Duluth Aerial Transfer Bridge Operators

Including original Bridge Superintendent (aka “Bridge Boss”) Leonard Green, only seven men operated and maintained the aerial transfer bridge once it became the city’s property: Thomas White, John Hicken, William Maynard, James Murray, Urban Nehring, and Frank Lampert. The work wasn’t just turning levers and gliding across the canal: Maintenance was dangerous. The traveling pulley had to be greased frequently, and the questionable means of reaching the bridge’s top span were described by the Duluth Evening Herald on April 7, 1905, when the team from Modern Steel Structural was still operating the bridge.

Bridge superintendent Leonard Green (left) and bridge operator John Hicken atop the aerial transfer bridge, date unknown. [image: GLD]

Under the banner headline “nerve wracking feat by bridgemen,” the newspaper described how the workers gained access to the upper truss, which needed some additional riveting work, by using the bridge’s cables as an elevator. They did not want to climb ladders while weighed down by heavy leather bags full of hot rivets. Instead the men, with bags of tools and rivets slung over their necks, climbed onto the roof of the ferry car and, just as the bridge operator set the gondola in motion, grabbed onto the cable, which “snatched them aloft at a terrible speed.” Fifteen seconds later they came to the tricky part: getting off while the cable kept moving. They only had a fraction of a second to release from the cable and swing themselves onto the truss or they would be dragged through the pulley and either crushed or thrown 135 feet into the canal below. That method of conveyance was “not likely to become popular with the traveling public,” the reporter joked. At the company’s request, the names of the daredevil bridge workers were withheld lest they encourage such “fool-hardiness.”

Bridge Superintendent Leonard Green began working the bridge in 1908, the year his job was created (the city engineer previously handled the superintendent’s duties). He saw the transfer bridge through the rest of of its life, then stewarded the aerial lift bridge during its first fourteen years. A lifelong Duluthian, Green had served as a sailor on the Great Lake for years, working his way from fireman to marine engineer. He crewed on several tugs in the Duluth-Superior Harbor, various fishing boats operated by the A. Booth Fisheries including the Corona and the Bon Ami, the first vessel to pass under the Duluth Aerial Transfer Bridge from the lakeward side in 1905. Before coming aboard the bridge, Green worked as a stationary engineer for Duluth’s Spalding Hotel.

In 1943 Green told the press he considered operating the bridge “the perfect job for an ex-sailor… It’s a good job, and I like it.” Sixty-two years later, his daughter Dorothy Hubert emphasized that point, telling reporters, “The bridge and the harbor were his life. Even when he was home, he was very aware of what was going on in the harbor.” He may have loved the ferry bridge, but he also recognized when it was becoming obsolete. He told the paper that as the ferry bridge neared the end of its life, lines of waiting vehicles stretched for blocks, and many drivers cursed him for the delay. “The present bridge certainly is an improvement over the other one,” he said.

Green treated his crew like family. In 2005 Hubert told the Duluth News Tribune that the crew often got together socially, sometimes getting their families together as well. “They’d all get their wives and go out for a big picnic once a year,” she said. “That was always fun. He worked well with his men. He thought a lot of them.” Besides Dorothy, Green and his wife Helen raised three other children in their home in Duluth’s East Hillside neighborhood. Green lived his entire life in Duluth and never retired. He died of a stroke in 1944.

Three transfer bridge operators including John Hicken (seated, right) atop the bridge, date unknown. [image: GLD]

Thomas White started as an operator in 1905 and was working on the bridge when he died in 1918. On December 19, White—substituting for vacationing bridge superintendent Green—climbed to the top of the bridge to perform maintenance, mostly oiling the trucks and pulleys. No one witnessed how the accident occurred, but as the ferry car left the South Pier and headed across, White was somehow pulled into a pulley, which crushed his chest. Some passengers waiting to board heard White scream, but the sound of the ferry in motion prevented the operator from immediately hearing his cries. It took a firefighter and two bridge operators quite some time to free White from the bridgeworks and lower him down by ropes, and he died just minutes after reaching the hospital. White was fifty-seven years old and had lived in Duluth for over forty years. His funeral was held at his home at 1008 South Lake Avenue on Park Point, four blocks south of the canal.

John Hicken also started on the bridge in 1905. In 1928 a newspaper article celebrating Hicken’s career estimated that he had traveled 120,000 miles—300 feet at a time—and had taken on 25 million passengers before 1923. But Hicken wasn’t worried about stats. “What’s a couple million people between friends,” he joked with the reporter. He was looking forward to working on the lift bridge except for one thing: His work day would now lack the companionship of his passengers. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see the conversion completed, dying of pneumonia in 1928, just a year before the transfer bridge was converted to a lift bridge.

William Maynard worked the bridge from 1916 to 1918, then returned in 1932 to operate the lift bridge for another thirteen years. James Murray began as an operator in 1924; when the span converted to lifting he worked as “Special Police” for the bridge. Urban Nehring joined the crew just a year before the conversion and stayed on until 1942.

Frank Lampert, who lived two houses south of the bridge on Park Point, began as operator in 1924. Unofficial records show that he retired in 1944, but newspaper articles indicate he took over as interim bridge superintendent upon Leonard Green’s death in 1944 and stayed on until Al Hass took the helm in 1946 (Learn more about aerial lift bridge superintendents here). In 2005 eighty-six-year-old Howard Boyton of Park Point told a reporter that when Lampert controlled the old ferry car, he also acted as an arbitrary gatekeeper: “Lampert would stop you, and if he knew you didn’t belong uptown, you didn’t get there. You didn’t get to go. You stayed right there. That was the end of your trip.”