The Historic Bridges of Duluth, Minnesota

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Ariel Lift Bridge taken at sundown. Photo shot in 2009.

When I mention to my students of English that I originate from the State of Minnesota, the first question that mainly comes to mind is: Where is it? The second: What does it have to offer, apart from professional sports teams, like the Vikings (NFL), Timberwolves (NBA), Wild (NHL), Lynx (WNBA), Loons (MLS), Gophers (NCAA) and Twins (MLB)?

Well, the second question is easy to answer: Minnesota has a lot to offer year round- from fishing to ice carneavals, farming to multi-cultural activities in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul), snowmobiling to chit-chatting with a genuine Minnesotan dialect:

For the first, one has to include a little geography, using Niagra Falls as our starting point, between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Ah yes, Niagra Falls is one of the seven wonders that German tourists most often visit while in the US. As the northern half of the US consists of the Great Lakes Region, most of which straddles the border between the States and Canada, the city on the westernmost end of the region is almost opposite of Niagra Falls by over 2,000 miles. That port, located at the tip of Lake Superior, is Duluth. With over 86,200 inhabitants, Duluth is the third largest city in Minnesota, and combining it with Superior and other cities within a radius of 30 miles, the metropolitan area has 280,000 inhabitants, making it the second largest metropolitan area in the state. Founded in 1857, the city prides itself in its shipping and has several places of interest, whether it is a city zoo, a state park, historic city center, ….

…or even its bridges. 🙂

Since the 1870s, Duluth has been bridged with crossings made of wood and later iron and steel, connecting the city with neighboring Superior and providing access between the mountainous areas on the Minnesota side and the farmlands of Wisconsin, enroute to major cities to the east, such as Chicago, Cleveland and even New York. As the city was bustling with traffic on land and water, the first crossings were movable bridges, featuring bascule and swing bridges, but also a transporter bridge which later became a vertical lift bridge. That bridge, the Aerial Lift Bridge, has become the symbol of Duluth, making it the gateway between land and the deep blue sea. Together with the Slip Drawbridge and the Grassy Point Bridge, the Aerial Lift Bridge is the only movable bridge still functioning today, as it lifts its center span for boats to pass. The Slip Bridge is 26 years old and is sparsely used for smaller boats along the canal, which connects the port area with its business district. The Bong and Blatnik Bridges are two of the longest bridges in Duluth and in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, replacing their predecessors in the movable bridges that had served rail and vehicular traffic. The Grassy Point bridge is the only swing bridge still in use and one of two key railroad crossings that cross the border. A pair of arch bridges dated back to the 1930s used to serve rail traffic going westward, yet they are now part of a rail-to-trail consortium that provides recreation to the parks located to the west.

I first came across the bridges in Duluth during a visit with a few friends in 2009, having spent a vast amount of time at the Aerial Lift Bridge, watching the span raise for boats lining up to pass. With its beautiful amber color at night, one cannot miss this icon when visiting Duluth. Further research was conducted by two key sources: John Weeks III and the newspaper people at the Duluth Tribune, the latter of which had dug up substantial research and photos of some of the most important movable bridges that had served both Duluth and Superior before being replaced by the fixed spans. Combining that with additional research done by another pontist, John Marvig, it was the best decision to put together a tour guide on Duluth’s (historic) bridges, both past and present. Unlike the previous tour guides, this one features a bridge with links that will take you to the pieces written by the Tribune and Weeks, while some bridges feature photos and facts provided by Marvig and Weeks. A map with the location of the bridges is provided in the guide to give you an idea where these bridges are located.

Use this guide and you will have a chance to visit and photograph the bridges that still makes Duluth a key port for transportation, looking at their history and their role in shaping the city’s infrastructure- and that of the US and beyond.

Links to the Bridges:

Aerial Lift Bridge: History as a Vertical Lift Bridge and as a Transporter Bridge

Interstate Bridge:   History and Ghost Stories

St. Louis Bay Bridge (extant): History  and its predecessor

Arrowhead Bridge (extant): History and Photos

Grassy Point Railroad Bridge: History and Facts

Minnesota Slip Drawbridge: History

Oliver Double-Decker Bridge: History and Facts

Richard Bong Memorial Bridge: History and Facts

John Blatnik Memorial Bridge: History and Facts

Superior Hiking Trail Bridge: Facts

Lester River Bridge: Facts

Zoo Arch Bridge: Facts

Stewart Creek Viaduct: Facts

Kingsbury Creek Bridge: Facts

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