Northlandia: Once upon a time, you could ride Aerial Lift Bridge for quarter

From 1965-1973, the public could step into a safety cage and remain on the Lift Bridge as it rose. Local children would reach out and drop pennies into freighters' smokestacks.

An overhead view of people enclosed by a chain-link cage on the pedestrian walkway of the Aerial Lift Bridge.
Paying riders on the Aerial Lift Bridge look down on the Duluth Ship Canal in a photo taken between 1965 and 1973.
Contributed / Larry Lyons / Zenith City Press

DULUTH — On a frigid Saturday morning in early January, Pam Limmer stood on the Aerial Lift Bridge passenger walkway, hugging a colorful blanket around her shoulders. She was there with a group of fellow quilters to generate publicity for an upcoming exhibit, but Limmer's memory took her back over half a century.

Postcard aerial scene of Duluth
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"We, as kids, would be up on the bridge and we'd drop pennies down the smokestacks of the ships," she said, to the amazement of younger people within earshot. "They used to have a cage right here, and you'd go in the cage part and then you'd ride up and down."

Limmer's younger brother remembers those days as well.

"The sailors would come out and they'd wave at you and holler at you," Matthew Gordon remembered when reached by phone at his current home in Arizona. "When the salties would come through, you'd have the foreign ships in there, and you'd look at the different people coming in."

Historian Tony Dierckins, author of "Crossing the Canal: An Illustrated History of Duluth's Aerial Bridge," confirmed that the siblings' memories weren't deceiving them. Members of the public could, in fact, take rides on the Lift Bridge. The kids loved it, said Dierckins, but the bridge operators hated it. "They became babysitters."


Black-and-white photo of people lining the Duluth Ship Canal's South Pier, with a ship approaching through the canal. A sign leaning against the pier wall reads, "AERIAL BRIDGE RIDES 25 CENTS."
A sign advertising Aerial Lift Bridge rides is visible as people watch a boat enter the Duluth Ship Canal.
Contributed / Ryan Beamer / Zenith City Press

With respect to cheap thrills, Gordon and Limmer were fortunate to be kids in the '60s. Lift Bridge rides were only available from 1965-1973, as an early attempt to attract visitors to the Canal Park area.

"They wanted to make it more of a tourist attraction," explained Dierckins. "People were coming down there, even though it was the seediest part of town."

Photo of people standing in chain-link cage on the Aerial Lift Bridge, looking down at an incoming ship down the Duluth Ship Canal.
Aerial Lift Bridge riders watch a ship approach in 1968. This image appears in Tony Dierckins' history, which will be reissued this spring in an updated edition titled "The Aerial Lift Bridge and the Canal it Crosses."
Contributed / Dick Lyon / Zenith City Press

People rode the Aerial Bridge all the time, of course, before it was the Aerial Lift Bridge. From 1906-1929, it was an Aerial Transfer Bridge that conveyed traffic across the Duluth Ship Canal by means of a platform hanging from the bridge's upper span. When demand started to exceed the sliding platform's capacity, it was replaced with the lower span we know today.

While the bridge's structure has remained the same for nearly a century now, the bridge that visitors saw (or didn't see) in the mid-1960s appeared (or didn't appear) quite different. "When they painted it, it was originally this dark Essex green," said Dierckins. "They bought all these lights to light it, and then nothing really happened because it absorbed the light."

The Gemini V space mission was topping headlines Aug. 24, 1965, when the News Tribune reported the Duluth City Council had signed off on lifting locals to a height that was not quite up there with Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad, but not bad for a quarter.

"Councilman Donn Larson was the chief supporter of the proposal," the paper reported. "He contended it would improve tourism and give Duluthians a beautiful view of their city."

Black and white image of Aerial Lift Bridge illuminated by lights standing on poles at night.
Newly installed lights illuminate Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge in January 1967. After state Rep. John A. Blatnik threw the switch to first light the bridge Nov. 17, 1966, the College of St. Scholastica choir led a crowd of thousands singing "God Bless America."
Charles Curtis / File / Duluth News Tribune

Proceeds from 25-cent bridge rides helped pay for the aluminum-colored paint that was applied in phases during the first half of the 1970s. For $1, supporters could join an Aerial Bridge Club that came with a membership card declaring the bearer "has shown pride and participation in our city by contributing to the installation of the Aerial Bridge lighting. This card entitles the bearer to ride the Aerial Bridge."

By the time rides ended in 1973, the canal area was gaining traction as a destination. That year, the bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also in 1973, the Canal Park Marine Museum (now called the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center) was completed. The new building provided education, entertainment and most importantly, bathrooms.


As tourism continued to build in the 1980s, city councilor Arno Kahn raised the prospect of letting people ride the bridge again. By that point, though, the idea was no longer feasible. Crowds and traffic were getting to be an issue even without turning the bridge into a carnival ride, and there were safety concerns.

There's no evidence that, as some have assumed, bridge rides ended due to a specific accident. Paid rides had been long gone by 1990, when a confused woman boarded the bridge just before it began to lift; when she leaned off the edge of the rising span, she was crushed to death.

Aerial view of Duluth downtown and hillside, with bridge beams visible in foreground.
Duluth, as seen from the elevated span of the Aerial Lift Bridge in the 1960s, when it was possible to pay for a ride. In the foreground, beams of the bridge structure can be seen painted in their original Essex green.
Contributed / Larry Lyons / Zenith City Press

Still, rides were risky. At least one rider sustained serious injuries when she panicked and escaped the safety cage, jumping off the bridge deck when it was 20 feet above street level. The state of Minnesota, fearing potential liabilities, balked at funding a 1980s bridge renovation if rides were to resume.

"Kids would start crying because you'd be up high," Gordon remembered about riding the bridge. "I was scared to death of heights, but once you got up to the top, it was fine."

View from below of Aerial Lift Bridge lower span, with a handful of riders visible in a chain-link cage along the pedestrian walkway.
Riders are seen on Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge in a photograph taken in summer 1973, the last year the public would be allowed to remain on the bridge's rising span.
Contributed / Ellen J. Goodsell / St. Louis County Historical Society

"Chief Operator Don Bowen, back in 1967, said, 'This passenger thing really has been nerve-wracking,'" Dierckins recounted. "'Now, instead of stopping people, when the bells ring it's like a dinner bell. People just come running aboard.'"

So, the days of recreational rides on the Aerial Lift Bridge will most likely never return. But according to Pam Limmer and Matthew Gordon, riding the bridge was fun while it lasted.

"We used to ride that bridge up and down all the time," said Gordon. "We wanted the biggest boats to come over because they were the closest ones to the bottom of the bridge. And that's when you'd drop everything on the boat: your pennies, your taconite. You'd pick up a rock or whatever, just to see it bounce off the boat. Good times."

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Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
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