Clearly, the concrete column at Duluth's cribs that toppled into Lake Superior earlier this winter was a pillar of the community.
After the News Tribune published a story online Thursday night, and in Friday's paper, about the disappearance of the column, we received dozens of photos and other reports from readers offering tips on when they last saw - or first didn't see - the landmark offshore from Canal Park. The story was read and shared online by many thousands of people near and far. The Duluth Police Department even reviewed some footage from its security cameras to try to solve the mystery of when the column fell.
The pillar, and the nearby larger icehouse, or "Uncle Harvey's Mausoleum," were part of a short-lived, nearly century-old sand and gravel unloading dock. In more recent years the ruins have been a magnet for summer swimmers and winter walkers, and a part of countless photos taken by locals and visitors.
Initially, the timing of the pillar's demise was placed at sometime between New Year's Day and Valentine's Day. After sorting through more than 80 comments on Facebook and nearly as many e-mails, comparing photos and creating a timeline, it appears that the pillar fell sometime between 4:40 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 7.
The morning of the day before, Feb. 6, Kinnan Stauber of Duluth ventured down to Canal Park near the cribs and shot some video. The pillar is clearly visible - and the groaning, cracking, shifting of the ice in that area is clearly audible. The lake ice is coated with snow.
Easterly winds started picking up that day, building overnight and peaking at gusts to near 40 mph at the Duluth airport on Feb. 7, according to National Weather Service data.
That weekend, former Duluthians Eric and Kim Sturtz were back in town for a wedding, staying at the Hampton Inn in Canal Park. On the morning of Feb. 7, Eric Sturtz ventured out in the blustery conditions to look at the ice and take a few photos. The photos, taken in fairly close proximity to the cribs, show the pillar still standing. They also show that the coating of snow had been swept away by the wind overnight - a sign of the forces of nature at play.
Later that day, at 4:40 p.m., Andrea Woyt of Duluth looked toward the cribs and the Aerial Lift Bridge from near the Northland Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Lakewalk. A close examination of the photo she took shows the concrete pillar still standing, visible across the frozen lake.
Less than an hour later, at dusk, Nick Stone of St. Paul and some of his friends ventured out on the ice along the Canal Park shore. They were heading back to the Twin Cities after attending Laskiainen in Palo, and decided to get dinner in Canal Park and take a look at the icehouse.
"The wind was almost strong enough to push a person along the slick ice and very cold to boot," Stone recalled. "Another aspect I noticed was the movement in the ice. One friend was standing on the ice near the shore and did not realize she was rising and falling at least 6 inches. I was surprised ice so thick could noticeably ripple as I looked out across the lake. ...
"As we approached the cribs, seeking to go inside, we noticed a surprising amount of open water around the structure. I remember the ice behind the house seeming to be a little broken apart."
He didn't notice anything else amiss - until he heard about the missing pillar this week and went back to look at his photos.
The photos, timestamped at about 5:30 p.m., show the pillar is gone. The ice around where it had been, which was relatively smooth in Sturtz's photos from that morning, is jumbled. There's no obvious patch of open water, aside from the water ponded near the icehouse that probably welled up when the column fell in. It appears that the top-heavy pillar probably was shaken loose from its wood pilings by wind and ice, and settled gently into the 12- to 14-foot depths. Chunks of ice most likely quickly covered the spot, and appear to have started to freeze back together by the time Stone and his friends arrived.
The next morning, Feb. 8, the Sturtzes looked out their hotel room window and noticed the pillar had vanished.
"We first thought we just couldn't see it from our vantage point, but after looking closer, we realized it was indeed missing," Eric Sturtz recalled, "and we could see that the ice was broken up where it used to be."
The general timeline was confirmed by Sgt. Gayle Holton of the Duluth Police Department, who said a check of the department's security cameras found one that covered the cribs - a camera atop the Lift Bridge. It's some distance away, but Holton said the footage appeared to show the pillar standing toward dusk on Feb. 7. On Feb. 8, the camera was covered in ice and there was no usable footage. On Feb. 9, the camera was operational again and the pillar was gone.
With the pillar goes a destination for swimmers, though the adjacent tilting icehouse structure remains, now possibly with a new concrete obstacle underwater nearby.
The fallen pillar also provided an anchor for slacklines between it and the icehouse, on which thrill-seekers tried to keep their balance walking from one end to the other - to the amusement of crowds watching from shore.
Avid freediver Jim Richardson of Duluth - who had explored the base of the cribs in recent years - told the News Tribune that he plans to explore the area later this year to locate and take video of the fallen pillar.