The construction of the Duluth ship canal in 1871 may have opened a new route into the Duluth-Superior harbor — but it also cut off land access to the vibrant community on Park Point.
Rowboats and ferries — and several temporary rope-and-plank suspension bridges — were used to bridge the gap. By the 1890s, the city was actively looking at options for a permanent bridge — or tunnel — to link the two sides of the canal.
The tunnel option received a lot of attention early on, as federal officials and other interests opposed the idea of a bridge. In 1893, the News Tribune reported that the city had awarded a $1,000 prize to a Pennsylvania man for his tunnel plan — twin tubes, one for rail cars and one for other traffic, with a small pedestrian passageway in between, to be sunk 26 feet beneath the water in the canal.
But by May 1900, the city was entertaining ideas to build a bridge using a design that had been proven successful in Europe — “a steel pier on each side of the canal, 192 feet in height,” the News Tribune reported. “Between these piers and about 175 feet above the water is a suspension bridge, on the under side of which is a horizontal tramway … high enough above the water to allow (the) highest-rigged vessels on the lakes to pass under. From the tramway is suspended on steel cables a car that reaches within about eight feet of the water. The car is to be large enough to carry vehicles and passengers. It rolls along the under side of the tramway, the motive power coming from an electric motor on the bank.”
That’s along the lines of what would be built, as the city received notice on Sept. 9, 1901, that federal officials had finally signed off on the bridge plan (at the time, the nation was in shock over the shooting of President William McKinley, who would die several days later).
Duluth City Architect Thomas F. McGilvray is credited with the basic design of the Duluth Aerial Ferry Bridge; Minneapolis engineer C.A.P. Turner, a former Duluth resident, received a patent for the final design.
Construction continued for several years; there was a temporary halt when the Duluth Canal Bridge Co. defaulted in 1902.
In February 1904, city officials signed the final contract for bridge construction with Modern Steel Structural Co., of Waukesha, Wis. The bridge was constructed with 700 tons of steel and 100,000 rivets.
At that time, city engineer W.C. Patton wrote a piece about the bridge in the News Tribune, stating that “architectural beauty has been a leading consideration in the plans which we have drawn for it. Of all the many things of interest in this city which the residents may proudly show to visitors next to the lake itself, this will be the most wonderful.”
On Feb. 23, 1905, a contingent of city dignitaries, including Mayor Marcus Cullum, took part in the gondola’s first trip across the canal. The bridge’s final cost was $111,699.70, equivalent to nearly $3 million today.
The Aerial Ferry Bridge was put into service for the public at 6 p.m. on March 27, 1905, in the “teeth of a howling gale,” the next day’s News Tribune reported. About 40 people braved the blustery evening to make the first public crossing.
Rides on the bridge’s transfer car, or gondola car, cost 5 cents. The car traveled 4 mph and took about 70 seconds to cross the canal. The trip initially was made every 10, 20 or 30 minutes, depending on time of day and ridership demand.
There were some complaints from city officials in the first year due to breakdowns that required temporary ferry service to be implemented. But by February 1907 those problems had been fixed — the tracks had been out of alignment, the News Tribune reported — and the bridge was reported to have not missed a scheduled trip across the canal in the previous year. Making six to eight trips an hour, the bridge carried about 2,500,000 passengers in the previous 12 months, the paper reported — with more than 30,000 passengers in a single day on several occasions.
In November 1921, the gondola — with about 50 passengers aboard — stalled partway across the canal as the steamer Joshua Rhodes approached. The steamer passed through the canal with about 50 feet to spare from the stalled gondola.
With increased use — and with the gondola unable to meet demand — city leaders decided to convert the ferry bridge to a lift design.
The Aerial Ferry Bridge carried its last carload of passengers at 8:45 a.m. on July 1, 1929; the tugboat Ellen D. carried passengers across the Duluth ship canal as the Aerial Lift Bridge was built.
On Oct. 29, 1929 (the same day as the Wall Street stock market crash), an estimated 5,000 Duluth residents turned out to watch the new Aerial Lift Bridge’s first lift. The 900-ton, 386-foot-long concrete road span rose 42 feet with the help of two 450-ton counterweights, sheaves and four 95-hp electric motors.
Work continued over the winter, with the lift bridge declared operational in March 1930.
The bridge welcomed the first “saltie” to Duluth when the modern St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959. It was lit at night in 1966 after a community fundraiser (contributors received cards good for rides on the lifting bridge), and in 1970 the bridge was painted silver, covering its original Essex green. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Ongoing maintenance work over the years included major renovations in 1985, with the installation of new lift motors, a new operator’s control house and replacement of cables.
In 2005, the city celebrated the Aerial Lift Bridge’s centennial. It remains an iconic landmark in Duluth today, and continues to raise and lower for boats large and small.
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