The invention of moving walkways or sidewalks dates back to the late 1800s. An inventor named Albert Speer of New Jersey received the first patent for an “Endless-Traveling Sidewalk” in 1871. Speer planned to revolutionize transportation in New York City, but his idea was never adopted.
It wasn’t until the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago that one was built in the U.S.
Duluth’s first recorded mention of moving sidewalks was in a humorous editorial cartoon in the Duluth News Tribune of December 10, 1894:
The caption reads, “Scheme for transporting people up Fifth Ave. by which Tommy Walsh expects to make a fortune.” (Tommy Walsh was mentioned often in the newspapers of the time, described as a local raconteur and politician.)
Following the success of another moving sidewalk at the 1900 Paris Exposition, there was talk of building them in American cities. Proposals were made in several cities, but they didn’t materialize.
The idea for building a moving sidewalk was proposed in Duluth in 1908 by a man named John Edward Roemer, described as a civil engineer from Paris, France. He came to town in August and his idea was described in a lengthy Duluth News Tribune article. Roemer told the newspaper he wanted to build a system of moving sidewalks up Duluth’s steepest hills. The power to run the system would come from storage batteries buried in chambers beneath Superior Street. The moving walkways would take the route of current sidewalks. Tunnels would be dug beneath cross streets so the sidewalks could pass under the streets. The tunnels would be lined with enameled brick, identical to that used in the underground systems in Paris and London.
Passengers would ride in chairs specifically designed by Roemer. Even more ambitious, at the top of the hill where the moving sidewalk system terminated, Roemer proposed building a pavilion and an aerial rail line extending to Fond du Lac, with stops in the West End, West Duluth, New Duluth, and Ironton.
Roemer presented his ideas to the Duluth City Council on August 24, 1908. Describing the project, he told the aldermen (as councilors were then called) that he wasn’t asking for funding from the city because he had already raised the capital from “Belgian bankers.” He was asking for a franchise that would allow his investors to operate the system commercially. He planned to charge Duluthians the odd fare of 2 ½ cents for a ride on the moving sidewalk and a nickel to ride between stations on the aerial rail line. The aldermen expressed interest in the idea and asked Roemer to repeat his presentation the next day at a meeting of the Streets, Alleys, and Sidewalks Committee that would also include Mayor Roland D. Haven, City Attorney Coryate S. Wilson, and City Engineer Thomas McGilvray.
The meeting took place on August 25 at 3:30 p.m. in the council chambers in City Hall. After Roemer’s presentation and a discussion, the group gave its stamp of approval to the project. According to the Duluth News Tribune:
It was the general sentiment of those in conference. . .that it was entirely feasible and practical and that it would be a means of enhancing the value of property on the hill side and of populating the district between Duluth Heights and Fond du Lac. (Duluth News Tribune, Aug. 26, 1908)
Roemer told the group that the only problem he foresaw was crossing the alley access in the middle of each block. He said the moving sidewalk mechanism would be damaged if ridden over by heavy wagons. He suggested getting permission from property owners to close off that end of the alley on each block.
Roemer proposed constructing a demonstration sidewalk up First Avenue East, from Superior Street to Twelfth Street. He told the officials if there were no unforeseen delays he could have the first moving sidewalk ready for citizens to ride on New Year’s Day, 1909. According to the Duluth News Tribune, all that was left for the project to move forward was the writing of a franchise agreement that suited the city and Roemer’s company.
Roemer appeared before the City Council at their August 31, 1908, meeting to present his revised plans, which took into account the problem with crossing alleys. Officials of the American Suspended Railway Co. sent brochures to city officials describing the overhead railway plan. They said the cars could move safely at speeds of 130 miles an hour. The City Council discussed the information at their September 7, 1908, meeting.
In the Duluth News Tribune of September 6, 1908, an opinion piece was published. Called “Impressed by City’s Beauty,” it was written by John Edward Roemer. In it he praised the beauty of Duluth, and gently chastised citizens for not appreciating it:
I have seen the wonders of France, the beauties of Italy, the natural gardens of England, but I had to see the city of Duluth, surrounded by its green hills at sunrise, to really appreciate the beauties of nature. And what has seemed most remarkable to me is that, though I had been in Duluth several days, I had to find it out myself—no one had even mentioned it to me. (Duluth News Tribune, Sept. 6, 1908)
That’s the last mention of Duluth’s moving sidewalk system in either the Duluth newspapers or the City Council Proceedings, except for an editorial nearly five years later in the May 15, 1913, Duluth Herald. The writer says, “some years ago, a visitor in Duluth. . .chased up a guileless young reporter and poured a tale into his ears.” He says the visitor said he represented a company promoting moving sidewalks, and that Duluth would be an ideal location. The writer says the visitor “made his story interesting and plausible,” but that that was the last ever heard of moving sidewalks in Duluth. It’s unclear what happened to Roemer’s plans—he may have lost his funding, or maybe he and the city couldn’t reach agreement on a franchise. Or the whole thing was a scam. Whatever the reason, 98 years later Duluth pedestrians are still climbing up the steep avenues under their own power, not riding up in comfortable chairs and, on the way, gliding under the streets through shiny brick tunnels.