Saturday, January 23, 2021

Duluth, MN and Dearborn, MI - 1950s

I've had these scans featuring photos from Duluth, Minnesota for a long time, and was never quite sure what to do with them. But those days are over! 

The first three photos are undated, but are certainly from the 1950s, and they feature views of the Aerial Lift Bridge, which spans the Duluth Ship Canal. Spanning a gap in a sand spit, the original bridge was converted to a vertical lift bridge in 1929-30. You can see that the roadway span is in the "down" position here.

The next two photos are from a different batch, and you can see that the span is now raised (up to a height of 135 feet) to allow the passage of a barge (or freighter?) heading out into Lake Superior. I love all those brick buildings! The bridge is raised some 5,000 times a year (or 13 to 14 times a day).

Now the barge is safely out into the giant lake, and the roadway has returned to allow cars and trucks passage along South Lake Avenue. Aerial lift bridges are very unusual, but there are six similar structures along the Ontario Welland Canal, and the example in today's photos is still going strong!

This next photo is related, but not actually from Duluth or Detroit - it pictures an ore dock along the Wisconsin shore at Lake Superior. Wikipedia says: Most known ore docks were constructed near iron mines on the upper Great Lakes and served the lower Great Lakes. Ore docks still in existence are typically about 60 feet wide, 80 feet high, and vary from 900 feet to 2,400 feet in length. They are commonly constructed from wood, steel, reinforced concrete, or combinations of these materials.

Many docks have been torn down or abandoned, but a few remain in operation. The Lake Superior & Ishpeming dock, one of the docks at Marquette, Michigan, recently loaded its 400 millionth ton of ore after 90 years of service.

The last three of today's photos are from the wonderful Ford Rotunda. What is this fascinating structure? Back to Wikipedia! The Ford Rotunda was a tourist attraction originally located on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, and later was relocated to Dearborn, Michigan. At one point, it was the fifth most popular tourist destination in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. This futuristic structure received more visits in the 1950s than did the Statue of Liberty. The Rotunda was built for the 1933 World’s Fair—“A Century of Progress International Exposition”—in Chicago. After the World’s Fair, the Rotunda was dismantled and rebuilt in Dearborn, serving as the visitor center for what was then the equivalent of Ford Motor Company’s world headquarters. 

Ford built another rotunda for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, with obvious echoes of its predecessor.


"Honey, I'll drop you and the kids at the entrance, and then I'll go park the car". Its ultra-modern design, elaborate shows, and spectacular Christmas displays contributed to the Rotunda’s extreme popularity amongst tourists during its existence. The Rotunda was destroyed on Friday, November 9, 1962, due to a fire.

A rare interior shot (sorry it's a little blurry) from the Rotunda shows this crazy-but-cool car on display. What the heck is it?

Why, it's the 1954 "Ford FX-Atmos"! The Ford FX-Atmos was a concept car built by the Ford Motor Company for the 1954 Chicago Auto Show. According to one source, it was considered as a candidate for a nuclear power plant.

It was styled after jet aircraft, with headlight/ front fender pods mounting radio antennas and bearing a strong resemblance to ramjet air intakes; it also had rocket exhaust styled taillights, and prominent tail fins. The cabin set the driver on the centerline and provided two rear seats, all under a clear dome. The driver's controls and instruments were also futuristic, with dual handgrips instead of a steering wheel and a screen on the dash-intended to display radar sourced highway information.

I'd love to know if the Atmos still survives in a museum, somewhere.

Whew! I'll tell ya, it feels good to finally use these scans. I hope you enjoyed them!


TokyoMagic! said...

I love the design of that earlier Ford Rotunda, every bit as much as the one from the '64/'65 World's Fair.

I wonder if those radio antennas on the FX-Atmos retracted? Otherwise, they could do some serious damage if you even just lightly bumped into something....or someone, with them!

TokyoMagic! said...

After seeing today's pics, I was reminded of the building that currently houses the Air and Space Museum, at San Diego's Balboa Park. I couldn't remember for sure if it had originally been used by Ford or if it belonged to some other car company. It turns out that it was built by Ford, for the 1935/36 California Pacific International Exposition. I guess Ford liked their fair and expo buildings to be round:

JC Shannon said...

Wow, I wonder is any of this district in Duluth is still used, or have they turned it into trendy overpriced lofts. An atomic powered car, now there's one you don't want to get in a fender bender with. "Late to work again George?" "Sorry, Mr. Spacely, my reactor on the station wagon melted down in the parking lot again." Great stuff today Major, thanks.

Andrew said...

That first image looks like a model railroad come to life to me - the vintage truck on the flatcars, lone boxcar, and bridge in the background all give it that look.

I read about the Rotunda fire on Wikipedia, too, and it says that a group of 118 schoolchildren had just left and watched the building catch on fire; however, "two truant students from Detroit were arrested at the scene." The biggest loss was the new Ford models inside, including "several one-of-a-kind “dream cars,” each valued at $100,000." "$250,000 worth of Christmas decorations" was also lost, but the Ford archives luckily survived.

Pegleg Pete said...

You're right, Andrew – that first image really does have the feel of a model railroad! As for the Ford Rotunda, I've never heard of it before, but the thought of the Rotunda's mid-Century Christmas displays has piqued my curiosity; some great photos of the displays can be found at (sorry but for some reason I can't get the hyperlink to work today). Thanks for the great photographs, Major!

Chuck said...

As Andrew noted, definitely a rail flavor to the first images.

You can see the Chicago & Northwestern Depot in the foreground of the first picture, located at 200 5th Ave W. The structure was originally built for the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railway ("The Omaha Road"). While the C&NW purchased controlling stock in the Omaha Road in 1882, they didn't lease the line, merge their operations and rebrand everything as the C&NW until 1957, which helps date this photo. This station was also used by the Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific. Here's a reverse angle of this structure from 1909. It was demolished in 1965 to make room for an I-35 expansion.

In the second & third photo, you can see Duluth Union Depot (used by multiple railroads) and the Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie (better known as the "Soo Line") Depot, which were located right next to each other. Look for the red sign with what loos like a white "$" (it's actually an "S" superimposed over an "L"), across the street from the Lenox Hotel in the left side of those images. That's the Soo Line Depot at 602 W. Superior St. The Gothic structure behind that is Union Depot at 506 W. Michigan St. They are separated by the elevated 6th Ave W. The C&NW Depot is out of frame to the left, although you can see some yellow C&NW passenger cars parked on a siding across from it.

Union Depot, built in 1892, is still standing today as The Depot St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center. Union Depot was originally selected for demolition as part of the Gateway Urban Renewal Project and the Soo Depot was planned to become the museum, but structural damage from years of flooding in the Soo Depot's basement led to a switch of venue. The Soo Depot, built in 1910, was demolished in 1972.

I managed to find eerily-similar compositions from 1904 and 1907. Many of the same structures appear in both photos.

For comparison, here's a vaguely-similar scene as it appeared in 2012 and what it looks like right now.

And the Ford Rotunda is pretty cool, too, I guess. ;-)

TM!, I immediately thought of the Ford building in Balboa Park, too. Making the building round facilitates easy movement to another location; you tip it over on its side and roll it to the new location. Nothing could be simpler.

zach said...

My eye was first drawn to the Lenox Hotel in the 2nd photo. Built in 1904 but torn down in the mid 60's, replaced by a drab bowling center! I would like to have stayed there to watch the action in the rail yard.

That's the Chicago and North Western Railway. At one point it had over 12,000 miles of track. It was absorbed by the Union Pacific in the 90's. It's not unusual for an acquiring RR to leave the engines painted in the old RR colors but eventually UP did repaint most. They did repaint one engine in a heritage paint scheme as an homage to the old C&NW.

If I could just get the moderators and control rods to sync I'll take the Atmos for a spin.

I really want to know what's in the trunk of the red car in the first photo. It's riding pretty low.

Thanks, Major


Chuck said...

Zach, it's probably Raymond Burr in the trunk.

Major Pepperidge said...

TokyoMagic!, yes, those antennae could definitely skewer people, maybe they were very flexible? Or as you suggested, they retracted, and only popped out when the car was started?

TokyoMagic!, thank you for the info about the building at San Diego’s Balboa Park. I’d never heard of it or seen photos of it! So fascinating. Ford definitely had a thing for rotundas, I wonder why?

Jonathan, I’m afraid I haven’t been to the Duluth area since I was a kid, and you know how kids are - we don’t have to drive, so we don’t pay attention. I barely remember the place. I have always wondered about those futuristic nuclear cars and how they would fare in a serious accident! Presumably they would have safety features, but… maybe not.

Andrew, that would have been a good candidate for trying the “tilt shift” effect, to really make it look like a miniature. I’d try it today, but will be away from my place until late. The fire at the rotunda is terrible, but oh man, the loss of those “dream cars”! I always love seeing photos (or even actual examples) or prototypes, especially from that era. Often hand-made in large part. As for the Christmas decorations, somehow I’m less upset by that!

Pegleg Pete, the Ford Rotunda would definitely be on my bucket list of places to visit if it was still around. The Henry Ford museum looks pretty great too, and it has Greenfield Village, but I want my rotunda! Thanks for the link to those photos, what a place.

Chuck, you have outdone yourself! Or maybe not, you do a lot of impressive research - more than I did, for sure. I did notice the Chicago& Northwestern Depot, looking very sooty and cool - or maybe it’s just made from dark brown stone. Bummer that it was torn down, but highways were the way of the future I guess. I’d wondered about that building with the spires, thank you for the ID - the Duluth Union Depot. And the Soo Line depot! Really wonderful. I scratched my head over the red sign with the white “dollar sign”, so now I know what that’s about. I’m very glad that the Union Depot building is still standing, thank goodness. If it was in L.A. it would be long-gone, replaced by mixed-use luxury condos. I assume the “eerily similar” compositions were taken from that large building seen in that 1909 reverse angle? Or maybe not. Look at that iced-in river! Thank you Chuck, that was amazing.

zach, and what’s wrong with a bowling center?! ;-) Around here, bowling alleys seem to be on hard times. I like to go bowling once in a while, but I guess kids don’t enjoy it. I wonder if the noise of the trains made sleep difficult at the Lenox Hotel? Jeez, that car must have a literal ton of bricks in the trunk!

Chuck, ha ha!

Nanook said...

That first, black car might be a 1952 Pontiac, or perhaps a 1953 Chevrolet - hard to tell at this resolution. The 'low-riding' red car is a 1957 Ford. In front of the Rotunda, we have a Sungate Ivory, 1953-? Ford. The other cars are a bit hard to decipher. Although, the two, blue cars park directly in front of the Rotunda are Ford's - the one on the right, a 1954. And the lone car parked in front of the Rotunda is a 1954 Ford, possibly in Cadet Blue.

@ Chuck-
WOW-! Such research. Thank you for solving the "$" sign mystery - among other points of note.

Thanks, Major.

Melissa said...

What gloriously moody shots, and so perfectly American!

I recall several similar bridges on the Erie Canal near where I grew up, but I don’t think they were nearly as big.

JG said...

When I first saw this post, I thought “chuck will have amazing research”.

Not disappointed.

Major, thanks for these photos of unfamiliar places, a d to everyone else for the fascinating comments.


Chuck said...

Wow, JG - that's a pretty harsh grading scale. I think everyone deserves at least a "B" for classroom participation.

TokyoMagic! said...

Major, I haven't been inside the Air and Space Museum at Balboa Park, but I've been on the outside of it. I only remembered a parking lot out in front of it and not those fountains and pools of water (visible in the vintage pics). I guess at some point, they ripped them out to make room for more know, like they do. But I came across something online last night, stating that they will be ripping out that section of the parking lot and restoring it to a landscaped "pedestrian space" once again. Bringing back the fountains aren't in stage one of that plan, but hopefully that will follow. That makes me happy, because it's very rare that things are ever "brought back" once they have been removed.

Chuck, thanks for all of that research. I was also wondering about that building with the short spires. I'm glad to hear that it was saved and restored.

And you reminded me of a line from the film, "Nine to Five." When the police officer pulls the ladies over for a continuously flashing turn indicator light, I think he tells them, "It might just be Raymond Burr in the wanna take a look?"

Omnispace said...

Our family used to visit Duluth a lot when I was young. Back then, in the 1970's, one could buy tickets to ride the bridge up when one of the freighters would pass through. They all kept to a timetable so it was easily predictable when one would be arriving which back then seemed quite frequent.

To the left of the bridge, towards the lake and on the closer side, is Canal Park. One could walk the long concrete barrier out to where you can see the little "lighthouse" beacon. About all that was around back then was a burger place and a small park along the canal since the surrounding area was still fairly industrial. Since then it has all been redeveloped as a tourist draw with a lake walk, hotels, restaurants, and shops. It's all quite nice and retains several of the original brick buildings.

The rail yards you see in the foreground have been turned into the I-95 extension past the downtown. Towards the right is Minnesota Point though it's locally referred to as "Park Point" since there's a park at the end of it. There's actually a sandy beach if you dare to brave the icy waters of Lake Superior.

The long ore piers are on the west end of the city as one approaches it from Minneapolis. They are massive and the highway passes right through them. The ore trains roll out onto them and long chutes transfer to the holds of the freighters.

The Ford Rotunda looks like it was pretty cool - sort of like a Jello mold! From what I understand the fire that took it down was a huge catastrophe. I've been inside the air museum in San Diego and it's different in that the center is an open courtyard. It has a very cool Art Deco vibe to it. Thanks for sharing these today!

Omnispace said...

OOps - that should be the I-35 extension that was built in the rail yards. I remember walking out along the tracks with my cousin once we escaped the adults, and we decided to place a nickel on one of the rails to see if it would get smashed. Of course the rail cars that were creeping slowly towards us decided to stop. Who knows - we could have derailed the entire train!

Major Pepperidge said...

Nanook, I was wondering if you were going to do your “Nanook thing”! I do like the look of the low-riding 1957 Ford. No foreign models in these pictures! Those were the days.

Melissa, very cool that there are some aerial lift bridges along the Erie Canal!

JG, I guess it should be no surprise that Chuck, our midwest ambassador, found so much to love in these humble photos! I’m glad he did.

Chuck, part of your grade was affected by you constantly snapping your gum!

TokyoMagic!, I’m glad to hear that they got rid of those awful pools of water and replaced them with beautiful and useful parking. I’ll bet those are the most beautiful parking spaces ever! I hope they really do restore the lot to something green and pretty. Fountains in California are always a bugaboo because of drought, though I feel like, of all the things that waste water, fountains have to be way down on the list. Let us have our fountains! “Nine to Five”, another movie I’ve never seen.

Omnispace, oh very cool, I would love to ride as the bridge was raised! That sounds fun. I wonder if they still do it, or if it is considered too risky? Liability and all that stuff. A friend of mine said he and a buddy used to sneak onto the various bridges that cross the Chicago River when they went up, he made it sound like they would have been in big trouble if they’d been caught. But they only did it in the wee hours. I love reading your memories of what it was like when you were younger! I have no idea if the ore dock in today’s photo is still around, it sounds like many have been dismantled over the years. They sure are impressive feats of engineering though. Yes, that fire that burned the Ford Rotunda was a real tragedy, I guess once it got going there was no stopping it.

Omnispace, correction noted! When I lived in Pennsylvania we regularly put pennies on the tracks; often they just vanished, but sometimes we could come back and find the squashed copper cents. Some fun! People used to tell us that we could have derailed the train, but when you saw the state of those pennies, it was clear that they didn't stand a chance.

"Lou and Sue" said...

Chuck :o)