The Vista Fleet is a Scenic Tour Boat company that has operated in the Duluth/Superior Harbor throughout the past 50 summer tourist seasons. My first experience touring this fascinating shipping port was while I was attending school at Homecroft Elementary School some almost 50 years ago. You might say I got in on the ground floor as the company was sprouting its wings or setting its sails as the case may be.
Operating out of a small building dockside behind the now labeled Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center the Vista Fleet originally consisted of two boats, the Vista Queen and Vista King. Years later the Vista Star was added to the fleet greatly adding to capacity and versatility as dinner cruises and special event cruises became part of the offerings.
As a young student seeing the harbor up close for the first time was amazing. How much that harbor has changed over the past 50 years is even more impressive. Bridges came and went, shipping boomed and busted, railways gave way to interstate highways. An ongoing ever evolving commerce ebbed and flowed as the country progressed through the 20th century.
The following are some of the highlights of a harbor cruise on the Vista Fleet including many changes and events that the tour boats witnessed over the past 50 years or so.
1. The Duluth Ariel Lift Bridge: If there ever was a structure that defined a city the Ariel Lift Bridge would be it. Welcoming ship board traffic since 1904 it has transitioned from a gondola ferry bridge to a lifting span bridge that connects the community of Park Point and the whole of Minnesota Point with the rest of the city.
2. The Grain Elevators: Throughout the harbor a number of massive storage facilities hold grains transported by truck or train from the fields of the Dakotas on their way east and onward around the world in the hold of ocean going freighters.
3. The Peavy Grain Elevator Fire: 1978 saw witness to a spectacular fire destroying a landmark from the early years of Duluth. The Old Peavy Elevator, a wooden structure constructed by laying one 2×12 white pine plank flat on top of another, caught fire and burnt uncontrolled through the night. This method of construction consumed huge quantities of virgin timber in the 1800’s as Duluth was just getting established as a port city.
4. The Duluth-Superior High Bridge: Now known as the John A. Blatnick Bridge was constructed in 1961. The building of this bridge allowed modern truck access to both the Duluth and Superior sides of the harbor. With a rapid way to bring grain to port shipping took off in the 60’s to the point where long lines of semi trucks waiting to be emptied were a common sight as you drove across this wondrous span looking down at the many large boats coming and going. This new bridge replaced the Old Interstate Bridge, a wooden toll structure that I can still remember crossing with the family in our 1951 Chevy. Parts of this bridge still remain today as a fishing pier open for public use.
5. The Iron Ore Docks: Have you wondered where your car came from? The steel for it and most of the modern world around us originated from Northern Minnesota Iron Ore Mines. Did you know more then ½ the iron ore mined in the world comes from Minnesota mines. Transported year around by rail from the mines some 75 miles north of Duluth Taconite pellets are stockpiled then loaded on Great Lakes Iron Ore Carriers to head east to the steel mills. This part of Minnesota’s economic past is most important to me as I both worked for a Minnesota Iron Ore Mine and sailed on an Iron Ore Carrier throughout my working career. The mine has since changed names and the old steamships no longer exist.
6. The Coal Docks: The Superior Midwest Energy Terminal opened in 1976. Coal transported by rail comes form mines out west and is stock piled and loaded to be shipped across the Great Lakes.
7. The Grounding of the Socrates: A grand spectator experience as the winds of November in 1985 caused the ocean going freighter the Socrates, which was anchored a mile off shore waiting its turn to enter port, to be blown aground off the sandy beaches of Park Point. Six days later the ship was successfully pulled back out to deep water and was able to continue on its way. During that embarrassing (for the ships Captain) period the Duluth Transit Company provided bus shuttles loaded with curious passengers wanting to see the rare occurrence.
8. The Fireworks Disaster: The Vista Fleet had front row seats for the spectacular explosions. The 4th of July 1988 Fireworks Display (Video) was short but none the less dramatic as we all ran for our lives. The Vista boats were within a matter of yards out in the harbor. I was in Bay Front Park with thousands of other spectators anticipating an hour long fireworks display. Within seconds after the first round of mortars flew skyward the whole works lit off all at once on the ground. It was wild mayhem as we all ran for safety but no one was seriously injured.
9. The Bong Bridge: Our most recent interstate bridge connecting Duluth to Superior is the Bong Bridge dedicated to Richard Ira Bong of Poplar Wisconsin. This Top World War II Ace of Aces shot down 40 Japanese aircraft in the Pacific theater. The Bong Bridge replaced another relic of early transportation the Old Wooden Arrowhead Bridge. Again a portion was saved and serves yet today as a fishing pier.
10. The William A. Irvin & The SS Meteor: Two unique and important parts of the Great Lakes Shipping History. The Vista Fleet’s main terminal is located adjacent to the Irvin on the Duluth side of the harbor while their second terminal is located adjacent to the SS Monitor on Barkers Island located on the Superior side of the harbor. It’s fitting that tours of this great inland shipping port should originate alongside the retired Flagship of the U.S. Steel fleet and the only remaining example of a Whaleback Steamship.
The Vista Fleet has seen many changes and experienced some unique events while safely transporting tourists and locals alike around this great harbor. It’s been a while since I’ve experience the blare of the lift bridge horn announcing it’s rise to clear harbor bound traffic from around the globe. Maybe it’s time to sign on for a Dinner Cruise and renew my connection to the Head of the Lakes and the Vista Fleet again.