Sunday, March 20, 2022

What’s in the name of a high bridge?

Looking from Duluth toward Superior
near Blatnik Bridge/Wikipedia
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/March 20,2022

I see in the newspaper that they’re talking about replacing the Blatnik Bridge. What? Already?

Seems like just yesterday that I rumbled across it on the weekend it opened in my flashy ’40 Ford coupe, my first car. But I guess I have to admit it was 61 years ago. My, how time flies. The car and I were about the same age at the time.

It was quite a milestone for Duluth and Superior — an imposing high bridge looming over the mouth of the St. Louis River and connecting the two communities known then and today as the Twin Ports. But it wasn’t called Blatnik at first. More on that later.

The ranks of those who traversed the bridge’s predecessor, called the Interstate Bridge, are thinning these many decades later. I remember it well.

The earlier bridge was a combination railroad and vehicle bridge. Its owners charged a toll for vehicles crossing between the two cities, a pittance by today’s standards — just small change. The bridge’s owner employed men (it was always men) to man the toll booth at mid-bridge 24 hours a day

Another toll bridge, the Arrowhead, connecting West Duluth with Superior’s western environs, was for cars and trucks only. It forever canceled its toll the day the new bridge opened to traffic and has, of course, been replaced in pretty much the same spot by the Bong Bridge, named after World War II “Ace of Aces” Maj. Richard Ira Bong, who grew up in Poplar, Wis., outside of Superior.

As mentioned, the Blatnik Bridge didn’t always bear the name of northern Minnesota Congressman John A. Blatnik. 

They didn’t name it after the veteran congressman until 1971, a decade after the bridge was completed, when he was nearing the end of his congressional service. Before that it was simply called the Duluth-Superior High Bridge. It’s pure coincidence that one of our bridges is “high” and the other “Bong,” although that hasn’t gone unnoticed by those with in interest in the cannabis culture..

I knew Blatnik the way a journalist gets to know public officials and other news sources. Blatnik was a genial native of Chisholm who had served in the Minnesota Legislature and had a distinguished World War II record in the Army Air Force Strategic Services, operating in Europe’s Balkan area where his Slovenian roots had formed.

In his 28 years in Congress he became a savvy political operative, eventually securing chairmanship of the House Public Works Committee from which he could influence considerable legislation beneficial to his district (our bridge), state and, of course, the nation. Lots of infrastructure before anybody called it that. Blatnik died in 1991 at age 80.

Early in my years as a reporter for this newspaper I had frequent contact with him as I covered multiple events where he was the main speaker. These events crescendoed around election time every two years. Even though he was enormously popular with Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party voters — he never lost an election or even came close to losing — he always ran scared, a close friend of the congressman told me.

One election, the Republicans imported the ambitious son of the president of a major steel company in the East to challenge Blatnik. He didn’t come close.

Back in the district, he’d show up anywhere where a few people gathered, often presenting groups with a flag that, he said, had flown above the U.S. Capitol. Maybe it had. And at these gatherings he almost always gave the same stock speech, extolling the people of northern Minnesota with varied ethnic backgrounds who get along so well — Serbians, Bosnians, Herzegovinians.  (They don’t get along so well in Europe.) 

I’d heard that speech several times, and one time covering him, when I was pressed to move on to another assignment, I asked him before the event began if he was planning to give the same speech he always gave. I believe I insulted him, and I’m sorry for that, but I didn’t stick around.

I ran into him at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport one time, greeting him as I queued up behind him as he was engaging an airline employe. He quickly extended his hand back without turning around to see who it was. Blatnik, like his political compatriots, shook a lot of hands. 

He was part of the Hubert Humphrey coterie that formed the DFL and was said to be disappointed in 1964 when then Gov. Karl Rolvaag passed him over for an appointment to the Senate to replace Humphrey, who was elected vice president. The appointment went to Walter Mondale.

Politically, he was considered a liberal but the lines between the parties were not so sharp back then. Still, political competition has always been fierce. I had a political science professor at UMD who said Blatnik was “so red any self-respecting bull would charge him on sight.” The red referred to what was often called “godless communism” at the time.

He was far from that; he served this region well and his name lives on on the bridge connecting Duluth and Superior. Will any bridge replacement bear the same name? Stay tuned.

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Lots of war and not much peace...

Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/3-5-22


I have decided to write part of my autobiography, Here. Today.


I was born in Duluth one month after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. America wasn’t directly involved until two years later when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. By then I was 2 years old, and I remember nothing about it.


So I was introduced into this world in wartime. World War II went on long enough for me to grow into being aware of the war. Fragments of childhood memory include seeing a lot of men in uniform and the deaths of two soldiers, sons of our church my family knew. I wanted a children’s military uniform and got a sailor suit. Lots of children wore little uniforms.


I remember the rationing of certain foods and gasoline and the saving of tin cans. My father sold our car because of gasoline rationing and tire shortages. We took the bus.


I was four when President Roosevelt died, the war still raging in Europe and the Pacific. I remember grownups talking sadly about the president’s death. And those grownups — mainly my parents — talked a lot about the war’s end, when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945. By then I had completed kindergarten.


Everyone seemed relieved that the war was over. It was a joyful time. No more war forever, it seemed.


Five years later, when I was 10, the Korean War broke out. They didn’t want to actually call it a war so it was mainly referred to as the “Korean conflict.” My brother had graduated from high school and was concerned about being drafted. All healthy males in America were subject to the draft at age 18, war or no war, for decades. Unless, of course, they had bone spurs.


Things seemed to settle down a little after the Korean War came to an end following three years of fighting, About 40,000 American service personnel were killed, many more wounded. Duluth’s Marine reserve unit was hard hit. I was getting into my teens and soon would have to register for the military draft myself.


But throughout that period something called the Cold War was ongoing, with ubiquitous references to possible nuclear war with Russia. No actual fighting, though, involving the U.S. Everyone was relieved when Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin died, but it didn’t do much good, as Hungary found out a few years later.


What is more, there was this Indochina war going on throughout the rest of the 1950s. It seemed awfully far away and remote until America’s leaders started grumbling about the spread of communism in Asia (falling dominoes) and began sending more and more American troops to “advise” the leaders of a place called South Vietnam, under siege from the communist north of that country.


Oops, by now I’m of draftable age, but was deferred from conscription because I was in college. After I finished college in 1962, I joined the National Guard to avoid the draft (six months active duty vs. two years) and recall being told in boot camp that you guys better pay attention to your training because things are getting hot in a place called Vietnam.


I had joined shortly after tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union resulted in the building of the Berlin Wall, and the closest most historians believe we ever came to nuclear war, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961. Dangerous times. War and rumors of war, as the Good Book says, portending the Armageddon.


The war in Vietnam kept right on going though and by the time it ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon (we didn’t win), some 55,000 American service personnel, majority of them my age, had been killed. Their names are on a black wall in Washington, D.C.; you can’t visit without getting choked up. I served in guard and reserve units right here in Duluth until 1968 when my obligation ended. Whew. Never got called up.



I was getting too old for military service in the 1970s and had married and started a family. The next several years seemed pretty peaceful, and besides, I was busy being a husband, father and tending to making a living.


But that pesky Middle East kept flaring up and finally boiled over in 1990 in a conflict we now call the First Iraq War and also known as Operation Desert Storm. Short lived, and not many casualties, but war nevertheless. It drove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and kept American military personnel busy over there for several years.


And can’t forget the 1990s trouble in the Balkans, the ethnic cleansing, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the revival of centuries old grudges among the populations of such places as Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.


Then in 2003 American leaders declared the Second Gulf War in Iraq in response to the September 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and other targets, including the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. No one has ever shown that Iraq had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks. That one went on until 2011, concurrently with the war in Afghanistan that also got going in 2001 and just ended last year. Many Americans died and were wounded in both theaters.


I’m almost out of space, but not wars. Here we go again. I need hardly mention that a couple of weeks ago war erupted in Ukraine, started by Russia for no good reason, just like all the rest. America is not directly involved with troops this time around. We’ll see if that lasts. And hey, they’re back fighting in Europe where this personal account started.


That’s my life in war and very little peace. I’m pretty old now, but feeling fine. I figure there could be a couple more wars before I call it quits. Stay tuned.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog here at You may find other Duluth News Tribune posts by searching Heffernan on the DNT site and HERE.