The Struggle to Construct Duluth’s Aerial Bridge

This drawing of Cap Turner’s plans appeared in Engineer News magazine in 1901.[image: JJHL]

After endless rejections, the city gave up on its dream of a bridge that would allow railroads access to Minnesota Point, so a canal bridge no longer needed railroad tracks or contiguous access. Thomas McGilvray’s idea for a transfer bridge was less expensive than any previously proposed, likely $100,000. But a great deal had to be done before workers hammered a single rivet. The plan required the approval of the Lake Carriers Association and permission from Congress and the Secretary of War to build a bridge on and over government property. The city also had to find a contractor to build the bridge and come up with the financing to construct, maintain, and operate it.

In late 1900 the city established the Canal Bridge Commission to move things forward. The group enjoyed early success when the Lake Carrier’s Association gave its approval in January, 1901. In February the Commission placed ads in the Engineering Record requesting construction bids by March 25. Meanwhile, city attorney Oscar Mitchell prepared a draft bill for Congress that would grant permission for Duluth to build the bridge. Mitchell sent the draft to Secretary of War Elihu Root, who explained that since the canal was wholly within the state of Minnesota, if state law allowed the bridge, the federal government could then pass legislation permitting the bridge. In March Duluth put just such a bill before the state legislature. It passed.

This drawing of CAP Turner’s plans appeared in Engineering Record in 1901 along with a request for bids. [image: Zenith City Press]

The city received just one bid, from the Minneapolis branch of the American Bridge Company (ABC). Their price, $140,000, was $40,000 more than the City had expected. Still, it was a sum the city’s engineers considered reasonable. Still, the city resolved to enter a contract with ABC, contingent on both Patton’s the federal government’s approval. Claude Allen Porter “CAP” Turner, who had created ABC’s submitted plans for the bridge based on McGilvray’s sketches, was put in charge of the project.

In early September Acting Secretary of War G. L. Gillespie granted a permit to Duluth to build the bridge and occupy government property during construction, but first a bill before Congress to allow the city to permanently occupy the bridge site must pass in the next session or the license would be revoked. Better news: The bill’s passage looked clear—Duluth could begin building by February 1902. Mayor Hugo jumped into action, asking ABC to begin building straight away. But the firm’s new parent company, United States Steel, wouldn’t allow the contract’s installment payment plan. So the directors of ABC created the Duluth Canal Bridge Company (DCBC). Essentially a shadow company, DCBC would handle financing through the sale of bonds and subcontract the structural construction to ABC. A new contract with DCBC called for the bridge to be complete by April 1, 1902, barring any unforeseen delays; if delayed, the DCBC had until May 1, 1903, to finish.

Congress approved the revocable license in early February and by the end of the month the bridge’s foundations were in place. But DCBC declared it could not secure the steel it needed until March, 1903, two months before the deadline. The rest of the year tensions rose between the company and the city. Ultimately the city decided to wait until DCBC ultimately defaulted on the contract in May 1903 and move forward thereafter. And so they did, advertising for fresh bids shortly after the deadline.

Eager to have the bridge built according to his plans, Turner left ABC to create his own firm. he then began courting every bridge-building outfit he knew of until finally convincing the Modern Steel Structural Co. (MSS) of Waukesha, Wisconsin, to submit the one and only bid the city received that was based on Turner’s plans. Due to some legal wrangling caused by the DBCB’s previous contract, the city was forced to reopen bids, although it had already decided to contract with MSS. The financing agreement outlined the terms: Duluth would spend $100,000 for the bridge, paying for it in annual instalments; with interest, the bridge—expected to operate for twenty-five years—would ultimately cost the city $140,000. Turner then sold his plans to MSS in a deal that kept him on the project as a consultant. Still, by the end of 1903, the city had foundations, but no bridge. The “Ferry Bridge” portion of Patton’s 1903 annual report begins, “This much desired project has passed through another year of vexatious delay.”