September 16, 1946: Harold Bilsey’s first of many, many bridge lifts

On this day in Duluth in 1946, Harold Bilsey took the controls of the Aerial Lift Bridge for the very first time. He would preside over countless raisings and lowerings until his retirement in 1976, which marked thirty years serving Duluth’s most iconic landmark. When Bob Brown, bridge supervisor since 1968, retired in 1974, Bilsey took over as bridge boss. He held the top job for just two years before retiring and passing the baton to Richard Lyons, another member of the class of ’46. (Bilsey may have been chosen as supervisor first because had fifteen days more seniority than Lyons; in the end, Lyons put in twenty-three months and fifteen days more that his work companion of over thirty years). Bilsey grew up in West Duluth and graduated from Denfeld High School in 1931. His father owned Bilsey Grocery in West Duluth, and when he died in 1925, Bilsey and his stepbrothers and mother were left to run the store; young Harold learned how to cut meat. In World War II he signed on with the Navy and served two years aboard the USS Iowa. He returned to Duluth with a taste for the sea, and after a brief stint with Coolerator took a job that allowed him to stay in close contact with ships and ore boats. The skills he learned in his father’s grocery never left him; even after he took the job as bridge operator, Bilsey moonlighted as a butcher. Bilsey and his wife Clara raised two daughters in Duluth. After he retired in 1976 they moved to Apple Valley, Minnesota, to be closer to their daughter Barbara and her children. He died in December, 2003. Read about all of the Duluth Aerial Bridge’s supervisors here.

Long-time DUluth Aerial Lift Bridge operator and supervisor Harold Bilsey. (Image: Zenith City Press)