Building Duluth’s Aerial Transfer Bridge

The progression of the bridge’s construction photographed by photos by Major Charles L. Potter (click to see a larger image). [Image: Zenith City Press]

The contract with Modern Structural Steel (MSS) took time to negotiate, but the company was eager to get to it, working without a contract and urging approval of the tower plans by March 11 so it could immediately start building them. In April McGilvray again replaced Patton as Duluth’s city engineer: New Mayor Marcus Cullum was a Democrat. So the man who brought the ferry bridge idea to Duluth would oversee the project to its completion.

Meanwhile, W. H. Hoyt, an engineer with the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railway (DM&N), inspected and approved the steel for the towers and, later, the roller bearings. He expressed concern over the roller bearings’ housing, seeing no protection from “blocking up with sand in the summer and snow and ice in the winter.” These “roller nests” and the bearings they held were the key to the bridge’s smooth operation, and time would prove that protecting them from the elements wouldn’t be their only problem.

The contract between Duluth and MSS was finally signed July 20. Two days later the first carload of steel arrived at the piers. Testing laboratories had found the metal work excellent, with all parts “fitting perfectly, without reaming or drifting.” On August 1, workers had the leg of one of the towers in position. By October work was well underway and progressing smoothly. Both towers stood in place by mid November, but workers had to wait for the shipping season to end before putting up the wooden supports needed to bolster the towers as the truss was built piece-by-piece to connect them.

The continued progression of the bridge’s construction photographed by photos by Major Charles L. Potter (click to see a larger image). [Image: Zenith City Press]

By early 1905, with the supports in place, the truss was beginning to take shape with metal work reaching from both towers toward the center. In February the bridge was near completion, and later that month McGilvray invited two hundred people to witness the ferry car’s first crossing. He included local dignitaries to take the ferry’s first ride, including Mayor Cullum, Common Council President (and future mayor) Roland D. Haven, several aldermen and police officials, engineer Patton, and nearly two dozen prominent businessmen and civic leaders. At 4:30 p.m. on February 23, 1905, the group entered the gondola car at the south tower and prepared to cross. The bridge was not yet fully complete—some of the false wooden work still stood against the south tower where it had once been needed to support the bridge before the main truss was complete. The newspaper fancied that the ferry car would “glide gracefully out over the canal and the hopes which the residents of Park Point have held for years will be realized.”

To ensure safety, men were posted on top of the bridge so they could identify any problems with the trucks in time to warn of an impending accident. McGilvray himself controlled the car, which began rolling without so much as a hiccup. Riders felt “only a slight vibration” while the car moved northward. As the gondola reached the north end of the canal with “a gentle motion, an almost imperceptible contact against the air cushion in the approach, it stopped and locked automatically.”

The entire trip lasted one minute and fifteen seconds, but it had been over fifteen years in the making. The ferry car then returned to the other side without any passengers disembarking to complete their trip across the canal.

The first woman crossed the canal via the bridge on March 5. Anna Borth of 716 South Lake Avenue (about a block south of the canal) had watched the bridge’s construction and was determined to be the first person to cross, not including its operators. She asked workers a for a ride, and they obliged her, telling the newspaper that, “she was alone in the car and thoroughly enjoyed the little thrill of being part of so tremendous and important an enterprise.” The paper declared that, since the ferry’s inaugural run didn’t deliver anyone across the canal, Borth was not just the first woman to cross the canal in the ferry car, but technically the first person, aside from its builders, to cross via the aerial bridge.

On March 4 the last of the wooden supports came down: outside of “a number of small jobs, which are unimportant, but which require time for their completion,” the bridge was ready. Those tasks included covering the structure with two coats of olive green paint, a project that befgan on March 20. The ferry car also required many other finishing touches, but these would not stand in the way of the bridge’s opening “on or before All Fool’s Day,” as the paper reported.

As a final safety measure, MSS decided to see if the bridge could carry the load C. A. P. Turner had specified. On Friday, March 24, after several test runs with just people aboard, workmen loaded the ferry car with sixty-five tons of steel rails, reels of phone wire, cable, a steam boiler, and heavy timber, “greater than any load that the bridge is likely to be called on to carry, at least until street cars are taken across.” Even under all that weight, the bridge operated smoothly. MSS prepared to open the bridge to the public the following Monday.

The photo above appeared in the Duluth News Tribune in 1905 and shows the team from Modern Steel Structural, who built Duluth’s Aerial Transfer Bridge: (from left) Electrician Charles Adrian; structural steel workers F. Schmidtz, E. Foucoult, B. Keenan, H. Larson, J. Shrod, and
E. Knight; and engineer Gus Rakowsky. t. [image: ZCP]