1890s Canal Bridge Ideas

Alfred Pancoast Boller’s 1890 plans for a bridge over the Duluth Ship Canal. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Once Park Point agreed to rejoin Duluth, the city finally went to work on the question of how best to bridge the canal. At the behest of the Common Council, the Duluth Board of Public Works hired Alfred Pancoast Boller, a nationally recognized consulting engineer, to produce the first plan to span the canal with a professionally designed bridge. One of Boller’s biggest challenges would be satisfying federal engineers: Since the canal and the land adjacent to it was owned by the federal government, no bridge could be built without federal approval. And the government would approve no bridge that could potentially block commercial shipping traffic through the canal.

For his 1890 proposal, Boller designed a 475-foot swing bridge mounted on a massive masonry pier rising out of the canal tight against the canal’s south pier; nearly half the bridge would actually hang over Minnesota Point when in use. To allow ship traffic to pass, the bridge would pivot on a great turntable at its center—using fifty-eight twenty-inch steel ball bearings—so that when it was moved to allow a ship to pass, the entire bridge would rest along the south pier wall. The bridge would take fifteen seconds to unlock and another ninety seconds to swing out of the way or back into place. He also designed the bridge’s deck to carry both railroad and wagon traffic and included sidewalks.

Nothing ever became of Boller’s plan. At an estimated cost of $400,000 (about $12.5 million in 2022), Duluth simply didn’t have the money to build it. Besides the federal government, local business owners and captains of industry opposed any sort of mechanical bridge, as any such structure could potentially fail, blocking the canal and preventing ships from accessing Duluth’s harbor. Boller later designed the Interstate Bridge (1897–1960), a swing-arm bridge connecting Duluth and Superior between Rice’s and Conner’s Points; a remnant of it remains.

In an attempt to avoid the potential problems a bridge might create, Duluth turned its attention to a new idea: A tunnel. The city hired Chicago civil engineer William Sooy Smith to come up with a plan, which he delivered on January 27, 1891. The Smith tunnel would carry St. Croix Avenue (today’s Canal Park Drive) along the eastern shore of Minnesota Point underground and below the canal, emerging south of the waterway. Towers on either side of the canal would take pedestrians down a stairway to the walkway. But its prucetag was nearly four times that of Boller’s bridge, so the idea was scrapped.

William Sooey Smith’s 1891 tunnel plan to traverse the ship canal. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Next, the city held a contest for a bridge design. In October 1891 Duluth’s Board of Public Works advertise da competition for plans to bridge the canal. The designs had to carry passage for rail, wagons, and pedestrians (the first automobile wouldn’t arrive in Duluth until 1900) and work in a way that did not impede canal traffic. The best plan would receive a $1,000 prize. At the end of December the competition was announced in Engineering News. Twenty engineers from across the country submitted designs. Two plans called for a swing arm similar to Boller’s earlier design. Several, including a submission by Smith, were for sliding bridges in which either one entire expanse or two smaller expanses (one on either side of the canal) would slide back along rails to clear the shipping lane. Two designs involved cantilevering the bridge so it could be tipped up and out of the way

The Milwaukee firm of Arentz & Sangdahl took home the cash for their bi-level, single sliding draw bridge design. The bridge’s railway floor would hang above the roadway for wagon and foot traffic; to make way for a passing ship it would slide straight back 316 feet from the canal along rails. A 116-horse- power electric engine would move the bridge with steel ropes.

Entries to Duluth’s 1891 contest for a bridge over the Duluth Ship Canal. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Despite winning the contest, Arentz & Sangdahl’s design was passed over for a cheaper bridge that would “take care of the business for several years, or until such a time as the city felt it was able to tunnel the canal.” The city chose a plan by John Alexander Low Waddell for a new kind of bridge: A vertical lift bridge whose roadway span could be lifted to allow shipping traffic full use of the canal. The board called the plan “the best adapted to the locality and the most suitable and economic structure as regards both construction and operation.”

As a Duluth committee presented Waddell’s plans to the U.S. Secretary of War, who had jurisdiction over the canal, news broke that the Lake Carrier’s Association, the Cleveland Vessel Owner’s Association, and others involved in the Great Lakes commercial shipping industry were leading a protest against the construction of any bridge over the canal. The groups argued that access to Minnesota Point would have no effect on the local economy as only two hundred people called the land spit home, and its property was not needed for dock space. Further, one of Lake Superior’s fierce storms would certainly wash out the bridge. If a bridge were rendered inoperable during a storm, ships would not be able to pass through the canal to the safe inner harbor. They offered three alternatives: Continue the ferry service, build a tunnel, or connect Minnesota Point to Rice’s Point using a trestle bridge with a center draw.

The War Department heard the complaint in Detroit in March of 1892. Duluth’s representatives argued that the city intended to make the bay side of Minnesota Point a contributing portion of the port. Multiple slips jutting into the bay from the Point could create “twenty-two linear miles of dock frontage.” Further, a bridge would bring rail service to those docks, increasing Duluth’s potential for economic development.

They argued that the bridge would serve the estimated 10,000 people each day and denied it would obstruct navigation. Despite the city’s efforts, the War Department would not approve the bridge. Waddell took his plans to Chicago, where they were used to build the world’s first lift bridge in 1893. Duluth was back to one alternative: A very expensive tunnel. The Board of Public Works’ 1892 report on the matter expressed the town’s frustration, concluding that, “The day when we will have access to Minnesota Point is probably a long way off.”