MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge is one of the most recognizable destinations in northern Minnesota.
It not only serves as the entrance to the busiest port on Lake Superior, it also brings in millions of tourists every year.
“Anyone who knows Duluth, the first thing they think of is this bridge,” said Dave Campbell, supervisor at the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge.
For most visitors, the view of Duluth’s lift bridge is limited to a ground-level perspective. However, there are select few who get a truly unique view.
Campbell is among the lift bridge operators. He supervises a team of five people who oversee Duluth’s maritime travel.
“When a ship is coming in, they’ll call us when they’re an hour out on the radio,” Campbell said.
Twenty-four hours a day, in 8-hour shifts, an operator mans the overpass perch, sitting directly above the bridge deck. According to Campbell, it’s a role of endless responsibility, as during each shift the operators have to be in constant contact via radio.
“You work by yourself and you can’t leave,” Campbell said. “You are married to the bridge while you’re here.”
The bridge operators are tasked with raising and lowering the bridge in carefully timed increments for ships to pass through.
“When you’re standing on the pier, and watch it go up and down, it’s like, man that’s pretty cool, but when you’re up here, you don’t realize the stress the operator is under,” he said.
Opening up access between Lake Superior and the Duluth/Superior harbor goes beyond the flip of a switch.
Campbell and the bridge operators have to balance tourist and boating traffic during the summer season.
The office is manned with multiple cameras showing different angles of pedestrian and vehicle traffic. The operators have to figure out the timing to make sure no one is on the bridge while also giving the necessary leeway needed for the sea-faring ships that can’t stop in the canal.
“You’re lifting a thousand ton bridge that people can walk up and touch while it’s moving,” Campbell said. “It can be nerve-wracking at times.”
Even on the most stressful days, Campbell can appreciate the unique office that gives him a bird’s-eye view in nearly every direction.
“Sunrises are awesome. Sunsets are awesome,” Campbell said. “We can’t complain about our office, it’s pretty nice.”
In addition to the exclusive view, Campbell and the operators also have a unique understanding of Duluth’s bridge history.
The structure was built in 1905, and there’s only been one overhaul of design, 88 years ago.
“They came up with this design without computers, and cad programs, and everything they use now,” Campbell said. “It was just some guys in an office with a slide rule and a calculator.”
Over the years, the bridge has evolved to a crucial part of Duluth’s tourism while also functioning as an integral part of the shipping industry.
“It’s important to the city for tourism,” Campbell said. “It’s amazing how many people come up to see the boats and the bridge. It’s definitely an icon for the city of Duluth.”
If you want to see the Duluth lift bridge in action, it typically goes up every half hour from Memorial Day through the remainder of the shipping season.
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