Duluth became the proud home to the United States’ first transporter bridge when construction on the Aerial Bridge, then a ferry bridge, was completed in 1905. It was later converted from a ferry bridge to the Aerial Lift Bridge in 1929. The bridge spans the Duluth Ship Canal which leads iron ore ships into the Twin Ports from Lake Superior, and connects the areas known today as Canal Park and Park Point.
Why Was it Built?: A Little Bit of History
Park Point, also known as Minnesota Point, is a neighborhood of Duluth that is separated from the city by the Duluth Ship Canal, which is an artificial canal that was dug in 1871. The creation of the canal made Park Point an island and cut its residents off from the rest of Duluth.
During the summer months, a ferry provided residents with the connection they needed to get on and off the island. However, when ice covered the canal during the winter months, the ferry became useless. A swinging foot bridge was built to allow pedestrians to cross the canal during the winter months, but the residents of Park Point felt it was too rickety and unsafe. So, the City of Duluth held a contest in 1892 to design a bridge that would connect the residents of Park Point year round. John Low Waddell won the contest with his design for a high-rise vertical lift bridge. Unfortunately, the War Department did not approve of the project and it was scrapped by the city.
Instead, inspired by a similar bridge in France, the ferry bridge was built in 1905 by architect Thomas McGillivray. With this design, a raised gondola moved between Park Point and the rest of Duluth. The gondola could hold up to 350 people, as well as wagons and automobiles, and took about 1 minute to cross the canal. It would cross the canal every five minutes. The bridge worked, and met the needs of the people on Park Point, until the increased number of automobiles and tourists to the area created the need for a more vehicle-friendly option that could transport a larger number of people in a shorter amount of time.
The company that would design the concept for the Aerial Lift Bridge, as we now know it, was owned by a descendant of John Low Waddell, the original bridge design contest winner. This design closely resembles Waddell’s original design and began in 1929. Construction was completed in 1930. This is the bridge you will now see in Canal Park.
The bridge now allows free movement via automobile between Canal Park and Park Point when the bridge is lowered. When a ship need to pass through the canal it is raised up to a full height of 135 feet, and traffic is stopped on either side. It takes about a minute for the bridge to lift and a minute to lower, and is done manually from a control room on the bridge itself. In 2016 a “once in a lifetime” opportunity became available when the City of Duluth had an opening for an Aerial Lift Bridge operator.
Where to See it and When to Visit:
The bride itself is hard to miss. As you drive into the city from the south you will descend a hill that gives you fabulous views of the Twin Ports and the Aerial Lift Bridge. You can enjoy sweeping 180-degree views from the Thompson Hill Information Center and Rest Area located at 8525 W Skyline Pkwy. This is where many famous photographs of the Duluth Harbor area have been taken. To get closer to the action, head down to Duluth’s Canal Park and the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, where you can view a lifting schedule and walk right up to the bridge itself on the pedestrian walkway that creates the wall of the canal. You can also view a schedule on the Canal Park website. For a chance to go under the bridge itself, book a sightseeing cruise with the Vista Fleet. The bridge lifts partially to allow the boats to go underneath. (Note: Not all of the Vista Fleet cruises go under the bridge, be sure to ask before booking!)
The Lake Superior shipping season typically runs from March until December. It is largely weather dependent and you won’t see as many ships coming and going from the Twin Ports earlier and later in the season. The best time to visit Canal Park and have the best odds of seeing the Aerial Lift Bridge in action is during the peak-shipping season from May through October.