The Transfer Bridge Becomes a Lift Bridge

The top span of Duluth’s aerial bridge is raised into place as the transfer bridge became a lift bridge, October 29, 1929. (Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

Work converting Duluth’s transfer bridge into a vertical lift bridge began on March 25, 1929, when the Kansas City Bridge Company started excavating the bridge’s foundations before building replacements capable of carrying the lift span’s extra weight. They first tore up the approaches, ending car and wagon service. Pedestrian traffic, accommodated by a gangplank ramp, continued until the gondola car’s final crossing on July 1. As operator James Murry stepped off the bridge, the KCBC crew immediately climbed aboard and began dismantling the ferry car.

By August 10 the gondola was gone, along with the hangers that suspended it from the bridge’s upper truss. Workers next erected wooden scaffolding to bolster the bridge when its top span was ultimately separated from the original tower. (While the top span was not necessary for a lift bridge’s operation, it was retained to carry telephone, electricity, gas, and water lines to Park Point.) Workers then erected another set of taller towers within the framework of the 1904 towers; the top span would rest atop the new towers, forty-one feet higher than the originals, so that when the roadway span raised it allowed a clearance of 135 feet for passing vessels. The new towers would also carry the massive sheaves and counterweights that raised and lowered the road span.

A progression of photos showing the Duluth Aerial bridge undergoing its transformation from a transfer bridge to a lift bridge. (Click to see a larger image)
[images: LSMC and Larry Lyons]

A crowd estimated at five thousand gathered near the bridge on the morning of October 19 to watch as the KCBC team, armed with acetylene torches, cut straps and rivets, freeing the bridge’s 410-ton overhead truss. They then began to slowly raise the top span into its new position, winching it into place by 10:30 a.m. The crowd was never bored. A seaplane pilot flew his plane under the bridge as the span was being raised, and at least one steel worker mugged it up for the crowd, at one point standing on his head atop the bridge’s tallest point, kicking his feet in the air.

With the top span in place, workers installed supports connecting it to the original towers. While one team began installing the bridge’s mechanical works—sheaves, counterweights, cables, and a combination machinery room and pilot house—two others began assembling the road span’s framework. Working from each end of the bridge, the teams assembled the framework in sections. The work took time: It wasn’t until January 6, 1930, that the framework was lowered into place at street level, ready for the installation of its nine-hundred-ton roadway.

At 8 a.m. on January 12, 1930, the first automobiles traveled over the road span, marking the start of the bridge’s new life as a lift bridge (the driver of the first car was never identified). The first streetcar over the canal began its journey at 5:28 a.m. on March 12. About a week’s worth of minor details still had to be worked through, and the bridge still needed a coat of paint. Otherwise, it was complete. To celebrate the bridge’s opening, the Park Point Community Club held a banquet and a dance.

Numerous inspections and test lifts continued until March 29, 1930, when the Corps of Engineers tug USS Essayons passed outbound to officially test the bridge’s readiness, becoming the first vessel to pass beneath the completed bridge. The first big carrier to pass beneath the bridge, the F. E. Taplin, did so on April 24. Meanwhile, the City Council adopted an extensive set of rules for the bridge’s safe operation: Pedestrian rides were strictly forbidden, and violating any rules was punishable by a fine of up to $100 or eighty-five days in jail. On June 5, 1930, Duluth took possession of its aerial lift bridge. That summer it was painted Essex Green, a color so dark it often looked black.

A hand-colorized photo made in 1930 showing the bridge under-going conversion; the green portion is the 1905 bridge’s framework, while the 1929 towers and supports are shown as silver. [image: UMDMLSCA]