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Brief History of Duluth, 1856–1939

This sketch of Duluth from the outer harbor appeared in a publication called Every Saturday in 1871. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Again with the Booming and the Busting and the Booming

While Duluth floundered to find its feet, life in the late 1850s and throughout the 1860s had been more stable across the bay in Superior, Wisconsin, then considered the only town of note in the entire region. But the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad’s terminus in Duluth threatened Superior’s position as the region’s premier city. Superiorites had campaigned aggressively to get the railroad to come to their city—even suggesting that Cooke drop the word “Lake” from the railroad’s name—and felt Cooke had snubbed them.

So Cooke’s railroad and his other projects brought prosperity to Duluth rather than to Superior. Loggers felled virgin timber throughout the region, and lumber mills sprung up on Rice’s Point and along Lake Avenue, where Roger Munger set up his mill. Cooke became the mills’ biggest customer, as they provided timber for his railroads and Union Improvement and Elevator Company, which built the huge grain terminal Elevator A along the shore on the outer harbor. The railroads built docks to reach Elevator A, connecting the waterfront to the railway. Elevator Q went up along the shore and more were built on Rice’s Point; a breakwater rose to protect ships anchored at Duluth outside the bay. The shipbuilding industry blossomed, and commercial fishing thrived. The Northern Pacific began working its way to Duluth as well. When the first telegraph reached the region, it would connect St. Paul to Duluth, not Superior. On March 6, 1870, the Minnesota State Legislature officially declared Duluth a city.

The fledgling city got off to a shaky start. Superior Street was little more than a trail of mud, boulders, and stumps. Camille Poirer, who would start Duluth Tent & Awning and create the Duluth Pack, hired a man to act as the city’s water department, transporting unfiltered Lake Superior water in “a large hogshead put on a cart.” As the fire department attempted to respond to its first call—a fire on Minnesota Point—the steam engine itself caught fire; flames spread to the fire hall, destroying it. On April 21 the city appointed Robert Bruce police chief, whose duties included lighting lamps on moonless nights; by June he had disappeared—along with the breakwater construction crew’s payroll, with which he had been entrusted. Despite these early setbacks, the city continued to move forward.

On the other side of the St. Louis Bay, snubbed Superior still had one great advantage over Duluth: the Superior entry. This natural divide between Minnesota Point and Wisconsin Point allowed ships to easily sail into the harbor where the St. Louis River feeds into Lake Superior. This kept a great deal of industry on the Wisconsin side of the bay, and the towns became rivals. In 1869 Duluth leaders had revived an idea first discussed in 1857, the building of a ship canal through Minnesota Point. Instead the Army Corps of Engineers had built piers at Superior’s natural entry and dredged seven miles of channels from Superior Bay to Duluth. Still, Minnesota lobbied hard for its own ship canal—Lake Superior had turned the breakwater built on the lakeside of the point to rubble, and docking ships outside of the harbor would never be safe. In March 1870 the Minnesota Legislature created the Minnesota Canal and Harbor Improvement Commission, contracting with W. W. Williams & Co. to dig a canal. In autumn of that year, the steam dredge Ishpeming took its first bite out of Minnesota Point.

Superior businessmen viewed the canal as a great threat to their city’s future and filed suit in federal courts to stop the dredging. This legal action and a particularly tough winter put a stop to the digging, but when the spring thaw came, nothing had been resolved. So the Ishpeming went back to work. In June, Superior got the answer it wanted, and the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Minnesotans in Duluth to “absolutely desist and abstain from digging, excavating and constructing…said canal.”

Unfortunately for those on the Wisconsin side, a telegram tipped off Duluthians of the pending order three days before it would officially arrive. By the time the courier, none other than surveyor George Stuntz, arrived in Duluth—well, let’s have the legend first.

As author Dora May McDonald tells the story, many claim that as the Ishpeming went to work on a Saturday morning in April 1871, it struck frozen gravel. Soon after this, word came that Stuntz had left St. Paul bound for Duluth with the injunction in hand, destined to arrive Monday morning. Resilient Duluthians sent out a call for every able-bodied man, woman, and child in Duluth “who could handle a spade or shovel, or beg, borrow, or steal a bucket or a bushel basket.” Citizens rushed to the work site and “dug, scratched, and burrowed till it was finished.” They toiled throughout the day Saturday and long into the night, the women tending fires and providing food and coffee, then all day Sunday and Sunday night. Sunday also brought rowboats filled with angry Superiorites who watched and heckled the efforts of the Duluthians. At the break of dawn on Monday morning, they had cleared the canal.

Truth be told, the Ishpeming did all the work. It starting digging in September, 1870, stopped for the winter, and started again April 24, 1871. Less than a week later it had finished its initial cut of the canal, and the injunction didn’t arrive in Duluth until weeks later. Though it would take until 1877, the courts eventually allowed Duluth to keep its canal.

Unfortunately for some, more than just watercraft began passing through the canal. Early settlers had platted the township of Fremont between Minnesota Point and Rice’s Point, a marshy area that included many floating islands experts speculate were “probably caused by driftwood and accumulating vegetable matter.” New currents caused by dredging the ship canal swept a great many of these floating islands against the shore of Minnesota Point or through the canal and out to the big lake; in either case, the islands broke up, and Fremont essentially floated way, along with the hopes of those who originally settled the town site.

Fremont residents weren’t the only ones damaged by the canal’s creation. Superiorites were up in arms—literally. One firm advertised a sale of surplus muskets leftover from the Civil War to arm Superiorites against those cliff dwellers across the bay, but no real threat ever developed. In order to pacify their angry neighbors, Duluth issued $100,000 in bonds to build a dike from Rice’s Point to Superior to separate shipping traffic between the two towns, but currents of the St. Louis River destroyed it. An 1872 effort by the Northern Pacific Railroad created a mile-long dike to again divide Superior Bay, but the following winter’s ice and wind helped currents destroy that as well. Nature wouldn’t allow man to divide the harbor, so the towns had to learn to share it.

The Northern Pacific Railroad helped complete the canal in 1872. Dredgers had cut the canal sixteen feet deep, and piers made of 24-foot rockfilled timber cribs stood on both sides of the canal’s entire ,470-foot length. The canal opened Duluth to another population burst. By 1873 more than five thousand souls called Duluth home. Schools and churches popped up all over town; logging, rail, shipping (chiefly grain), and fishing industries flourished; and retail shops began selling not only necessities, but luxury goods as well. Michael Fink had bought the fledgling brewery that the Fish Eaters had started during the lean years of the 1850s and would in turn sell it to brewmaster August Fitger and his partner Percy Anneke just a year later, creating Fitger’s Brewery. The Duluth Iron and Steel Company fired up a blast furnace on Rice’s Point. It all looked pretty promising, but the old timers had seen it boom—and bust—before.

And they would see it bust again: in September 1873, Jay Cooke ran out of money. This not only impacted Duluth particularly hard, it also sent the national economy spiraling first into panic and then into depression. Duluth businesses had gambled their future on Duluth becoming the railroad’s easternmost supply point, but work on the Northern Pacific halted. Within two months nearly half of Duluth’s business owners closed up shop, many of them going bankrupt along the way. Duluth’s population sank to below 1,500 people. In 1877 state officials allowed Duluth’s charter to expire, reducing it to village status. But the very depression that shut down Duluth would in the end redeem it. The faltering economy caused many to take their chances farming the great plains, and the fruits of their labor were shipped back east—through Duluth’s and Superior’s docks. Grain elevators rose on Rice’s Point and Conner’s Point across the bay. By 1881 so much grain made its way through the Twin Ports that officials formed the Duluth Board of Trade; five years later elevators dotting the harbor docks held twenty-two million bushels.

The first half of the 1880s saw a renewed interest in industry. As the decade began, the Northern Pacific found competition in the St. Paul & Duluth, which had replaced Jay Cooke’s failed Lake Superior & Mississippi; by 1889 sixteen thousand miles of track served ten railroads that carried goods to and from Duluth’s docks and warehouses. During this same time Charlemagne Tower, Jr. and his capitalist friends from the east began investing in the iron fields near Lake Vermilion, opening the Vermilion Iron Range and forming the Minnesota Iron Company and the Duluth & Iron Range Railway. But Duluth missed out at first, as Tower directed his railroad to Agate Bay (now Two Harbors) and erected massive ore docks on its shores. The first shipment of iron ore from the town of Tower headed for Agate Bay on July 3, 1884, where it was loaded onto the steamer Hecla destined for Philadelphia. The Arrowhead Region’s iron mining industry had begun in earnest. The lumber industry had also picked up steam. Many of the sawmills that failed with Jay Cooke fired up again, more were built, and by the midpoint of the decade they dotted the St. Louis Bay from Rice’s Point to Oneota, annually cutting about ten million board feet of lumber.

As industry grew in the 1880s, so did the town’s population. Neighborhoods sprang up in all directions from downtown. By 1887 streetcars operated by the Duluth Street Railway Company, organized in 1881, ran fifty-five blocks, from Twenty-third Avenue West to Twenty-second Avenue East. Public and parochial schools rose along with more churches and St. Luke’s and St. Mary’s hospitals. The 1885 state census placed the city’s population at 18,036. The village continued to pay off the defunct city’s debts, clearing the books in early 1887, which allowed the state legislature to sanction the incorporation of the city. Nearly 33,000 people lived in the Zenith City that year, and they elected village president John B. Sulphin mayor in March. The township was once again a city.

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