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Centenarian engineer, Aerial Lift Bridge share honors

Kristina Swallow (left), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2018 president, takes a selfie with Robert J. Rhode during the ASCE's Congress on Technical Advancement at the DECC Monday. Rhode, 103, is the eldest member of the ASCE Duluth section and received an award. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
The Arubaborg passes beneath the span of the Aerial Lift Bridge as it arrives in Duluth in 2012. (News Tribune file photo)2 / 2

An international gathering of engineers in Duluth this week has honored two local engineering icons: the Aerial Lift Bridge and Robert B. Rhode.

The latter was a 16-year-old Central High School student by the time the roadway was added to the iconic bridge in 1929.

Rhode, 103, a lifelong Duluthian, retired railroad engineer and still-active member of the Duluth section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, was presented a plaque honoring him as the group's oldest member on Monday during the ASCE's Congress on Technical Advancement, which is taking place at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

The Duluth section, made up of civil engineers in 10 northern Minnesota counties and six Northwestern Wisconsin counties, is celebrating its own 100th anniversary. That means Rhode is older than the organization he joined in 1937, noted Chris Rousseau, an engineer for Minnesota Power who is also a member.

"He turns 104 on Christmas Eve this year, and he has been at section meetings every month for as long as I can remember," Rousseau said. "When somebody's still that engaged in their career, in their industry past a hundred years old, I think he epitomizes the attitude and the excitement that people have for the engineering profession."

Wearing a sport coat over a white dress shirt, Rhode used a walker to reach the front of a conference room and acknowledge a lengthy standing ovation from his fellow engineers after a plaque was presented to him by Kristina Swallow of Las Vegas, the organization's president-elect.

"Do I have to say something?" Rhode asked, and gratefully returned to his seat after being assured a speech was not required.

Rhode graduated from Duluth Central in 1932 and from the University of Minnesota with a civil engineering degree five years later. He spent his entire career in the railroad industry, finishing with the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway. He served as president of the Duluth section of the ASCE in 1953-54.

Swallow also presided as the Aerial Lift Bridge was recognized as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Somewhere north of 200 engineering feats have earned that distinction worldwide, she said; the bridge is the fourth to gain that distinction in Minnesota.

"For it to receive that status and that designation is a pretty significant milestone for any structure that's ever built," Rousseau said.

The bridge was built in 1901-05 and originally used a gondola car to ferry passengers across the Duluth ship canal. Local historian and author Tony Dierckins, in a presentation to the engineers, pointed out that the bridge's basic original framework remains intact.

This week's conference has drawn engineers from as far away as Alaska, Europe and China, Rousseau said.

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