Aerial Lift Bridge Supervisors and Operators

Right to Left: Former Aerial Lift Bridge bosses Al Hass, Robert Brown, Harold Bilsey, and Richard Lyons. [Image: Zenith City Press]

Since Duluth’s aerial lift bridge began operating in 1930, fifty-six people have served as bridge operator, aka bridge tenders, but just ten have acted as the bridge’s superintendent, aka “Bridge Boss.” (Over the years the title “Bridge Superintendent” was changed to “Chief Bridge Operator” and ultimately today’s “Bridge Supervisor.”) The first was Leonard Green, who had been superintendent of the transfer bridge beginning in 1908. Green never retired, dying of a stroke in 1944. Frank Lampert, also a transfer bridge veteran, temporarily took over leadership duties until 1946, when Al Hass was named Chief Bridge Operator. Hass, an electrician, worked for the subcontractor installing the bridge’s electronic components during its conversion and was hired as operator when the job was done.

During Hass’s tenure on the bridge, the pilot house was warmed by a coal-fired stove, and operators had to carry the coal up to the pilot house in bags, a two-story climb. It was also on his watch that the bridge operators’ ritual lunchtime cribbage matches came to a halt. “Someone complained to the city fathers and we had to quit,” he explained. Hass retired in 1968. His thirty-seven years on the span was the longest any one person worked on the aerial lift bridge.

Robert O. Brown took the reins from Hass. Brown told reporters that as a kid growing up in Duluth’s West End he wished that someday he could work on the bridge. Prior to joining the bridge crew he served as a merchant marine and worked with Hass wiring the bridge’s electrical system in 1929, but it wasn’t until 1941 before another operator position opened. It took another twenty-seven years before he became the chief. When he retired in 1974, he told a reporter, “Never in my life have I had to drag my feet to go to work…it has been a wonderful career.”

Brown was replaced by Harold Bisley, who had fifteen days more experience on the bridge than his competition for the job, Richard Lyons. Both were lifelong Duluthians. Bilsey grew up in West Duluth and graduated from Denfeld High School in 1931. In World War II he served two years aboard the USS Iowa. He returned to Duluth with a taste for the sea, taking a job on the bridge to stay in close contact with ships and ore boats. Lyons took Bilsey’s spot as chief after he retired in 1976. Also a Denfeld grad, Lyons first signed on when he returned from serving in the Army during World War II. Lyons retired in 1978. His son Lowell recalled how Lyons often told him, “You have to love what you do or it’s just not worth it.” And his dad obviously loved his job. “Dad was always so proud of it,” Lowell said. “He took pride in how well it ran.”

Former chief bridge operator Don Bowen [Image: Great Lake Design]

Lyon’s retirement created an opportunity for Don Bowen, who first stepped onto the bridge in 1957. The Duluth native had spent his early life moving about, growing up on the Iron Range and moving to St. Paul, Chicago, California, and even Hawaii doing everything from driving truck to maintaining naval airplanes. Bowen loved his job, but once joked with the Duluth News Tribune that “The trouble is, everyone in the city of Duluth is your boss. They all feel they own the bridge.”

When Bowen retired in 1982 ten-year veteran Steve Douville became Bridge Supervisor. Another lifelong Duluthian and ex-Navy man, Douville was looking for a job in 1972 after returning from service when his brother-in-law spotted an ad for the job in a newspaper. During his tenure, Douville oversaw two of the bridge’s most extensive renovations since its 1929 conversion. At the time of Douville’s retirement in 2005, Duluth Director of Public Works Dick Larson told the Duluth News Tribune that “[Steve] lives and breathes the bridge, and really cares about it. He is the bridge.”

The year Douville retired also so the hiring of Paula Hanela, the first and to date only woman to work on the bridge (and since 2015 she and Scott Hill have more experience on the bridge than any other active tender). Her new boss, Ryan Beamer, was another former Navy man and had been a bridge operator since 1998. Beamer used to cringe whenever people said, “I bet your job has its ups and downs,” a joke lazy copy editors have relied on for decades. Beamer was familiar the old chestnut long before he ever set foot on the bridge: He spent five years as an electronics technician on the USS Kamehameha, a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. Beamer found weekend work on the bridge stressful. “You don’t sit down. You are constantly standing there, watching traffic, watching boats, watching pedestrians. People attempting to hang on remains a daily occurrence in the summer months . . . You have to be vigilant.”

Beamer left his post in May 2015, replaced by St. Paul native David Campbell, who had not previously worked on the bridge. An Air Force veteran and former railroad man, Campbell is a master electrician who spent eighteen years working at the Potlatch/SAPPI paper mill in Cloquet before signing on to supervise the bridge. He explained to Minnestoa Public Radio News in 2016 how the bridge is both impressive and relatively simple: “Everything on this thing is big, and everything on it’s heavy,” he said. “But I tell people, it’s nothing but a glorified elevator, that’s all it is.”

If you think you’d like to work on the bridge, you’ll need “a minimum of one year of specialized electrical training, plus two years of experience working with large electrically operated machinery; or three years of experience working with complex mechanized equipment; or one year of experience working with computer-controlled electrical equipment; or a combination of education, training, and experience in the above areas which is accepted as equivalent,” according to the city of Duluth. And if the past is any indication, some time in the Navy might help your chances as well. But you’ll have competition for the position, which in January 2022 came with an annual salary of between $64,573 and $78,415: When a job for a lift bridge operator opened in 2016, MPR News reported that the city received 135 applicants.

Right to Left: Former Aerial Lift Bridge bosses Steve Douville and Ryan Beamer and current bridge supervisor David Campbell. [Image: Zenith City Press]