Peter Passi

Forum News Service


DULUTH, Minn. - "Watch the top boys," said Ralph Andres under his breath, as watched city workers lift and unload his creation from a trailer Tuesday morning, with only inches to spare.

Andres painstakingly built the intricate scale model of the Aerial Lift Bridge just placed on display in the front window of the Great Lakes Aquarium. Measuring in at about 9 feet wide and 4 feet tall, the structure will fill the view.

The project took about five years to complete, and Andres, who will turn 88 tomorrow, undertook it as an act of gratitude.

He recalled moving to the Twin Ports as a boy from a farm south of Mora and going to work for Walter Butler Shipbuilders in 1944. With the exception of 2 years of military service spent in the South Pacific, the World War II vet has called the area home ever since. Andres now resides in Proctor.

"Living here all these years, I thought that this is a good place to live. And I thought to myself, I'm going to show them, if I can, some appreciation," Andres said.

As an accomplished model builder, Andres considered his options, and quickly settled on the Aerial Lift Bridge as his subject matter.

He approached Duluth's then-mayor Don Ness, asking for any mechanical drawings of the bridge the city could provide.

The city scoured its files then sent Andres some drawings of the bridge drawn in such miniature scale that he needed a magnifying glass to make out the details.

It took Andres about a year to translate the drawing into detailed plans for the one-seventieth scale model of the bridge he built out of basswood at a personal cost of about $2,500 -- clearly not including labor.

Andres acknowledged it took a lot of time to replicate the bridge, but he's no stranger to complicated and challenging tasks.

When he retired from his 29-year job as a machinist for the Air National Guard, Andres set to work on an even more daunting project.

"Being a machinist, I had all the equipment I needed to build a locomotive. Imagine that," he said. "So I spent 31 years building the locomotive that's now down in the (Lake Superior) Railroad Museum."

The working model of a Yellowstone 2-8-8-4 steam engine that Andres reproduced was the largest steam locomotive of its kind and remains on indefinite loan to the Duluth museum, where it's exhibited.

"I guess you could call that my pride and joy, because not only was it the biggest thing, the heaviest thing and the longest thing I'd built, but it was very expensive, too," he said.

The locomotive measures 18 feet long, weighs 1½ tons and cost about $50,000 to build.

Andres also has built other detailed replicas, including a model of the heavy cruiser USS Des Moines and a one-sixth scale reproduction of a P-38 Lightning fighter that now hangs in the Richard I Bong Veterans Historical Center.

Jack LaVoy, executive director of the Great Lakes Aquarium, said he was excited to place Andres' model on display.

"The Aerial Lift Bridge is really an iconic symbol of Duluth. It's sort of our equivalent of the Eiffel Tower. When you see that structure, you immediately think of Duluth," he said.

"What this model does is it provides visitors with an opportunity to get an up-close look at what an amazing structure it is. And it's a real credit to Ralph Andres' skill." LaVoy said.

With its impressive views of the Aerial Lift Bridge, the aquarium seems a natural venue in which to exhibit the replica, LaVoy observed.

"We think this is a fitting place for that model, because here we tell the story of the Great Lakes and the St. Louis River estuary and all the elements associated with what makes this area so unique. So to have that model of the ship canal, which plays such an important role in commercial activity on the lake, here on exhibit seemed like a good fit," he said.

LaVoy sees an upside for the model's creator, too.

"It's also a good opportunity for Mr. Andres to have his work enjoyed because last year, we had over 137,000 people come through. We're very busy. We're the busiest paid visitor attraction in the city, so we'll be providing him with a very good audience."

Andres said he has been building models since the age of 6 and recalls his first project was an attempt to replicate a PT boat.

"I built one that was big enough to get in, and I had a neighborhood kid put it in a ditch right near our farm. We got in, and it floated mind you," he said.

Andres imagination hasn't slowed down with age. He's already planning his next project and said he'd like to build a 15- to 20-foot tall replica of the Eiffel Tower. But he's not sure where to put it.