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Jim Heffernan column: What’s in the name of a high bridge?

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist.

Blatnik Bridge
The Blatnik Bridge, shown lit up in 2017, opened to traffic between Duluth and Superior in 1961.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
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I see in the newspaper that they’re talking about replacing the Blatnik Bridge. What? Already?

Seems like just yesterday that I rumbled across it on the 1961 weekend it opened in my flashy 1940 Ford coupe, my first car. But I guess I have to admit it was 61 years ago. My, how time flies. The car and I were about the same age at the time.

It was quite a milestone for Duluth and Superior — an imposing high bridge looming over the mouth of the St. Louis River and connecting the two communities known then and today as the Twin Ports. But it wasn’t called Blatnik at first. More on that later.

The ranks of those who traversed the bridge’s predecessor, called the Interstate Bridge, are thinning these many decades later. I remember it well.

The Blatnik Bridge (right) and remains of its predecessor the Interstate Bridge as seen from Rice's Point in Duluth Thursday evening. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com
The Blatnik Bridge, right, and the remains of its predecessor, the Interstate Bridge, as seen from Rice's Point in Duluth in 2019.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

The earlier bridge was a combination railroad and vehicle bridge. Its owners charged a toll for vehicles crossing between the two cities, a pittance by today’s standards — just small change. The bridge’s owner employed men (it was always men) to man the tollbooth at mid-bridge 24 hours a day,

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Richard Bong and his P-38 fighter, in which he shot down 40 enemy aircraft in World War II.
Contributed / Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center

Another toll bridge, the Arrowhead, connecting West Duluth with Superior’s western environs, was for cars and trucks only. It forever canceled its toll the day the new bridge opened to traffic and has, of course, been replaced in pretty much the same spot by the Bong Bridge, named after World War II “Ace of Aces” Maj. Richard Ira Bong, who grew up in Poplar, Wisconsin, outside of Superior.

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The Bong Bridge under construction between Duluth and Superior in 1982.
File / Duluth News Tribune

As mentioned, the Blatnik Bridge didn’t bear the name of northern Minnesota Congressman John A. Blatnik until 1971, a decade after the bridge was completed. He was nearing the end of his congressional service. Before that it was simply called the Duluth-Superior High Bridge. It’s pure coincidence that one of our bridges is “high” and the other “Bong,” although that hasn’t gone unnoticed by those with an interest in cannabis culture.

I knew Blatnik the way a journalist gets to know public officials and other news sources. Blatnik was a genial native of Chisholm who had served in the Minnesota Legislature and had a distinguished WWII record in the Army Air Force Strategic Services, operating in Europe’s Balkan area where his Slovenian roots had formed.

In his 28 years in Congress, he became a savvy political operative, eventually securing chairmanship of the House Public Works Committee from which he could influence considerable legislation beneficial to his district (our bridge), state and, of course, the nation. Lots of infrastructure before anybody called it that. Blatnik died in 1991 at age 80.

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In June 1971, then-Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson, center, prepares to sign the Voyageurs National Park bill into law. From left are former Govs. Harold LeVander and Elmer L. Andersen, Gov. Wendell Anderson, former Gov. Karl Rolvaag and then-U.S. Rep. John Blatnik. The creation of Voyageurs National Park was authorized by President Richard Nixon in 1971, with the park officially established in 1975.
File / Duluth News Tribune

Early in my years as a reporter for this newspaper, I had frequent contact with him as I covered multiple events where he was the main speaker. These events crescendoed around election time every two years. Even though he was enormously popular with Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party voters — he never lost an election or even came close to losing — he always ran scared, a close friend of the congressman told me.

One election, the Republicans imported the ambitious son of the president of a major steel company in the east to challenge Blatnik. He didn’t come close.
Back in the district, he’d show up anywhere where a few people gathered, often presenting groups with a flag that, he said, had flown above the U.S. Capitol. Maybe it had. And at these gatherings he almost always gave the same stock speech, extolling the people of northern Minnesota with varied ethnic backgrounds who get along so well: Serbians, Bosnians, Herzegovinians. (They don’t get along so well in Europe.)

Center span of Interstate Bridge tilts below its replacement, the Blatnik Bridge, as old span is removed
The center span of the Interstate Bridge tilts below its replacement, the Blatnik Bridge, as the old span is removed on Oct. 8, 1971.
File / Duluth Herald

I’d heard that speech several times, and one time covering him, when I was pressed to move on to another assignment, I asked him before the event began if he was planning to give the same speech he always gave. I believe I insulted him, and I’m sorry for that, but I didn’t stick around.
I ran into him at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport one time, greeting him as I queued up behind him as he was engaging an airline employee. He quickly extended his hand back without turning around to see who it was. Blatnik, like his political compatriots, shook a lot of hands.

He was part of the Hubert Humphrey coterie that formed the DFL and was said to be disappointed in 1964 when then Gov. Karl Rolvaag passed him over for an appointment to the Senate to replace Humphrey, who was elected vice president. The appointment went to Walter Mondale.

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Mondale 1970.jpg
State Sen. Nicholas Coleman raises Wendell Anderson’s hand in a victory gesture after Anderson was endorsed for governor by acclamation at the Minnesota DFL convention at the Duluth Arena on June 27, 1970. Looking on at left is senatorial candidate Hubert H. Humphrey, and at right are Sen. Walter F. Mondale and Rep. John A. Blatnik.
Charles Curtis / File / Duluth News Tribune

Politically, he was considered a liberal but the lines between the parties were not so sharp back then. Still, political competition has always been fierce. I had a political science professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth who said Blatnik was “so red any self-respecting bull would charge him on sight.” The red referred to what was often called “godless communism” at the time.

He was far from that; he served this region well and his name lives on via the bridge connecting Duluth and Superior. Will any bridge replacement bear the same name? Stay tuned.

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by email at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org .

Jim Heffernan
Jim Heffernan
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Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by email at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org.
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