Editor’s note: This is one of a series of articles about the culture and various features of Detroit Lake. Lynn Hummel is a retired Detroit Lakes attorney who pens the weekly “Pony Express” column for the Tribune’s opinion page.
Yes, Long Bridge has had a mayor. Charles Chesley was recognized as the mayor of Long Bridge, having fished there since 1934. Later, the mayor was Dr. Mel Morrow.
But more about Chesley and Morrow later. First, let’s look at a short history of Long Bridge.
Three miles southwest of downtown Detroit Lakes, Big Detroit Lake has an arm listed on maps as “Curfman Lake,” but known locally as “Deadshot Bay” (see more below on the Ghost of “Deadshot” Esterly). Big Detroit and Deadshot Bay were connected by a narrow channel about 140 feet wide and 40 feet deep.
There is evidence that there was a crossing as early as 1872 when Lake View Township was formed. It was probably only a few planks laid between chunks of sod. Few farmers, with wagons pulled by horses, had the nerve to haul loads across that crude path.
But the first real bridge was built in 1894 at a cost to the township of about $350. In those days only crude machinery and oxen power were available. A pile driver for pilings was lifted by two oxen and later two more oxen were brought in to speed up the process. An early pile driver consisted of a wooden platform, tall posts, ropes and pulleys. A big log (or railroad ties fastened together) was raised high in the air by the oxen, then dropped - over and over. The completed bridge was just wide enough for one team of horses and a wagon to go across and railings on the sides were single boards offering little protection.
In the spring of 1901 the bridge was completely repaired and improved with new planks and better railings. John Holcomb was hired to paint it for $1.50 a day. He painted it a brilliant red and it became known as the “Red Bridge.”
It was during those years that the bridge became famous among the anglers of the northwest according to an early area brochure. One of the early stories tells of the day Mrs. E.A. Bowling of Detroit Lakes caught 200 pounds of pickerel pike and bass from the bridge - in just three hours.
Town residents looked forward to summer days when the family got up at sunrise, threw lunch baskets and fishing poles into the wagon, then headed for the Red Bridge for a day of fun.
There were two ways of getting to the bridge from the village. One was to take the wagon road around Little Detroit. The other way was to come through Crummett Woods, now the City Park site, and wade the horses across the sand bar that divides Little and Big Detroit Lakes (that gave Detroit the name of the lake by early French pioneers), through what is now called Cox’s Point, and on to Red Bridge. A few years later the sand bar was dredged for steamboat travel and this route was eliminated.
Then along came the automobile. The bridge became outmoded and downright dangerous. It was just too small and rickety. So the Lake View Township residents decided to build a new bridge. Since the automobile was here to stay, meetings were held in 1917 to launch the project. In January of 1918 new pilings were driven. Horses were used now instead of oxen. The new bridge was built 50 feet west of the old one and was longer and wider on a new and higher road. The newspaper report on the project used the expression “Long Bridge Road” for the first time.
A third bridge in the same location was built in 1934 with WPA assistance. The pilings under this bridge were 80 feet deep - 40 feet into the mud and 40 feet in the water.
The mayor of Long Bridge
Back to the “Mayor of Long Bridge.” Charles Chesley had fished from the bridge since 1934 and reportedly was still fishing there in 1961. He kept track of all the fish he caught off the bridge. In 1960, the total was 2,360. The following year the total was 2,800, while his wife caught 2,900. Maybe she should have been mayor. Very few fish were kept. Some were given away and most were returned to the lake - catch and release. Another fisherman at that time, Harry Melander, caught between 1600 and 1700 crappies. The bridge was popular with kids too. Every summer from 1958 on, the Jess Omundson VFW Post held a “small fry” fishing derby for kids.
Fishermen from all over loved to fish from the bridge. It was an ideal alternative to fishing from boats. Not only is the bridge available to rich and poor, but its location ensured calm water when the rest of the lake is rough.
The late season fishing experience on Long Bridge was described on KDLM Radio on November 20, 1962 by Dr. Mel Morrow, also known from time to time as “Mayor of Long Bridge” after the time of Charles Chesley:
“You put your fishing rod in the car and your old bait bucket and the heavy gloves… and head for Long Bridge with a couple of red apples in your pocket.
“It’s very quiet at the bridge. After you break the thin sheet of ice with an old boat anchor or brick, you bait up, wet your line and wait. The quiet covers you like a blanket.
“Sometimes another fisherman will make a soft remark, but mostly you lean on the bridge and watch the sky turn from flame to rose to black.
“Suddenly you hear an exclamation. Somebody says ‘I’ve got one!’ All the lines are reeled in so they won’t tangle. Fishermen close in on the lucky one with nets and flashlights (help out). A car with lights on may stop on the bridge to give light for the landing.
“Then there is talk, admiration for the fish, the business of weighing, and finally dark shapes move over to their own spots again and the bridge is quiet.
“After awhile, the cold begins to creep up from your feet a little and one by one the fishermen pack up and leave for home. Fishing is over for the night.
“When you get home the yard lights pop on as you drive in and a voice calls from the open door: ‘Where are the fish, fisherman?’
“That is one man’s recipe for contentment.”
Of course the idea of building a resort at the bridge was irresistible. In 1946 Ken Eckdahl built the Long Bridge Resort. Harold Gillespie became owner in 1956 and Arlo Weimer bought it in 1959. When the Weimers owned the resort, boaters and cyclists would call the resort from town and order pie and coffee, then boat or bike to the bridge for fresh coffee and pie. Boaters call the arrangement “the pie cruise.”
Fast forward to 2019. The current Long Bridge Restaurant is newly remodeled with dining on two levels with docking service for diners and a marina for boat owners wishing to access the lake.
As time went on and auto traffic increased, the 1934 bridge with only a single traffic lane became more and more antiquated. In the early 70s accidents were happening on the bridge. At a public hearing in 1974, Becker County Engineer Curt Weldon summed up the situation. “The bridge needs replacement. Building another bridge and leaving the present bridge for fishing is a possibility.”
But that idea was probably considered extravagant and never developed. Long Bridge and the adjoining neighborhood were annexed into the City of Detroit Lakes in April, 2005.
Instead, the current bridge, the fourth, was built in 1976. This bridge, for the first time, was designed for two way auto traffic with 20 foot driving lanes going both directions. In addition, the roadway was redesigned for safer driving. The prestressed cast concrete structure with treated timber pilings is 204.3 feet long and 56.5 feet wide with protected pedestrian pathways on each side. The roadway is separated from pedestrian pathways by railings 3 feet, 8 inches high.
Depending on channel depth, which varies by the season and by the year, there is roughly 10 feet of clearance between the bottom of the bridge and the water. There are two channels wide enough for pontoons for passage under the bridge traffic between Detroit Lake and Dead Shot Bay.
The records do not reveal that a covered bridge was ever considered. But the current bridge can now accommodate three uses: fishing and pedestrian traffic, as from earliest days, two way automobile traffic, and bridge jumping.
Wait a minute - bridge jumping? Yes, though not intended to accommodate jumpers, the 1976 bridge with its side rails seems to invite jumpers into the channel below. The jump, usually feet first, is approximately 14 feet from railing to water. On warm summer days, especially in the evening, there is a steady stream of jumpers, sometimes five abreast, plunging into the water, both on the Detroit Lake side and the Deadshot Bay side. And they are noisy. Most jumpers are teens and pre-teens, but moms and dads also plunge.
The Ghost of ‘Deadshot’ Esterly
This is our first spring in the neighborhood of Deadshot Bay. The correct name of Deadshot Bay is Curfman Lake, but almost nobody knows it.
Deadshot Bay got its name from George Esterly, who was known as “Old Deadshot.” Deadshot arrived and pitched his tent on the northwestern shore of the bay in about 1895, when he was already in his 70s. He quickly established a reputation as a teller of stories, spotless housekeeper, excellent cook, marksman, fisherman and character. His skill as a straight shooter with firearms lead to his nickname, “Old Deadshot.”
I have seen three photos of Deadshot. He was a big man - tall, broad shoulders, long white hair, well built and he wore a buckskin jacket and boots. In one of the pictures, he was sitting at the door flap of his tent with a rifle on his lap - waiting and guarding. Another picture showed him marching with his rifle over his shoulder. He’s walking in the woods and he looks alert and ready. His strength was legendary, one report witnessing that at the age of 75 he helped lift a 500 pound range onto the bed of a dray wagon four feet high.
Deadshot told stories about his experience as a U.S. soldier in the Indian wars and then the Mexican war. He liked his meat very rare and claimed his preference came from the Indian wars when the soldiers would keep their fires burning for short periods of time for fear the smoke would signal their location to the Indians surrounding them.
Deadshot was known as an outstanding cook who wore an apron while baking bread and preparing meals. Eventually he settled in a one-room frame cabin that he kept spotless. The young men of the area were attracted to the outstanding meals he shared with them, and to his storytelling.
But he became a legend because of his shooting. His rifle was his constant companion. He kept fishnets on Deadshot Bay that were occasionally raided at night. So he set up a rifle rest on the shore and waited for the raiders. He heard them one night, slipped his gun on the nest and fired several rounds. The next day he discovered the bullets had struck all around one of the openings on the ice for his nets. Fortunately, the raiders had been raiding another of his openings. But that was the last of the raids. He was never bothered again.
Because of his skill as a rifleman, he was once hired to guard a man in jail awaiting his trial for attempted murder for shooting and wounding another man in an argument. While guarding the prisoner, Deadshot fell asleep at his post and his gun was stolen. It may have been just a practical joke, but it was no joke to Deadshot. When he awoke, he thundered, “By the Eternal God, I’ll kill the man who stole my rifle.” He never found the culprit and the rifle was never recovered.
The written last chapter of Deadshot’s life story reads that in 1900 he moved to the Soldiers Home in St. Paul and that he died there in 1905. But to this very day, late at night in the woods around Deadshot Bay, when the frogs and crickets are quiet and the moon and stars are under the clouds, there is a sound of twigs cracking - one step at a time. Then they stop, and even the creatures in the forest hold their breath and all listen. Then they start again and the sounds of soft walking are unmistakable. Is this the ghost of Old Deadshot, armed and still hunting for an outlaw with a rifle stolen from a sleeping man? Some wrongs are never forgotten and never forgiven. You don’t get a name like Deadshot by offering pardons to the guilty. A word to the wise: Don’t ever embarrass an old soldier sleeping on guard duty - and stay out of the woods around Deadshot Bay after dark.