DULUTH, Minn. —Usually, it is chilly down by the bridge, and windy. Lake Superior is almost always choppy and gray, and gulls wheel and screech under a leaden sky. And then you hear the blast of a horn — two long, and two short — and you know that a ship wants through. The bridge bleats back a higher-pitched response, sounds a jangling alarm, and then the deck slowly begins to rise.
The Aerial Bridge, built with a swinging gondola in 1905 and modified in 1929, is Duluth's most famous attraction. It spans the Duluth Ship Canal, which joins the harbor to the rest of the lake, and links the sandy spit of land called Park Point to the mainland. On busy summer days in the past, it could rise 50 or 60 times, letting through ore boats and tugboats, sailboats and excursion boats. It now operates on "bridge hours" in the summer, rising only on the hour and half-hour.
It looks like poetry, with its latticework of silver metal. At night, lit up with floodlights, its reflection shimmers gold on black water. But it's really all about the numbers: 4 million pounds of steel; two counterweights, each a whopping 450 tons ; 48 steel cables; one 1,000-ton bridge deck, which takes 2 1/2 minutes to rise 135 feet off the water.
When I was a child living in Duluth, we got "bridged" — halted by the bridge going up — just about every time we crossed over to the beach or, sunburned and gritty with sand, went home again. A white sign tempted me: "Bridge Rides, 25 cents," but my parents never said yes. The sign is long gone; the bridge, of course, remains.
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IF YOU GO
The bridge never sleeps! The Aerial Bridge, located at Canal Park on the waterfront of Duluth, operates 24 hours a day during the shipping season, although in summer it operates on "bridge hours," rising only on the hour and half-hour between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. The Lake Superior Marine Museum at the foot of the bridge is a good place to go for more information. It's free and open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily between May 22 and Oct. 11.