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From Duluth bridge scrap to souvenirs

With the real item behind him, Aerial Lift Bridge Supervisor Ryan Beamer holds one of the miniatures made from worn steel plates removed from the bridge during recent repairs. Photo by Steve Kuchera, Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH -- To Ryan Beamer, it seemed like an awful waste of steel.

For three years, the Aerial Lift Bridge has been undergoing improvements and repairs, including replacing worn steel plates.

To just scrap those metal parts, which had served Duluth's most-prominent landmark well for more than 100 years, seemed a shame to Beamer, who has been bridge supervisor since 2005.

So, he cleaned up 60 of the large rivets that had held pieces of the steel bridge together and wrapped them in cellophane for sale. A city graphic designer helped draw up certificates of authenticity. Priced at $25 each, the old-fashioned rivets with rounded heads were sold last fall by local vendors, netting the city a modest profit.

"Seventy-seven cents of scrap steel netted the city $534 profit," said the energetic Beamer, 38.

"Those things sold really quick," recalled Eric Robinson, general manager for Grandma's Saloon and Grill. "People said: 'Wow, this was a chunk of the bridge' and 'Hey, I can own a piece of the lift bridge.' They sold so fast."

Beamer didn't stop there.

"If people would pay for those," he figured, "maybe we should take some of the steel, melt it down and fashion it into miniatures."

Although the effort is reminiscent of the limited-edition miniature "peace bear" statues the Duluth Public Arts Commission sold in the early 1990s, the idea for the Lift Bridge miniatures actually came from Tom Mellin, co-manager of the former Grandma's Marketplace. Mellen told Beamer he wished he had good-quality metal replicas of the bridge to sell instead of little plastic ones.

"That sent me in that direction," Beamer said.

With the blessing of his superiors and the help of a local blacksmith, Beamer found an artist who could do it: John Poole, a well-known artist in residence at Smith Foundry Co. in Minneapolis.

Poole made 300 miniatures, cast with pure iron and melted steel from the bridge, that are 5 inches wide, 3 inches tall and less than an inch thick. Beamer made sure they had the same silver color as the bridge. They were distributed at wholesale cost to several retailers in Duluth and Two Harbors around Sept. 1. Selling for about $30, they come with certificates of authenticity signed by Beamer and Mayor Don Ness.

While sales have been slow at some shops, they've been good at the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Canal Park, which is selling them for $29.95.

Of its stock of 50, the museum gift shop had 20 left in mid-October.

"People are enjoying it," said Gina Wuorinen, who works in the shop. "They're looking for anything as far as bridge memorabilia."

Not only tourists have bought the keepsakes, but area people who have enjoyed the Aerial Lift Bridge all their lives, said Wuorinen. "It's something that keeps them connected."

Although a mold was used, slight variations can be seen in the rough finish, and buyers will line them up to pick out the one they like best, she said.

Beamer estimates the miniatures have so far netted $746 for the city, which has gone into an engineering account.

"The city's not making a lot of money," Beamer said. "But I knew there were people out there who would want a piece of the bridge. I didn't want to throw the steel away when people would really enjoy having it."

Although 300 of the bridge miniatures were made, if the demand is there, more could be manufactured. Beamer has more steel panels from the bridge stashed away and more probably will be removed before the project is done.