Canal Ferry Service

A rowboat ferry crosses the canal in the 1880s. [image: UMD Martin Library]

Once the Duluth Ship Canal was cut, the land on Minnesota Point south of the canal essentially became an Island. Cutting off access to the mainland changed everything. Crossing the canal proved to be a major inconvenience: Everything residents needed to survive—food, clothing, building materials—now had to be delivered by boat. The first mention of a ferry system appeared in the Duluth Minnesotian on April 18, 1872: “It has been nearly concluded to project slips 20 by 60 feet into Lake Avenue on each side of the Canal and run a scow-boat ferry by a copper wire rope to be dropped to the bottom of the Canal whenever vessels need to pass in or out. Two men will work it, and the cost will not be great.”A week later, the Minnesotian announced the ferry system’s establishment: “Arrangements have been perfected by the city with S. L. Secrest and Thos. Brunette to maintain a ferry at the canal during the summer. They propose to run small boats for passengers and scows for teams. The former will run from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and the latter from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. The contract price is $14 a day.”

The “rowboat and scow” ferry service remained in operation until 1897, when steam ferries—including the May Flower, Estelle, and E. T. Carrington—took over the job. Residents accessed the ferry from city-owned docks located bayside north of the canal at Buchanan Street and south of the canal at the Osborne Dock. No one expected as much of the ferrymen as did tjhose living south of the canal. Perhaps it was an effort to illustrate the need for a bridge, perhaps it was legitimate criticism, but whatever the case, Park Pointers never failed to inform city officials about poor ferry service quality.

The ferry Estelle. (Image: Great Lakes Vessel Index)

In February 1901, residents of Minnesota Point including Mayor Trevanion Hugo complained about an incident in which a physician, Dr. Phalen, could not get return ferry service at 2:30 a.m. after visiting a critically ill woman south of the canal. After many attempts, neither Dr. Phalen nor the patient’s husband could alert the ferrymen, who claimed they had been wide awake all night long. Regulations called for ferrymen to take special care of physicians and were to be ready at fifteen-minute intervals after 1 a.m. when they knew a doctor was south of the canal. The ferrymen had violated the terms of their contract, which had been awarded to C. H. Burnham in January and included $23 a day for the use of his tug May Flower. The Common Council resolved to re-advertise for bids on the ferry contract. The owner of the ferry Estelle won the contract, and Pointers gave the tug a reprieve the following spring, petitioning the Common Council to keep the Estelle rather than turn to a proposed combination ferry and fire tug. They were concerned that service would be shut off whenever the tug was called to a fire.

In 1903 Pointers penned another petition, this time asking for a much larger and “more suitable” ferry, claiming it would be “criminal negligence to continue the present service.” Despite her owner’s claim that repairs would put her in “first-class condition”—and offering to do the job for $27 a day—the Estelle lost out to the E. T. Carrington at $30 a day. By 1905, the Annie L. Smith had replaced the Carrington and was operating the day the ferry bridge began operations. Regular ferry operations ended when the aerial bridge began regular operation in April 1905. At least one person was going to miss the ferry service, as young woman among the ferry’s final passengers told a Duluth Evening Herald reporter that “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.”

After that day, the Ellen D. was put in service whenever the bridge was being serviced—including when the aerial bridge underwent conversion in 1930. The Estelle was dismantled in 1906, and the Carrington sank fifteen miles from Duluth the next year.