The Team That Operates the Aerial Lift Bridge
The iconic Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge in Canal Park is one of the most memorable attractions Duluth has to offer. Thousands of tourists and Duluthians pass by this bridge each year in awe of its operations and beauty. In 2019, 9,581 boats came in and out of the harbor, utilizing the Aerial Lift Bridge as an access point. All types of boats, from sailboats to foreign ships to gas boats, rely on this access point, as well as the bridge, to be able to execute their schedules of planned drop-offs and pickups of trade goods. Overall, the Aerial Lift Bridge is important to many people. However, very few know what it takes to keep this bridge running smoothly 24/7 or who even operates it. We wondered the same thing. So, to find out more about the Aerial Lift Bridge, its operations, and its operators, we interviewed one of the few individuals who operate it for a living.
We were fortunate enough to interview David Campbell, the supervisor of the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge. David is originally from St. Paul, moved to Duluth around 15 years ago, and worked at the paper mill in Cloquet for 18 years. After some period, David decided it was time for a change of pace. So, he took a chance and applied to be an operator at the Aerial Lift Bridge. He has now been working there for eight years and has never looked back.
To get the full idea of the history of the bridge, how it operates, and what his job entails, we asked him a variety of questions to learn more!
Can you give us an overview of the Aerial Lift Bridge, its history, and design?
David had a lot of fascinating information to tell us about the bridge’s history and design. Little did we know that the original bridge was a gondola, transporter type bridge built in the year 1905. Then in 1929, they decided to remodel and started building the bridge that you see there today. One year later, in 1930, they reopened the bridge to traffic. David explained more in-depth about the transformation of the bridge from what it was to what it is now:
What they did during the remodel was re-lift the upper span of the bridge to allow room for the lifting parts to go up high enough, so technically there is a bridge inside of a bridge. The original outer structure of the 1905 bridge is still there, but to support the weight, they built an additional structure inside of it.
A bridge inside another bridge? I do not know about you, but that detail was a surprise to us!
Can you give us an overview of the process behind the aerial lift bridge lifting?
David began explaining the process by stating:
Let’s take a boat that is coming in from the lake. The boat operators will make the security calls, when they are about an hour away, to the port general as well as us to let us know they are coming. Then what we do is tell them to call us again when they are about 1 ½ mile away. When they call us and reach that point, we will start to lift.
Furthermore, we learned that the operators begin lifting the bridge when the boat is further away because it is not easy to stop or turn a large boat around once it is moving. This procedure also ensures that if the bridge does, for some reason, have complications lifting or underlying issues, they can notify the incoming boat and allow them to turn off course if needed. Through the whole process of raising and lowering the bridge, it takes about 15 minutes in total.”
The pilothouse, where the operator on duty works, is about 16 feet up from the road. On a clear day, you can see 12 miles out on to Lake Superior from the pilothouse. For example, a boat reaching close to a length of 1,000 feet can be seen just over the horizon at that 12-mile point, which is also a signal to the operator that the boat is about one hour away. The bridge is not locked down, so whenever a large vehicle passes or there is a strong wind, the bridge, and the pilothouse will shake and rock from time to time. David says that when a large boat comes into the harbor the best view is from the piers and not from their location on the bridge. From the pilothouse, they only get to see the top of the ship, where the individuals on the pier get to view the boat and its entire length.
What are some tasks you and the other operators do daily?
There are in total 6 operators for the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge. The bridge is manned with one operator at a time, 24 hours a day. With there being only one operator on duty at a time, they must always be on alert, ready for anything involving the bridge. David explained to us in detail the usual workday of an operator:
Our time is pretty much full of trying to wrangle all the people, boats, and cars. It is very stressful for the operators because, in general, we know what the boats are going to do and what the cars are going to do. What we do not know is what the pedestrians are going to do. It is also stressful because we are lifting 1,000 tons that someone could walk up and touch. Every time we lift the bridge, we do not know what people are going to do. Generally, most of the time, people are good about it and leave the bridge when needed. The bridge moves faster than people think, lifting 120 feet in just about 3 minutes.
What is the most difficult part of your job?
As stated previously, the Aerial Lift Bridge Operators deal with a variety of factors while doing their jobs. From boats to cars to people, they deal with them all. When I asked David what the most difficult part of his profession was, he said:
Dealing with the public. And it is not because the public is rude or anything, it is just dealing with the public while moving the bridge is challenging… You could work here an 8-hour day, and you would leave exhausted. It is not from anything physical; it is just the mental exhaustion from constantly worrying somebody is going to do something around the bridge that they shouldn’t.
What is your favorite part of your job?
David has enjoyed being a lift bridge operator ever since he started eight years ago. There are so many different aspects that he likes about his job, but when we asked him what his favorite was, he stated:
As an operator, one of the best parts is when I get to see a storm coming across the lake that is pretty cool. The view from the bridge is nice, but after a while, it just becomes the normal view. Storms are something we do not see every day, and that is why it is a little more interesting to me. On the other hand, it is also amazing what you see people do during the workday. Some things I see make me shake my head, and other things make me laugh.
Out of all your experiences, can you tell us about one that is most unique to you?
David has had some quite unique experiences while working as a lift bridge operator. He could not decide on just one story to share with us, so he told us his top two experiences during the past eight years he has worked there. Quoting David:
First, let me say that the bridge is 15 feet off the water when it is calm. Two years ago, we had waves actually hitting the bottom of the bridge. Which meant they were coming through the canal at greater than 15 feet. The waves were shooting through the grating like old faithful. That was impressive to see. The other impressive thing was last year when we had so much ice on the bridge after a storm that we could not lift it. That was something that had never happened, that anybody could recall, in the history of the bridge. We figured there was about 80,000 pounds worth of ice on the bridge after the storm came straight off the lake. It took about four days to get all the ice off and be able to lift the bridge again.
Next time you are down in Canal Park, we hope you take a second and admire the Aerial Lift Bridge for all that it is. And of course, if you have the chance, wave at the pilothouse. You might get lucky and get a wave from our friend David Campbell.
Until next time, friends.