Duluth, Minnesota

July 23, 2004
Filed under Travel

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I grew up among the celebrated lakes of Minnesota and on the shores of Lake Superior, which is the grandest of them all. I have feelings for that lake like those I have for close childhood friends. To kids growing up in Duluth, Lake Superior was an ocean: so huge not even grown-ups could see across it. Most of us were in grade school before we gave in to the reality that no magical land lay on the other side of it – just Wisconsin. Duluth was bigger then. We knew, were it not for the lake, Duluth probably wouldn’t even exist. Except for those icy months of winter when its surface was covered with snow, frozen solid, its primary purpose was to float giant ore boats. Here they took on a weighty cargo that made the seaport of Duluth second only to New York in tonnage shipped.

At least that’s what my older sister told me; and she was smart. When you consider Duluth’s cargo was iron ore – and that was the decade of war and post-war construction, the 1940s – I’m sure she was right. Duluth’s magnificent harbor, with its long sheltering breakwater, is a gift of nature. What they needed to turn the harbor into a viable port was a deep-water entry – a cut in the breakwater, a peninsula called Minnesota Point. So about the time the last century turned, they dug and dredged an opening and built the ship canal that exists today. Minnesota Point then became one long, sand-beached island. People living there got used to commuting on ferries in the summer and over a temporary bridge in the winter that spanned the 386-foot cut. The permanent bridge came in 1930. It’s a unique elevator bridge that rises up 227 feet.

With steel trestles that create a majestic spider web across the ship canal, it’s become Duluth’s logo. The Aerial Lift Bridge has always been an attraction. Now it’s the center for the tourist action here and probably the most visited landmark in northern Minnesota. People who live on the point – called Park Point by Duluthians, as there was once a park at the end of it – speak of getting “bridged.” Translated, it means, “It’s not my fault I’m late.” It’s a valid excuse that’s accepted anywhere in town. Completely understandable: “The bridge was up and I had to wait for it.” If they are “bridged” by two boats in a row, then they are “seriously bridged” and seriously late. I rode the bridge one time when I was in high school. A couple of us just climbed the ladder and knocked on the door of the control house, which is centered in the span, and asked for a ride. Out on the lake, an inbound boat blew its whistle three times. (Ship-talk for raise the bridge, please.)

The bridge answered with three vociferous blasts – a sound that I had been hearing all my life, but with detachment and from a distance. It’s in the background of living here. That day it had meaning and consequence. Hearing it gave me goose bumps. There was much clanking and the high whine of motors as we slowly went up; counterweights passed us going down. Then everything went still. Within minutes the gigantic ship passed silently beneath us. There is enough water in Lake Superior to fill all the other Great Lakes with plenty left over. Of the five lakes, Lake Superior is the highest above sea level and farthest north. It is also the deepest, well over a 1,000-feet deep in places. In my neighborhood, big kids would tell little kids that because it’s so cold, “the lake never gives up its dead.”

We thought it was a scary thing to say; it was even spookier to think about. But it’s true; my dad told me that. He was a doctor and he knew about things like that. With the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, Duluth became an international port. From here, it’s less than a week’s steaming time to the Atlantic Ocean – some 2,342 miles. More than 1,000 ships pass through here annually. Principal cargos are ore (40 percent), coal (40 percent) and grain (10 percent). The port now handles 40 million tons annually, and ranks first among ports on the lakes in total cargo volume, and 21st nationally. That’s from the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, not my sister. The lake is also where Duluth gets its drinking water. We always said that is was the best water anywhere, a claim that is still good in my book.

Out-of-towners come now with their plastic bottles of boughten water, clutching them close as if they’re walking through the Mojave Desert. But that’s what people do now the world over. Most of it is silliness, I think, especially in Duluth. My uncle from Iowa tried to convince me that if we ran the faucet at home we could catch minnows out of it for fishing. They would come right out of the lake and splash around in the sink, he insisted. When he visited us, he would run water in the kitchen; I would watch. After a while, I figured out the people from Iowa don’t know anything about Minnesota lakes. Thinking back on those days, so many things pile on. Although I have lived many places, my answer is always Duluth if a person wants more than a cursory answer as to where I am from. I live elsewhere now, but Duluth will always be home.

Bill’s e-mail address: roadscribe@aol.com

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