Sneak Peek: The NP’s Grassy Point Bridge

The St. Paul & Duluth Railroad‘s 1887 St. Louis River Bridge, aka the “Grassy Point Bridge,” photographed ca. 1889. [Image: Zenith City Press]

West Duluth and West Superior were first connected in 1887 when the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad built the first incarnation of the St. Louis River Bridge—aka the Grassy Point Bridge—the second of eventually five mechanical swing-arm draw bridges (with a total of six draw spans) constructed over the St. Louis River between Superior Bay and New Duluth between 1885 and 1910. This week‘s sneak peek from our forthcoming book Twin Ports Trains: The Historic Railroads of Duluth & Superior 1870–1970 tells the history of both the first Grassy Point Bridge and today‘s “new” Grassy Point Bridge, built in 1912. Enjoy!

The St. Louis River Bridge, aka Grassy Point Bridge

As both Superior and West Superior boomed in the 1880s and plans for the Village of West Duluth began to develop, it became vital to connect Duluth and Superior with more than one railroad bridge. It would soon become even more vital to the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad, which had been paying the Northern Pacific about $50 a day for use of the St. Louis Bay Bridge, a fee that was about to increase to $300 a day. In 1886 the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota authorized the construction of a railroad bridge to cross St. Louis Bay at the shortest possible location. The following year the St. Paul & Duluth Short Line began construction of the St. Louis River bridge between Grassy Point in West Duluth to West Superior along a line adjacent to Superior’s Winter Street.

Even before it was built, newspapers began calling the span the Grassy Point Bridge, and its proposed construction had become somewhat controversial. That July U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota George N. Baxter filed suit against the railroad in U.S. District court to stop the span’s construction on the grounds that it would interfere with navigation on the river. The effort delayed the Secretary of War’s approval of the bridge plans. Approval came after plans were adjusted: the shipping lane would be dredged deeper, and a boom would be constructed on the bridge to contain any logs that failed to pass through the bridge on their way to Duluth Sawmills in the spring.

Construction stopped in the fall of 1887, with newspapers speculating the railroad was waiting for special legislation that would allow them to not build the boom, saving it $25,000 (worth nearly $850,000 today). Ultimately the boom was added, and the bridge was operational by June 1888. Also known as the Grassy Point Draw, the St. Louis River Bridge was originally built of iron and wood, and when its swing arm was opened, it provided 110-foot-wide navigational channels on either side of the bridge. The <Duluth Daily News> also reported that bridge included “a good wide sidewalk with a substantial railing” for pedestrian traffic. But it only sat four feet above the waterline.

The next month Baxter’s fears were realized: roughly 50 million board feet of logs sent downriver from above the river’s dalles had been caught by the boom and had become lodged west of the bridge on their way to sawmills in Duluth and Superior. The Cloquet Lumber Company constructed a derrick adjacent to the bridge that was used to pull logs from the river and load them onto rail cars.

When it was complete in 1888, the Northern Pacific began leasing the bridge, making it an integral part of the railroad’s Sixth Subdivision of its Lake Superior Division. After the NP absorbed the St.P&D in 1900, the bridge became NP property. In 1906, 150 feet of the span had to be rebuilt after sparks started a fire on the bridge. The conflagration began a discussion at NP to replace the bridge with an iron-and-steel bridge.

By 1909 the NP was ready to move forward, and chief engineer W. L. Dowling submitted plans to the government for a 1,660-foot double-tracked bridge with a 425-foot swing arm that sat twelve feet above the water.

The project was hastened after November 4, 1911, when the boiler house which produced steam to operate the bridge’s swing arm caught fire shortly before 2:30 a.m. The Duluth News Tribune reported that the engineer and his assistant fled the scene, as the fire spread quickly along the bridge’s “pine ties and greasy floor.” By the time the fire tug Sinclair was done fighting the conflagration, the bridge’s entire wooden substructure had burned, the iron swing span had warped from the heat, the machinery that moved the arm was destroyed, and the boiler sat on the bottom of the river. The railroad had the bridge open for river traffic within twenty-four hours.

The new bridge was operational by summer 1912. Built by the American Bridge Company, its navigational channels are both 175 feet wide—the same as those alongside the Minnesota and Wisconsin Draws. It was built alongside the 1888 bridge, which was then removed after the new span was complete. Four years later a second set of tracks was added, making the bridge double tracked. But unlike its predecessor, it had no pedestrian sidewalk. That omission was tough for West Duluthians to take, as they wanted the bridge to not only support pedestrian, but also horse-and-wagon and streetcar traffic. They and their counterparts in West Superior would have to wait for such conveniences until 1927 when the Arrowhead Bridge—a wooden toll drawbridge for automobiles—opened for business.

Today, the Grassy Point Bridge sees little railroad traffic, averaging just a few trains a day over just a single track on this otherwise double-tracked bridge. Today the Grassy Point Bridge is known for the curious collection of stuffed animals and other plush toys attached to it, a tradition started by bridge operator Rick McDonald and continued by others after his death in 2006.

The latest idea for the cover for Twin Ports Trains (like the book itself, it’s a work in progress…).