What So Special About Duluth’s Aerial Bridge?

By the time Duluth’s aerial bridge was converted from a transfer bridge to a lift bridge in 1930, there were hundreds of similar vertical lift bridges operating across the globe, and about 230 are still working today. It certainly isn’t the biggest: The 1959 The Arthur Kill Vertical Lift Bridge in Staten Island, New York, has longest road span (558 feet) and is 215 feet tall, about 75 feet taller than Duluth’s bridge. So what makes Duluth’s bridge so special?

Duluth’s famous span was not, as many people believe, the planet’s the first aerial transporter bridge—it was the sixth (see page 26). It was, however, the first such bridge in built in North America and the western hemisphere. It was also the first stiff-girded transfer bridge ever built, and the first to use an overhead pulley system for propulsion.

A 1928 etching of the aerial bridge by artist Louis Orr. [image: MHS]

Because Duluth’s transfer bridge was transformed into its lift bridge, it immediately became special: One of only three lift bridges to include a top span, which is unnecessary for the bridge’s operations. It was retained to carry communication lines, electricity, natural gas, and fresh water to Park Point. The first lift bridge with a top span was the 1893 South Halsted Street Bridge, also the world’s first vertical lift bridge.), but it is unclear why a top span was included in the design. The other is the 1913 Murray Morgan Bridge in Tacoma, Washington, which uses an overhead span to carry a water pipe across the Thea Foss Waterway.

Duluth’s unique bridge became an icon of the Zenith City almost before it first began operating in 1905. As the first transfer bridge built in the western hemisphere, and the first steel-truss bridge of its kind, Duluth’s bridge immediately gained a national reputation. It was a must-see for visitors, and local retailers found an eager market for items decorated with images of the bridge, including fine China pitchers, vases, serving plates, lace plates, salt-and-pepper cellars, and cup-and-saucer sets. They printed the bridge on postcards and letterheads; stamped or embossed it on metal napkin rings, penholders, letter openers, spoons, and cigar boxes; and engraved it on silver spoons and gold lockets. Meanwhile, Duluth school children made clay models of the bridge, and grown men created scale replicas. You’ll find one on display between the Suites Hotel and Hoops Brewing in Canal Park’s Meierhoff Building.

Duluth’s famous span lost none of its charm after its conversion to a lift bridge, and today its image appears on dozens of corporate and organizational logos, including the city’s and that of its police department. Duluth’s shops in the Canal Park Business District carry all sorts of bridge-related items, from t-shirts to bridge-shaped chocolate. Artists have celebrated the bridge in myriad forms, from painting to poem to song. The covers of dozens of books—including the one in your hands—have featured the aerial bridge. And today you can watch the bridge lifting and lowering live from anywhere by visiting the Duluth Harbor Cam.

One of the many postcards of Duluth’s Aerial Bridge made since 1905. [Image: Zenith City Press]