The History Of The Interstate Bridge

The Interstate Bridge is seen from the soon-to-be-open Blatnik Bridge, circa 1961. (News Tribune file photo)

The first two bridges to link Duluth and Superior — the St. Louis Bay and Grassy Point bridges — provided a path for trains to cross between the two cities. A temporary bridge provided a seasonal streetcar link. But into the 1890s, the communities still relied on ferries to carry pedestrians most of the year.

Amid ongoing discussions, in October 1893, representatives from Duluth and Superior, along with the Lake Carriers’ Association, endorsed a plan for a “combination bridge” — carrying multiple forms of traffic — between Rice’s Point in Duluth and Connors Point in Superior.

On July 13, 1897, the span — referred to as the Duluth-Superior Bridge — officially was opened to the public. The next day’s Duluth News Tribune reported on the gathering of several thousand people on the bridge for the “steel wedding” of Duluth and Superior.

“Henceforth Duluth and Superior will ride tandem,” the paper reported. “The cry of the boatman, ‘Wait till the boat lands,’ is now a memory. … That some time a bridge should span the waters of the ‘gate’ and connect the two head of the lakes cities has been the dream of their people for years. They knew that some day it would be realized and now the bridge is there, an ornament to the head of the lakes and a monument to the enterprise of its promoters.”

Opening of the Interstate Bridge in 1897 connecting Duluth and Superior. (News Tribune file photo)

“When it was first placed in operation the bridge welcomed pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles and carried two railroad tracks and a streetcar line,” historians Tony Dierckins and Maryanne Norton wrote in the 2012 book “Lost Duluth.” “Everyone paid a toll: five cents for pedestrians and bicycles, 15 cents for wagons, and a dime for each head of cattle.”

The bridge, later to be known as the Interstate Bridge, featured a swing span in the middle to allow ships to pass.

Most ships, that is. At about 1 a.m. on Aug. 11, 1906, the steamer Troy crashed into the swing span of the Interstate Bridge as it was opening, sending part of the span into the water and blocking ship traffic. The News Tribune reported that the captain of the Troy claimed that bridge operators had a reputation for cutting things close when opening the span for ships, and that by the time he realized something was wrong that night, it was too late to avoid a collision. He also suggested the bridge tender may have been asleep.

Representatives from the Great Northern Railway, which owned the bridge, disputed that. They backed their employee — who narrowly escaped with his life — and countered that streetcar riders and operators had been complaining that the bridge tenders allowed too much advance time when opening for passing vessels. They also faulted the Troy for heading back to its dock after the collision without checking the water for possible victims.

While the shipping channel was cleared of debris relatively quickly, it took more than two years for the bridge to be returned to service, with the News Tribune reporting that streetcars resumed regular operation across the bridge on Sept. 27, 1908. (The bridge was hit at least one more time, by the freighter Robert L. Ireland in 1956.)

Ralph Barton of Superior worked on the old Great Northern bridge (the Interstate Bridge) as a toll collector for 5 1/2 years. This photo dates to near the close of the bridge in 1961. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

Route maps, news stories and old aerial photos show that streetcars that traversed the Interstate also crossed a separate swing span across Howards Bay in Superior — the Lamborn Avenue Bridge — about which few details are known, and of which few traces remain today.

The rise in vehicle traffic meant the Interstate’s days were numbered, as city and state officials started planning for a replacement bridge. That bridge — what is now known as the Blatnik Bridge — opened on Dec. 2, 1961. On the same day, the Interstate Bridge closed to vehicle traffic. It was demolished in 1972 — except for a portion on the Duluth side which was preserved as a fishing pier and stands today in the shadow of the big bridge that replaced it.

Here are a few more photos:

The center span of the Interstate Bridge tilts below its replacement, the Blatnik Bridge, as the old span is removed on Oct. 8, 1971. (Duluth Herald file photo)
This aerial view from 1964, with Superior to the left and Duluth to the right, shows three bridges spanning the harbor. At top is the St. Louis Bay Bridge. In the middle is the Blatnik Bridge, or high bridge. At the bottom is the Interstate Bridge. (Earl Johnson / News-Tribune)
Interstate Bridge at the time its center span was being removed, Oct. 9, 1971. (News-Tribune file photo)
A ship, pulled by the tug Louisiana, passes through the open Interstate Bridge, circa mid- to late 1960s. (News-Tribune file photo)
The Blatnik Bridge, with the remaining section of the Interstate Bridge in the right foreground, August 2016. Steve Kuchera / News Tribune
Using a walking stick he fashioned from diamond willow, Mick Bjorkland of Duluth takes a stroll along the old Interstate Bridge, now a fishing pier, on Rice’s Point in October 2016. Bob King / News Tribune

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