Mystery Photo #68: Aerial Transfer Bridge

There’s no doubt the subject of this mystery photo is the gondola car on Duluth’s Aerial Bridge, but what year was the photo shot?

Perfect Duluth Day’s Mark Nicklawske randomly pulled this small photo out of a shoe box filled with mostly old black-and-white pictures toward the back of the Artifacts vintage store in Iowa City. It’s likely a snapshot someone from Iowa took while visiting Duluth in the early 20th Century.

Obviously the photo is no older than March 27, 1905 — that’s when the Aerial Bridge began ferry-car service across the shipping canal.

Obviously the photo is no more recent than July 1, 1929 — that’s the day the ferry car crossed the bridge for the last time before the iconic structure was transformed to the lift bridge as we know it today.

There might be any number of clues in our mystery photo that will help date it. The two that seem to jump out the most are the automobile on the left side and what appears to be some sort of protective roof partially shown at the top of the image. Most historic photos of the bridge do not show a structure like that above the gondola car; and other photos show a different style of barrier that hangs lower.

Take that and run with it, history detectives.

Below are two old Aerial Bridge postcards. The first illustrates the gondola with no protective roof; the second shows a protective roof that is different than what is shown in our mystery photo.


Tony D.

about 5 years ago

That "protective roof" was a shield designed to keep ice falling off the bridge from hitting passengers on the gondola car. If I remember correctly it was installed in late 1905 or early 1906.

Paul Lundgren

about 5 years ago

The trick is that there was more than one protective roof. The image below, from the Duluth Shipping News website, shows the style that seems to match our mystery photo. 

This next image, from Zenith City Online, shows a different style of protective roof. 

But neither of those images are dated, so they don't provide a ton of clarity for narrowing down the date on our mystery photo ... but they help.


about 5 years ago

Is this an automobile? Identifying that might help.


about 5 years ago

One of the other clues in the mystery photo is the streetlamp along the pier. When the bridge was first built, the presumably gas lamps had conical tops. In the mystery photo, the lamps are round.
The Minnesota Reflections photography collection has quite a few photos of the Aerial Transfer Bridge, but most of the photos have a question mark after the date, which make them a bit unreliable for narrowing down the year.
The latest photo with an established date that shows the old lamps is dated April 5, 1905. The latest photo of the newer lamps with an established date is from September 1913.
Because the auto and dress of people in the mystery photo suggest a year toward the end of the range, that doesn’t help so much. But it does identify a problem. On the Minnesota Reflections page, several of the photos with question marks after the year have dates up to 1920 but with the old style lamps. This suggests that the question mark is there for a reason and photos with only an approximate date might have a pretty wide range in that approximation, which makes determining a precise year for the mystery photo even more of a challenge.

Gina Temple-Rhodes

about 5 years ago

I have noticed the ? on many of the photos in Northern Reflections, especially on the photos of Hugh McKenzie. They are amazingly detailed images, but when the archives accepted them decades ago, they must have not been dated by the photographer. I am actually looking closely at some other images in their collection and will suggest some year corrections. I think if we could pin down the date of the streetlight change, you could more accurately pin down the bridge photos. I also wonder if that protective shield was just put on in the winter, but not in the summer to safe weight? There seem to be so many photos or postcards that don't show the shield. 

One light style clue might be in the timing of the building of the North Pier light, lit for the first time in 1910. It used electricity, a luxury and easy process for the lighthouse keepers, I'm sure! But I am assuming if the lighthouse was built to use electricity, the change over of the lights might have happened at the same time; gas to electric. I bet there would be some articles in the Duluth Herald of the time, available online. 

Some of the lighthouse info is at


about 5 years ago

The presence, absence and shape of the ice shield does seem to vary quite a bit across the photos, with the high, flat shield hardly ever appearing. The only place I've been able to find it is in Tony Dierckin's Crossing the Canal book, which shows the flat ice catcher in use in the 1920s. One photo in particular shows preparations for the lift bridge conversion with the high, flat ice catcher at the top of the photo. Even without knowing exactly when the flat roof when on, it does establish that it was the very last form used above the gondola, which again suggests a date for the mystery photo toward the end of the transfer bridge's use.


about 5 years ago

Additionally, trying to take the question marks off of the more detail rich Minnesota Reflections photos could also be a worthwhile PDD crowdsourcing task for when mystery photos are in short supply.

Leave a Comment

Only registered members can post a comment , Login / Register Here

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Read previous post:
List of Bands that Have Played Head of the Lakes Fair in Superior

The Head of the Lakes Fair is an annual tradition in Superior. The weekend event usually features bands performing on...