June 17, 1935: Narrow miss for Lift Bridge

On this day in Duluth in 1935, the steamer Col. James M. Schoonmaker just missed striking Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge. The bridge’s lift span had stopped while it was just seventy-five feet above the water—about halfway down from its full 135 feet—after a circuit in the electric system shorted out. Operators quickly started the emergency engines and lifted clear of the steamer. But they had been lucky: because of ongoing dredging in the canal, the Schoonmaker was traveling slower than normal. If she had been moving at normal speed a collision would have been unavoidable. Rules were changed, requiring operators to raise the bridge while the vessel was much further out, in case the bridge became disabled in any way. The change allowed more time to either fix the problem or reverse the vessel. The city also purchased an electronic failure warning system. At 617 feet, the Schoonmaker was the largest freighter on the Great Lakes when launched in 1911, with a capacity of 14,000 tons of iron ore. She initially served bringing ore from Duluth to Ashtabula, Ohio, and would arrive in the Zenith City loaded with coal. From 1969 to 2011 the vessel was known as the Willis B. Boyer. In 1987 she became the property of the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, Ohio, and converted into a museum ship. In 2011 she was rechristened the Col. James M. Schoonmaker. While no one was injured during this event, the aerial bridge and the canal have both seen their share of tragedy, and you can read about them here and here.

The Col. James M. Schoonmaker. (Image: Great Lakes Vessel Index)