As U.S. Steel announced plans to build a massive plant in what would become the Morgan Park neighborhood of Duluth in the early 1900s, there also was talk of building a new bridge across the St. Louis River in large part to serve that facility.
In February 1908, the News Tribune reported work on the bridge — approved by Congress — and the rest of the new rail line was set to begin.
“The bridge will have a draw span 300 feet long and a passageway 125 feet in the clear on each side of the center pier,” the News Tribune reported at the time. “… The bridge, which will be double-decked, will be provided with a double track for steam roads on the upper deck. The lower deck will have double tracks for electric railway cars and teams. Walks for pedestrians will be located on each side of the upper deck. It will be a free bridge for all time.”
The span would later become known as the Oliver Bridge, after the community on the Wisconsin side of the river — but at the time of its construction, Oliver did not yet formally exist; the structure often was referred to as the “steel plant bridge” or “Spirit Lake bridge” in early articles.
The News Tribune reported that rail traffic was moving across the bridge by late summer 1910, “making it possible to ship the great quantities of structural steel that will be required” to ramp up construction of the steel plant.”
But opening the bridge to other uses — namely, automobile traffic — became a controversy of sorts, entangled with plans to build a vehicle bridge (one that would not open for ship traffic) across the river farther upstream, at Fond du Lac.
In October 1915, the News Tribune reported that officials on the Duluth side agreed to “withdraw opposition to building a road to the steel plant bridge, and in return Superior will no longer oppose efforts to secure an act of Congress authorizing a bridge at Fond du Lac.”
In July 1917, a celebration of more than 1,000 people — “the first big ‘party’ that Oliver, as an independent village, has staged,” the newspaper reported — marked the opening of the bridge to vehicle traffic.
The bridge’s swing span opened mainly to allow passage of excursion boats — among them the Montauk and the Wayne — heading to and from picnic grounds in Fond du Lac. Minnesota Department of Transportation records indicate the span last opened in 1947; it would be six more years before the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railroad was given permission to stop having operators man the bridge around the clock.
The bridge has seen a number of major maintenance projects over the years; the lower deck was extensively renovated, with the old wood decking replaced by concrete, in 2001. Further maintenance and strengthening work was completed in 2016 and 2017 by the bridge’s current owner, Canadian National Railway.