The First Aerial Lift Bridge

J. A. L. Waddell’s sketch for the first aerial lift bridge. [image: LSMC]

Dr. John A. L. Waddell (1854–1938) designed the world’s first aerial lift bridge to span the Duluth Ship Canal for the city’s 1892 contest (see pages 16–18). Waddell’s plans included a roadway for wagon traffic, a sidewalk for pedestrians, and two lines of heavy gauge rail to allow industrial trains to access Minnesota Point. Waddell knew his unique design was something special, and at it’s corner he placed viewing towers that could also serve as tea rooms. While Waddell’s design did not win the contest, Duluth officials consider it “the most suitable and economic structure as regards both construction and operation” and presented it to the U.S. Corps of Engineers for approval. But Corps officials considered the steam-powered contraption too likely to fail mechanically, potentially blocking canal traffic. Waddell’s plan idea was rejected for Duluth.

Dr. John A. L. Waddell. [Image: public Domain]

The Canadian-born civil engineer was undaunted. He brought his idea to Chicago, where in 1893 it was built to carry South Halsted Street over the Chicago River. It is known today as the South Halsted Street Bridge and remains in operation. Waddell eventually designed more than one hundred similar vertical lift bridges and other bridges, including the Columbia River Interstate Bridge, the Steel Bridge, and the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, Oregon; the Marine Parkway–Gil Hodges Bridge and Goethals Bridge in New York City; and the
Armour-Swift-Burlington Bridge spanning the Missouri River in Kansas City, Missouri. Waddell’s career included the plans for over a thousand bridges and other structures in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Russia, China, Japan, and New Zealand, and his designs established standards for elevated railroad systems.

One of the companies Waddell founded, Hardesty & Hanover, still works on moveable bridges today and in 1999 the firm was hired to overhaul Duluth’s lift bridge. And one of Waddell’s former colleagues, John Harrington, designed the plans to convert Duluth’s transfer bridge into a lift bridge in 1929. The partnership of Waddell & Harrington evolved into HNTB of Kansas City, which still builds bridges today.
Waddell’s first lift bridge stood until 1934 when it was replaced by a pony truss bascule bridge, commonly reffered to as a drawbridge. Waddell’s original 1891 linen plans for his bridge are on display in a meeting room in Duluth’s city hall.

A colorized lithograph made from a photograph of Chicago’s South Halsted Street Bridge ca. 1894. [image: Public Domain]