The Life of Duluth‘s Aerial Transfer Bridge (1905-1929)

Duluth’s Aerial Transfer Bridge photographed in 1908. (Image: Library of Congress)

Several months after the aerial bridge began operating in 1905, Modern Steel Structural (the firm that constructed the bridge) had to replace the entire overhead works of the bridge where the trucks rolled along the rails; besides the trucks operating poorly, the rail they rolled on had not been properly aligned. With a new truck system in place in February 1906, MSS had satisfied its obligation to Duluth and the bridge, and the City took complete control of the span. In March city Engineer Thomas McGilvray, who came up with the idea for the bridge, reported that the bridge had run perfectly since February 6, handling two hundred to three hundred teams of horses and thirty thousand people a day. He estimated the cost of operating the bridge at “one-fifth of one cent per passenger for operation, maintenance, interest, and power.”

Over the next year McGilvray petitioned the city for improvements on the bridge, mostly for safety. He ordered a metal net to be installed over the ferry car to protect passengers and teams from falling ice in the winter. he also asked for a hand-railed gangway attached to the lower chord of the truss and a covered stairway to access the truss—he wanted to stop the “dangerous acrobatic feats” required of bridge workers to maintain the structure (see page 39). In February 1907 the Duluth Evening Herald reaffirmed McGilvray’s report to the city, explaining that the ferry had not missed a trip in a year, having safely moved 50,000 teams and 2.5 million passengers making six to eight passes an hour. Later a telephone, heating system, and two back-up electric motors were added to the gondola car. McGilvray ordered that the bridge be overhauled every eighteen months

The engineer had become something of a local celebrity. After the bridge went up, strongly Democratic Duluth loved him, and his fishing and curling exploits (he was an accomplished skip), as well as his friendship with popular Democratic Governor John A. Johnson, were reported in both daily newspapers. In 1908, newly elected Republican Mayor Roland Haven tried to appoint another engineer to McGilvray’s job, but the overwhelmingly Democratic Common Council refused to affirm the mayor’s selection, keeping McGilvray in the position until 1912, when he chose to return to private practice with William Patton before striking out on his own in 1916.

The steamer D. O. Mills passes beneath the aerial bridge in a photograph made for the Detroit Publishing Company in 1908. [image: LoC]

With the aerial bridge operating smoothly, its history became one of maintenance and incidents surrounding it and the canal it crossed. In November 1908 another great storm hit the western tip of Lake Superior, causing lake waters to roll so high bridge operations were suspended for the first time since the Mataafa Storm. Waves washed over the concrete piers and struck the gondola car, which rested fifteen feet above the water.

By 1910 the ferry made seventy-five round trips a day during operating hours, and the time between trips no longer allowed on-the-fly maintenance. That year bridge superintendent Leonard Green made overhauls an annual event. It took ten days for its operators to get the bridge into top shape; the ferry Ellen D. was put into service for those who wanted to cross the canal.
A 1913 incident displayed just how disruptive a bridge closing could be—especially an unexpected one. At 1 p.m. on September 4, as the ferry car approached the north pier with a load of passengers (no teams or automobiles were aboard) a frayed cable snapped, and the gondola ground to a halt. The car had not reached the end of its journey, so passengers had to descend by ladder. A ferry was put into service while the bridge underwent repair, but it only carried passengers. Dozens of wagons, teams, and autos were stranded on Minnesota Point for two weeks.

Another great storm stopped bridge operation on April 28, 1914. Incoming boats were forced to turn back and ride out the gale on the open lake—the waters were too rough to navigate the canal. Twenty-five Park Point residents spent the night in the ferry car; others were forced to find rooms in hotels.

The passenger steamer Tionesta photographed passing under the aerial bridge in 1920 by High McKenzie. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

In 1918, Public Utilities Commissioner Philip G. Phillips recommended that the fresh water supply to Park Point be placed over the top of the aerial bridge. When the canal was rebuilt in the late 1890s, workers installed a six-inch main that carried water supplied by the Lakewood Pump House from beneath South Lake Avenue through the canal to Park Point. But repairs and water loss were becoming financial burden. A month or so before the proposal, a ship passed through the canal dragging anchor, which snagged and broke the water line. Park Point citizens had no fresh water for several days. Philips cited the fact that a gas line already ran across the top of the bridge and its “upkeep has practically cost nothing.” The new main crossed the bridge by the next October.

A blizzard in February 1922 buried the city, turning it into what the Duluth News Tribune described as “a labyrinth of tunnels and narrow snow-banked lanes.” Minnesota Point had been hit hard, with snowbanks as high as trolley cars. Worse, a cable on the aerial bridge had snapped, cutting off Park Point. Repairs took eight hours to make, but they were delayed until the storm abated. When the bridge returned to
operation, one of its first duties was to transport a National Guard tank to Park Point to help clear snow.

The transfer bridge never had an accident with a vessel—not that there hadn’t been close calls. Operators said that sometimes the gondola came so close to a vessel, a collision would have occurred “if the boat had been covered with one more coat of paint.” The closest recorded call came November 8, 1921, when the Joshua Rhodes came within fifteen feet of the car. While the gonola carried a full load of cars, trucks, coal wagons, and fifty passengers, a malfunction stopped the car about two-fifths of its way south across the canal as the Rhodes approached. Bridge operators leaped into action: One rang the emergency signal on the bell while the other climbed atop the ferry car and waved his arms, trying to get the attention of the Rhodes’ captain. A nearby tug blew its whistle as a warning and waited to help push the Rhodes if necessary. Luckily, officers on the Rhodes were able to steer the ore boat clear of the car, passing safely.

The whaleback steamer Alexander McDougall, named for its Duluth inventor, photographed in 1915 by High McKenzie. [image: UMDMLSCA]

By 1925, the aerial transfer bridge was nearing the end of its life. The bridge simply could not keep up with the needs of the city. In 1901, when the aerial bridge was still an idea, just shy of 53,000 people lived in Duluth and only one of them, wealthy grain commissioner Benjamin E. Baker, owned an automobile (a single cylinder Oldsmobile runabout—although photographer J R. Zweifel claimed his Locomobile steamer got to the Zenith City first). In 1925, the population was closing in on 100,000 and 17,340 automobiles and 2,600 trucks drove Duluth’s streets. The bridge had in part created the growth that was rendering it obsolete: With a convenient mode of conveyance to cross the canal, Park Point had experienced a population boom of more full-time residents and businesses, and it increased its role as “Duluth’s Playground.” With more and more people living, working, and playing on the Point—and getting there via automobile. Soon there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day for the bridge to move everyone and everything that needed to cross the canal.

In May 1925 Public Utilities Commissioner Phillips asked the City Council to take the responsibility of maintaining the bridge out of his hands. When Mayor Sam Snively, also the city’s Public Affairs commissioner, balked at the idea, Philips
expressed his anger: “What are we going to do in the future when the aerial bridge is declared unsafe? What will you do, if you are mayor a few years from now, and I ask you and the rest of the council to take responsibility for the bridge?” No one replied. When asked by a reporter if the bridge was in any immediate danger, he simply replied that, “It is over twenty years old and can’t be expected to last forever.”

In July 1926 J. C. Craig thought the bridge was plenty safe—to jump from. Sanctioned by Snively and other city officials, Craig intended to break the record leap of 133 feet set by Steve Brodie when he launched himself off the Brooklyn Bridge. Craig planned to jump from the top of the bridge, 186 feet above the water. But strong winds made it impossible for him to reach the very top, and he had to jump from a beam on the lower edge of the span—at 140 feet just high enough to set the record. Craig put on a blindfold, walked forward and backward, hung from his toes, and, as the newspaper stated, basically “frolicked about” before leaping.

Despite its role as Duluth’s icon, the aerial bridge was fast becoming—like daredevil Craig—nothing more than a novelty. Closing in on its projected life span, the bridge was serving more as a tourist attraction than a practical way of crossing the canal. The next few years would see Duluth officials battling over how best to replace the bridge. Just as building the first aerial bridge was fraught with obstacles, it would be a bumpy ride before anyone crossed the canal on a new bridge.

Duluth’s Aerial Transfer Bridge’s gondola car ca. 1907. (Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

The Ferry Car’s Final Run

On the morning of July 1, 1929, the aerial transfer bridge’s gondola car crossed the canal for the last time. The Duluth News Tribune described the scene: “With its battered old warning bell tolling, the whistle of the Park Point street car bleating mournful accompaniment and ships tooting, the ferry car of the famous Duluth aerial bridge made the last trip of its career of 24 years at 8:45 a.m. today…. Tears stood in the eyes of James Murray, veteran bridge car operator, selected to pilot it on its last voyage, as he started it back to the mainland from Park Point.”

Along with Murray’s fellow bridge operators—William Maynard, Urban Nehring, Frank Lampert, and superintendent Leonard Green—the gondola car carried dignitaries including Duluth pioneers Richard Thompson, John D. Campbell, and Henry Van Brunt, who took part in the first test trip in February 1905; city officials Mayor Snively, commissioners Evans and Phillips, and police chief Eustache Barber; Anna Borth, who was the first woman to cross in the ferry bridge back in 1905; and Ann Murray, a Park Point resident who reportedly rode the ferry bridge more times than any other person outside of an operator. Many others not named by the newspaper also took the final trip. Those conspicuously absent from the event included engineers Thomas McGilvray and CAP Turner.

Murray pulled the lever to start the car’s final journey after Commissioner Chris Evans had given the brief command: “Let’s go.” The car passed from the North Pier to the South, paused while the steamer Charles L. Hutchinson navigated the canal as the last craft to pass under the ferry bridge, and then returned to the North Pier. The News-Tribune reporter captured the Murray’s final moment on the bridge: “After bringing [the gondola car] to its final stop [Murray] removed the control lever and stepped slowly from the operator’s cab to the main platform. ‘It was a good old car and I hate to see her go,’ he said to the other veteran operators who were all on hand to make the last trip.”