal. About halfway through his adventure, bridge operators saw Sanden hesitate, throwing off his timing. The next wave hit, sweeping him over the pier and into the canal’s roiling waters. He may have hit his head along the way: Witnesses said he made no attempt to swim to safety. Police and members of the U.S. Life Savers Station arrived quickly, but despite their efforts Sanden was never found.

Despite the ferry bridge’s frequent malfunctions, not a single event resulted in the death of a gondola car passenger. A Duluth News Tribune article published in 1956 reported that a driver of a team pulling a laundry wagon beer drove his horses and wagon right off the one of the bridge’s approaches while the gondola car was still crossing the canal. The team and wagon fell into the cnal, where the horses drowned.

In 1916, Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railway Chief Engineer H. L. Dresser similarly drove his car off the bridge’s North Pier approach and into the ship canal. Dresser later told the News Tribune that he accidentally pressed the accelerator rather than the brake, causing the vehicle to burst through the steel barriers of the aerial bridge gate and into a waiting one-horse delivery wagon owned by the Bridgeman-Russell Creamery. A stunned crowd of onlookers watched as “the auto and driver and the horse and wagon with a tremendous crashed plunged from sight beneath the waves.” According to the newspaper, “The struggling animal urged by the smashing battering ram behind broke through the steel gates as if they were paper and catapulted high in the air. The machine leaped after that, turned a complete somersault.” James Ten Eyck, coach of the Duluth Boat Club’s legendary rowing team, was waiting for the ferry when the accident occurred; he “stripped to his undergarments,” dove into the canal, and secured a life line to Dresser, which pulled him from the canal. Dresser suffered a broken rib and severe shock. The horse, harnessed to the wagon, did not survive.

As much as it does to help local commerce, Duluth’s ship canal has had some dark moments. In July 1934, the canal claimed the life of seven-year-old Richard White, who lived nearby at 216 South First Avenue East (today’s Canal Park Drive) with his parents, then one of Duluth’s few African American families. His parents initially feared he had ran away. A search failed. The next day four children, two boys and two girls ages four to six, confessed that one of them had tripped White, who fell from the north pier into the canal. The children did not call for help. One boy pointed to the other and said, “He did it.” The accused replied, “Yes, but you told me to.” No charges were ever filed. White’s body eventually washed ashore.

On April 30, 1967, the canal’s waters claimed the lives of seventeen-year-old Eric Halverson and his sixteen-year-old twin brothers Arthur and Nathan. The three had gone to the canal to watch massive waves created by a spring squall, venturing out to the North Pier Lighthouse for a better view. Two made it to the lighthouse’s relative safety, but the third clung to a light pole short of his goal. A huge wave hit the pier, knocking him into the canal where he drowned. In their attempt to help, his brothers met the same fate. Coast Guardsmen Edgar Culbertson, Richard Callahan, and Ronald Prel rushed to the pier. During their effort to locate the boys, a wave also washed Culbertson into the canal, where he too drowned. United Methodist Chirch, where the Halvorson family attended services, now includes a memorial to the boys called Three Brothers Chapel. Culbertson, Callahan, and Prel all received the Coast Guard medal, the organization’s highest peacetime award for heroism. A plaque commemorating Culbertson’s bravery rests on the north pier.

An incident in 1944 was far less tragic, but nonetheless unfortunate. A black bear somehow found its way into the bay near today’s Minnesota Slip (now home of the William A. Irvin ore boat). The bear eventually entered the ship canal, struggling to find a way out of the water. Three young men set out in a small boat intending to rescue the bear, but the bruin didn’t appreciate their efforts. One of them tried to lasso the bear, but missed; the bear used the rope to claw itself onto the boat, where it bit its would-be rescuer and tore his pants before all three young men abandoned ship. The Coast Guard then towed the boat to the docks, successfully lassoed the bear, and attempted to pull it onto the pier. But the bruin wouldn’t budge, and officials shot it to prevent further trouble.

This bear, found swimming in the Duluth Ship Canal in 1944, did not survive the attempts to rescue him. (Image: Zenith City Press)