Duluth hopes broken blue bridge will soon rise to the occasion
Dan Russell recalls that perfect Duluth day when the Minnesota Slip Bridge opened in 1991, connecting the city’s convention center and Canal Park, completing the dream of a pedestrian-friendly entertainment district.
The good feelings lasted about a week. The $800,000 blue span with its elaborate cables and spools broke down days after the ribbon-cutting ceremony. It would not be the last time.
“It was down for three weeks,” laughed Russell, the longtime director of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. “That’s just been part of its history. It’s the little bridge that just doesn’t work.”
The bridge has acquired a certain infamy in Duluth for its seemingly constant breakdowns, frustrating pedestrians and politicians alike for 26 years.
But now there’s a plan to fix it and hopefully put an end to those headaches. The city is spending $2.5 million to replace the cables and spools with a motor-driven rack and pinion system. The bridge will close to pedestrians for a month until June 7.
While its importance pales compared to the city’s iconic Aerial Lift Bridge, the little blue bridge is still a big deal. It crosses a 150-foot wide channel where the William A. Irvin, an old ore boat that’s now a museum, is docked.
Last year more than 600,000 pedestrians crossed the drawbridge during Duluth’s busy tourist season. When it’s working, it’s an easy walk between Canal Park and the convention center.
When it’s broken, it’s kind of a pain. It’s a half mile-plus walk around, which doesn’t sound horrible, but try it when it’s raining or you’re herding kids.
“Canal Park’s a really important part of our community. And this blue bridge has been a paramount concern for people who work here, for people who live here, for our entire tourism industry, which really heavily relies on it,” said Duluth Mayor Emily Larson.
On a recent day, Larson accepted the challenge to walk from the convention center to Canal Park without using the bridge. She’d never done it before. It took 11 minutes, which doesn’t sound terrible. But Larson and others say that’s not the point.
“We have millions of people who are here every year, and many of them rely on this link, ” she said. “The blue bridge is a thing of legend,” she said. “It has never worked fully, it has always been problematic.”
The problems stem from engineering designs that didn’t quite understand Duluth.
There was no doubt that a draw bridge was needed to allow sailboats and charter fishing boats to pass through.
Engineers at the time chose an unusual design. Cables and spools pull each half of the bridge deck upwards until each panel stands on end. The problems would occur on windy days when the bridge was lowered.
The cables would start to unspool, said city engineer Duncan Schwensohn.
“Sometimes in the right winds, actually often times, there’s right winds, that the span itself acts like a sail,” he said. “And it doesn’t actually start dropping down when the slack is starting to be released off the spool.”
So there’d be all kinds of slack in the cables, until the wind lessened up.
“And there’s essentially an uncontrolled drop that puts a lot of extra tension on the cables, that the cables were never designed for,” he said. “It can cause things to slip out of place.”
Sometimes the cables would break, which would cost more than $5,000 to fix. So eventually the city started to just close the bridge on windy days to prevent it from breaking. And it happened a lot.
Russell said he counted 45 days between May and October in 2015 when the bridge was closed to pedestrians.
“It’s a mess,” he said. “It really hurts business, to the point where we had some convention planners saying, ‘We love Duluth. We love the DECC. But this is unacceptable, and if it isn’t fixed, we’re going to have to look elsewhere.'”
Some don’t see the drawbridge as a complete downer.
Dave Campbell, who supervises the Aerial Lift Bridge and the pedestrian bridge, sticks up for the span when people complain about it breaking all the time.
Last year, between May and October, he said the bridge was raised 3,200 times, way more often than the original designers of the bridge could have imagined.
“Generally we have it back in service within hours, depending on what it is,” Campbell said. The poor little bridge, she tries hard, man, for what we ask her to do, she’s just getting tired now, and it’s time to upgrade.
And it’s a cool looking bridge, he noted. It looks like it was made with a giant erector set, painted bright blue.
“There’s as many people take pictures of their families on this bridge as they do on the aerial bridge,” he said. “Everybody knows the little blue bridge.”