The Aerial Transfer Bridge Opens

The Duluth Aerial Transfer Bridge photographed April 5, 1905, photographer unknown. [image: UMD Martin Library]

Five thousand people showed up at the canal on Sunday, March 26, 1905, hoping to ride the new bridge. Instead, they found disappointment: Modern Structural Steel officials did not want to open the bridge because of the potential crowd size as any minor problems in the operation might cause “unfavorable comment” and perhaps even raise fears among “many by whom the new bridge is viewed with distrust.” A good thing, it turned out: That day the power cables feeding the electric motors broke.

Shortly before 6 p.m. on Monday, March 27, with forty people aboard and Gus Rakowsky of MSS at the controls, “the ferry car commenced regular trips,” making runs every five or ten minutes. The next day a Duluth News Tribune headline screamed “Aerial Car Crosses in Teeth of Howling Gale,” reporting that the bridge operated “without a hitch” despite gale-force winds. Early trips contained an average of twenty to thirty passengers, but by the end of the evening people were crossing in twos or threes. Winds picked up, and by 9 p.m. it had “the force of a hurricane” as it “shrieked through the trusses,” and in the squall the canal was “a most disagreeable and dismal place.”

The reporter then joined Rakowsky for a trip across in the thick of the storm, the car operating so smoothly its start was “hardly perceptible.” Nearly halfway across the canal the ferry’s nearly silent operation was shattered by the sound of broken glass: the wind had broken two windows on the windward side. Once the ferry reached the other side, Rakowsky nailed the empty window frames back in place. Rakowsky later reminded the reporter that “Duluth is the only place that can boast of such an [sic] equipment.”

Two days later Charles L. Major Potter of the Corps of Engineers provided the city with a list of regulations for operating the bridge—since it stood on federal property under the Corps’ jurisdiction, it was up to the Corps to say when it could and could not operate. Safety was obviously a major concern, and ship traffic would always have the right of way.

While the bridge operated smoothly in the teeth of a gale during its first day, the second day found the car taking rather bumpy rides, but the MSS team had the bridge running by the following Sunday. April saw more delays as the bridge underwent more finishing touches. The car closed to passenger service for several days as workers stretched a phone cable across the bridge to provide service to Park Point and finished painting the car, according to the paper, in a “very handsome red birch finish.” By May 1 the aerial bridge was operating flawlessly.
April 7 also saw what was likely the first boat to pass beneath the bridge entering the canal from the lakeward side. The Bon Ami, a 108-foot wooden steamer, had set out for Port Wing and Herbster, fishing towns along the Wisconsin South Shore of Lake Superior. The ice forced her back to Duluth, and she entered the harbor’s safety through the canal, and therefore under the bridge. Not until April 20 did the E. N. Saunders come in off the lake to become the first vessel to navigate from Sault Ste. Marie to Duluth and enter through the canal and under the bridge

Passengers depart the Duluth Aerial Transfer Bridge ca. 1905. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

On April 8, a bright, sunny Sunday—and the first weekend day the bridge was open to the public—the city wanted to find out if the bridge could operate to capacity, by one estimate fifty thousand people a day. The car had been averaging about two hundred people a trip during busy weekday hours, the paper said, adding that “five hundred people on a trip is no crowd for that car.” One trip at 3:30 p.m. that Sunday carried 814 passengers—an estimated fifty-five tons of human cargo. The engineers counted 32,595 people boarding the car in one twelve hour and twenty minute span. So many people ventured across the canal that day that during its peak period, between 3 and 4 p.m., South Lake Avenue was clogged with people from the canal north to Superior Street—half on their way to the bridge, half on their way back. So many people rode the ferry bridge that day the paper reported that, “the deck flooring was worn smooth.”

That record-setting day also saw the first automobile to cross the canal—which, subsequently, also became the first car to drive on Park Point. The car, an electric Studebaker-Stanhope, was owned and driven by Edward J. Filiatrault. On his return trip Filiatrault handed the bridge operator his calling card so his accomplishment would be remembered. It also may have been a sales gimmick: Filiatrault owned Duluth’s first car dealership.

The newspaper also mentioned that “baby cabs were sprinkled among all the loads throughout the day, many of them being in the care of mothers who had no hesitancy in boarding the ferry with the little ones.” In fact, only once did anyone balk at crossing, when two young women waiting to board “quailed when they saw the singular car approach” and turned back toward
South Lake Avenue. Still, crowd estimators guessed that children made up a third of those who crossed the bridge that day—and that perhaps twenty-five percent of Duluth’s population crossed the canal that day.
Like the two frightened young ladies, not everyone thought of the bridge as an improvement. At least one man, describing the bridge in a postcard bearing its image, implied that he missed the adventure of crossing in a boat, writing of the bridge: “Quicker and safer, but not nearly as much fun as crossing on the old ferry.”

The bridge and Rear Range Light photographed in 1905. [image: LOC

A handful of local boys thought the bridge was much more fun. On April 28 the Duluth News Tribune reported that “half a dozen boys of various ages” dodged the bridge operator, climbed on the girders below decks of the ferry car and rode the ferry clinging by their fingers just thirteen feet above the water. Alone at the controls, Adrian could do nothing to stop them. If they had lost their grip, the boys would certainly have drowned in the canal’s currents.

On May 5, 1905, the City officially took possession of the bridge, placing it under the jurisdiction of the Board of Public Works. In June workers installed lightning arrestors—the spires that rise from the corners of the bridge’s towers. But soon after the City took possession, the bridge stopped operating smoothly. Several of the wheels inside the truck had broken. Inspectors discovered that the truck system that the girders holding the ferry car rode on had been engineered too rigidly. MSS was called back and made repeated attempts to remodel the old truck system. But it was still not operating properly in October, when Mayor Cullum wrote the Common Council that “it cannot be said . . . that their six months’ trial has been entirely successful.” He urged the Council to “consider these matters in their financial settlement with the Bridge Company” and, if the City Attorney advised, delay final payment to the company until they fully resolved the issue. As the year ended, MSS was still hard at work on the problem.