Lighting the Aerial Bridge Leads to Painting the Aerial Bridge

Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge photographed shortly after it was first illuminated in 1966. (Image: Duluth News Tribune)

In 1966 the city’s Project Duluth Committee took steps to make the bridge a night time attraction by illuminating it with floodlights. “The Aerial Lift Bridge is the symbol of Duluth,” chairman John Grinden said. “We want to do everything possible to promote it to dramatize Duluth to tourists.” Once the proper permissions were secured, the architectural firm of Bean, Gilmore & Hill designed a scheme using the same system that illuminated Egypt’s Sphinx and the Palace of Versailles in France—twelve 1,000-watt mercury vapor lamps and luminaries mounted on eight poles.

The costs, estimated at $21,000 (over $180,000 in 2022 dollars) spurred the creation of a fundraising campaign. A one dollar donation meant membership in the “Aerial Bridge Club.” On Friday, November 11, the group had met its goal, collecting $21,000 from 10,000 donors.
On November 17 a crowd of thousands joined dignitaries to watch as state representative John A. Blatnik—who called the lights “a magnificent symbol of the rebirth of our area”—threw the switch to turn on the lights. It took time for the lamps to warm up to full power, but when they did they bathed the bridge in what the newspaper called a “radiant, silver-blue light.” The University of Minnesota Duluth marching band broke into

“Hey, Look Me Over” before the crowd joined in with the College of St. Scholastica choir to sing “God Bless America.”
But detractors pointed out that while the new lighting did make the bridge visible at night, with the bridge’s dark Essex green paint, the illumination did “little to make the span more attractive.” Grinden told newspapers he eventually wanted the bridge painted “aluminum” so that it would better reflect the light. The paint job, he suggested, could be paid for by money raised from bridge rides.

(From left) Bridge painters James Russel, Ralph Ruiz, and Thomas Sherman ham it up atop the aerial lift bridge in a photo probably taken by John Parent, the fourth member of their crew. (Image: Ryan Beamer)

As the 1960s came to a close, Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge was still sporting its coat of Essex green paint, so dark most considered it dreary. A letter to the editor published in the Duluth News Tribune on October 10, 1969, called the bridge’s condition “deplorable” and the bridge itself an “eyesore.” Paint was peeling and rust was clearly visible. Its writer wanted to know why the money coming in from bridge rides wasn’t used to maintain the bridge. That curious constituent had to wait another year before the city got serious about painting the bridge. After a false start—the city had grossly underestimated costs—the job was divided into three phases, as Duluth only had enough money for the first phase, surface preparation and spot painting. The other phases, an intermediate coat and a final coat, would have to be spread over a number of years. Much of the work was done by four young men who painted the bridge by hand using brushes: James Russel, Ralph Ruiz, Thomas Sherman, and John Parent, who did most of their work during the summer. The project was eventually finished in 1975, and for the first time since 1905 the bridge was not a shade of green, but a shiny silver.

In 1986 workers replaced the 1966 floodlights with thirty-two high-pressure sodium floodlights that bathed the bridge in a golden glow, paid for with a donation from Duluth’s Rotary Club. Temporary LED lights were used between 2008 and 2019. In 2020 new LED lights were installed on the bridge so that the icon can be illuminated in any of a number of colors in recognition, solidarity, or celebration of people, causes, and events.

Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge bathed in blue light for ovarian cancer awareness.[image: Dennis O’Hara]