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Brief History of Duluth, 1856–1939

This color woodblock of Duluth appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1871. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Boom, Bust, Boom

Two years before the Treaty of 1854, George Stuntz had pulled up stakes in Superior, made his way to Minnesota Point, and driven them back down, becoming Duluth’s unofficial first resident of European descent. He wasn’t alone for long. With the treaty in place, mining speculators hoping to make it rich pulling copper from the ground swarmed to the Minnesota side of the head of the lakes, and by 1859 had platted no less than eleven townships: Fond du Lac, Oneota (much of West Duluth or “Spirit Valley”), Rice’s Point, Fremont (near the present-day site of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center and Union Depot), Duluth (Minnesota Point and downtown), North Duluth (roughly Central Hillside), Portland (roughly East Hillside), Endion (roughly the eastern edge of East Hillside to the Congdon neighborhood), and Belville (Lakeside).

Legend muddies the truth behind the naming of Duluth Township, which then included Minnesota Point. Early settlers George and William Nettleton allegedly organized a picnic on Minnesota Point on a lovely summer’s day in 1856, inviting those Superiorites making claims on the newly platted township to propose a name for the fledgling city. After many names were suggested and rejected, the Reverend J. G. Wilson of Pittsburgh regaled the audience with the tale of Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut, and his listeners enthusiastically received the name “Duluth,” anointing the choice with the popping of champagne corks just as the sun set; the crowd toasted Duluth, surely to be the “Queen of the West.”

A wonderful tale, and indeed Wilson proposed the name, but the picnic itself probably never occurred (and the reverend may have hailed from Massachusetts or Logansport, Indiana). He had been promised a deed to two lots if he came up with a moniker for the town, and after researching books borrowed from George Nettleton, Wilson came up with a list, “Duluth” among the choices. He got his land.

Those first Duluthians—and residents of other fledgling townships—included mostly transplanted Superiorites such as the families of the Nettleton brothers, Colonel J. B. Culver, Orrin Rice, Reverend Ely, and Sidney Luce as well as the Lewis Merritt family of Oneota and others whose names remain prominent in Duluth. Still more came from throughout the country to stake their claims on what they hoped would become, as General George B. Sargent had predicted, the “center of trade of twenty American states yet unborn, and the British trade of the Red River settlements, and of Hudson’s Bay.” The local population grew to about 1,500. As in Superior, many speculated that Duluth would surpass Chicago as a center of trade and a destination for immigrants, and that its population would grow to 300,000 by the end of the century.

The Panic of 1857 put an end to such thoughts, triggering an exodus of fortune seekers away from Lake Superior’s shores. By 1860 just 353 persons populated the three largest townships of Fond du Lac, Oneota, and Duluth. According to early resident and amateur historian Jerome Eugene Cooley, those who stayed on would become known as the “Ancient and Honorable Order of the Fish Eaters,” for when times were tough they had little to eat but “fish or snowballs.” The Civil War also took a toll on the local population, as the unemployed left the region to find work fighting for the Union. Those who toughed it out scrabbled to find ways to make a living, including four young men—one with brewing skills—who opened a brewery along a waterway they named Brewery Creek, about two blocks from the site where the Fitger’s Brewery would later stand.

The coming of the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad from St. Paul to Duluth, backed by a dandy from Philadelphia, would change all that. Financier Jay Cooke arrived in Duluth in 1866, sporting a silk hat and handing out coins to Ojibwe on Minnesota Point (they called him “Great White Father”). Anticipation that Cooke’s rail line would put easy money in the pockets of landowners spawned another land rush in 1869, and the population soared. James J. Egan, a state representative, would say that “the lifeless corpse of Duluth…touched by the wand of Jay Cooke, sprang fullarmed from the tomb.” Soon they were calling Duluth “Jay Cooke’s Town” and “Philadelphia’s western suburb.”

Rumors of gold also brought a crush of speculators to the townships on the Minnesota side of the St. Louis. An 1865 geological survey claimed the shores of Lake Vermilion, north of Duluth, were rife with gold deposits. Prospectors swarmed to the region and even built a rough road, staked out by George Stuntz, along an old trail used for centuries by Dakota and Ojibwe (it ran roughly along what is today Seventh Avenue East in Duluth, County Road 4, and State Highway 135). Mining began in earnest in 1866, but prospectors uncovered very little gold. When Lewis Merritt visited the region, blacksmith North Albert Posey showed him something he had found that would prove much more valuable: a chunk of iron ore, evidence of a vast deposit that would later change the face of the entire Arrowhead region.

Despite the lack of gold in the Lake Vermilion area, the summer of 1866 found Duluthians feeling pretty confident about the region’s future. At an Independence Day picnic on Minnesota Point, newspaper publisher Dr. Thomas Foster (who produced Duluth’s first paper, the Minnesotian) gave a grand oration, during which he called Duluth the “Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.” It was a speech filled with optimism; by January 1869 just fourteen families lived at the base of Minnesota Point.

Duluthians elected their first mayor, J. B. Culver, the next year. If you believe Jerome Eugene Cooley, some Ojibwe men contributed to the voting roles. They had come to town, they thought, to attend a great celebration. Instead some unethical townspeople plied their “guests” with drink then forced them to put on borrowed pants and cast votes under the name “Joe LePorte” in exchange for another drink. Election officials counted 448 ballots that day, “without troubling to get out the woman vote,” as Cooley says. By the middle of 1870, the population of Duluth had grown to 3,130 people—a mix of “Fish Eaters,” “Sixty-Niners” (who had arrived the year before for the land and gold rush), and the European immigrants who would build Jay Cooke’s railroad and log the hillsides for timber that would be milled and become Duluth’s first houses. The once-dying township was becoming a thriving city.

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