This story has been updated; it was originally published in March, 2013.
We were recently approached by a UMD journalism student who wanted to learn more about “How Tycoons (now the Blind Pig) restaurant was converted from a jail or prison into a restaurant.” It’s a fascinating question that gives us a chance to clear up this and other tall tales about the building that we’ve encountered since the restaurant first opened.
The Blind Pig, formerly known as Tycoons Alehouse, occupies Duluth’s historic City Hall at 132 E. Superior St., designed by Oliver Traphagen, Duluth’s most prolific architect from 1886 to 1896. At the same time he was commissioned to design a police headquarters and jail next door. Prior to the construction of this building, historians tell us, Duluth’s municipal government operated out of offices “on the second floor of a Superior Street saloon.”
The construction of City Hall was completed in 1889, at least a year before the police station and jail were ready for occupancy. When it first opened, the building’s first floor held offices for the City Clerk, the Health Department, the Building Inspector, the City Engineer, and others, including a temporary office for the chief of police. Second floor rooms included the mayor’s office, city attorney’s office, and City Council chambers.
The building’s main entrance was on the Michigan Street level, which held Duluth’s municipal court and, for its first year, the temporary home of the police department. At the time, Duluth had several small city jails spread throughout the city, necessitated by both Duluth’s unique shape (three miles wide and 28 miles long) and the limitations of horse-powered transportation. That system would end in 1890, when the police headquarters and jail next door at 126 E. Superior St. was completed. The new building included a walkway—unofficially Duluth’s first “skywalk”—connecting it to City Hall so prisoners could be transported efficiently to the Municipal Court next door and eliminating the need for the holding cell in the sub-basement. But from 1889 to 1890, prisoners were taken from those old jails to City Hall for their day in court. They waited in a makeshift holding cell housed in the sub-basement, today’s “Rathskeller.” So for one year the Rathskeller was home to a holding cell, not a jail.
So how did the idea of the “jail” get started? An old family story told by Duluth attorney Jim Balmer’s grandfather is the likely source. The elder Balmer, also named Jim, was 20 years old in 1889. He was a hard worker who, according to his grandson, “also liked to have fun and so had occasional run-ins with the police.” One such run-in led to his brief incarceration: he was tossed in the holding cell in City Hall’s subbasement “for a few hours until his maternal uncle, a city councilor, obtained his release.” Balmer’s grandfather told him that while he was inside, he scratched his name into a wall. Curious, Balmer stopped into the Rathskeller when it first opened to see if he could find his grandfather’s scratchings. The staff kindly obliged, but Balmer could not find his grandfather’s name. He did find a message carved into one of the massive brick-and-stone arched piers that support the building. Zenith City located the same message, and its author included the date “January 1910,” 20 years after anyone would have been placed in the holding cell. Balmer told us he can’t say “with any confidence at all” that it is his grandfather’s etching.
This apparently sparked the rumor, which has been fueled into tales of prisoners forced to labor in the dank subbasement, shoveling coal into the furnace that heated the building. Further rumors have surfaced as well, including claims of Prohibition-era (1919–1933) activity such as moonshining and bootlegging. The 1889 Duluth City Hall was the seat of municipal government until 1928, when it moved to today’s City Hall. That same year the 1889 building became home to a variety of county, state, and federal social service organizations, such as the St. Louis County Poor Commission, the Minnesota Association for Crippled Children and Disabled Adults, and later the American Red Cross. It is extremely unlikely that a bootlegging operation or a distillery operated within a building filled with government offices.
We’ve heard more stories, including those of so-called “secret societies” gathering in the building to plot their domination of Duluth and even one claim that a photograph taken in the subterranean cocktail lounge is proof of “the ghost of the Rathskeller.” In the days when digital photo editing software is available to everyone, those of you who believe in ghosts will have to forgive us for being highly skeptical of a specter in the subbasement.
How have these tall tees spread? Apparently building-owner Rod Raymond likes to pass them around, perhaps hoping it adds mystique to his dining establishment and bar. Employees have informed Zenith City Online that Raymond asks them to pass these stories on to patrons. Raymond even once told Zenith City Online’s publisher Tony Dierckins that he wanted the history of his building “needs” to be “juicy”—no matter what the facts said. Raymond has fueled the stories of secret societies and Prohibition-era activity and has now renamed his restaurant The Blind Pig. According to Raymond’s company, Just Take Action, the new name was intentionally devised to further connect it to Raymond’s Prohibition myths, as stated in a recent press release: “The old Midwestern term for a speakeasy, was called a blind pig, thus the genesis of the new name.”
Old City Hall has plenty of rich history that has nothing to do with ghosts, tormented prisoners, or criminal activity. The building’s past as the civic center of the Zenith City is rife with tales of sometimes explosive arguments in its City Council Chambers—battles that changed how Duluth was governed, shaped our park system, cleansed our water supply, and twice determined the design of our famous aerial bridge. It was home to mayors of all stripes, from working-class heros to those who could arguably be called “tycoons” themselves. They include a shipwreck survivor, the owner of professional baseball’s Duluth’s White Sox, a future judge, a former coroner, father of Chester and Clara Congdon’s son-in-law-to-be, a clipper ship captain who twice circumnavigated the globe, and a grocer nicknamed “Typhoid Truelson.” Two won their turn in office by as few as six votes, and Samuel Frisbee Snively, Duluth’s “Grand Old Dad” and longest-serving chief executive, was the last mayor to hold office in the building.
So there you have it: the Rathskeller at the Blind Pig/Tycoons was never a jail—nor an illegal liquor manufacturing facility, nor a warehouse for bootleggers, nor a meeting place for secret societies—and we highly doubt it is the home of ghosts of mistreated prisoners of the city. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a key part of a remarkable story. Its transformation from a dirt-floored subbasement into a cozy drinking spot with the feel of a 1920’s speakeasy was part of a multi-million dollar, historically sensitive renovation. Work included the reconstruction of the brownstone façade along Superior Street, which was stripped off the building in 1946 and replaced with black Carrara glass. Today the building’s exterior looks very much as it did in 1889. And while the interior of the lower two floors has been severely adapted throughout the years, the second floor remains relatively untouched; the owners have essentially restored that floor to its original condition. Their efforts earned the building an award from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota in 2012 and, moreover, revitalized one of the most important building’s in Duluth’s Downtown Historic District.
For a more complete history of the 1889 City Hall, click here.
For brief histories on the mayors who spent their term in the building, click here.
This article was researched by Maryanne Norton and written by Tony Dierckins.