Brief History of Duluth, 1856–1939

This perspective map of Duluth in 1887 was made by Henry Wellge. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The Zenith City Prospers

As the decade came to an end, the view from the Zenith City was framed in promise. Duluth stretched eastward from roughly Fortieth Avenue West to the outskirts of Endion and included many of the townships that once hoped to become grand cities all their own: Endion, Portland, North Duluth, and Rice’s Point (Fremont, of course, had floated away with the birth of the canal). It did not include Minnesota Point, which had incorporated itself as the village of Park Point after Duluth failed in 1877. The village refused to rejoin the newly sanctioned city until a bridge was built connecting the point to the rest of the city—the digging of the ship canal had cut off its residents in 1871. Duluth promised a bridge, and Park Point became part of Duluth in 1889.

The expansion continued into the 1890s. In 1891 Duluth acquired Duluth Heights, Glen Avon, Hunter’s Park, Kenwood, Morley Heights, Piedmont Heights, and Woodland. Two years later saw the eastward annexation of Belville, Lakeside Village, New London, and Lester Park. Duluth still did not include anything from Fond du Lac to Oneota, but it was only a matter of time. West Duluth, including Oneota as a neighborhood, had incorporated in 1888. Its founders widely believed it deserved to become the “new Pittsburgh” after gaining a blast furnace and tolling mill from the Duluth Iron and Steel Company—but that vision didn’t materialize, and it became a part of Duluth in 1894, along with Bay View Heights and shipping enterprises donated generously to the construction of grand churches their families attended. The laborers who built those buildings—European immigrants, for the most part—took up residence in homes and row houses along the hillside and further uphill, in the Heights. The Incline Railway went up in 1891 to bring workers from their homes in the Heights to work downtown and along the waterfront. A pump house went up in Lakewood, east of Lester Park to bring fresh water to a growing population and a sewer system went underground to carry wastewater away.

The new growth created new demand: the increasing population needed to eat. This spurred the rebirth of the commercial fishing industry, which had shut down fifty years earlier with the demise of the American Fur Company. Firms such as the Lake Superior Fish Company and A. Booth and Sons employed thousands from Duluth to Isle Royale and Superior to Ashland on the Wisconsin side, their harvest of lake trout, siskiwit, herring, and pike feeding populations throughout the entire Midwest.

During the winter fishing companies shipped fresh fish (“frozen with the wiggle in its tail,” as one Duluth firm advertised) as far away as Montana.

At Sault Ste. Marie on the other end of the big lake, the federal government expanded the locks between Lake Huron and Lake Superior, allowing much larger ships with greater cargo capacity to make their way to and from the Zenith City. Back in Duluth, Captain Alexander McDougall saw this development as an opportunity to get into the shipbuilding business, another industry that would intermittently fuel Duluth’s and Superior’s economies. McDougall came up with a radical design: a barge like ship with a flat bottom, a rounded top, and a spoon-shaped bow. He called the ships “whalebacks.” Others called them “pig boats” because their blunted bows looked like a hog’s snout. McDougall found immediate success: his boats made great ore carriers, and with the financial backing of John D. Rockefeller, he started the American Steel Barge Company. Unfortunately for Duluth, some local businessmen made a stink about the noise a shipbuilding operation would create, and so McDougall moved his operations across the bay to West Superior.

Investing in McDougall’s funny-looking boats wouldn’t be Rockefeller’s last interest in the region; the industrialist later became part of iron mining lore as well. When Lewis Merritt first returned from Lake Vermilion in 1866, he had told his seven sons that the Arrowhead country would one day be covered with mines “worth more than all the gold in California.” So the Merritt boys had gone looking, and eventually, on the western end of a region the Ojibwe called “Mesaba,” found ore rich enough in iron to bring to market. In 1890 the Merritt brothers drilled a mine at a site they called Mountain Iron. The next year they built the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railway to transport the ore to Duluth, giving birth to the Mesabi Iron Range. The Merritts had performed all this work on speculation, and before they could generate profit to pay for it, their creditors came calling, demanding payment. That’s when Rockefeller stepped in, trading the cash the Merritts needed for a significant interest in their mining and railroad operations. By 1894 the mines still failed to produce a profit, and stock values fell, forcing the brothers to sell their shares to Rockefeller. They later tried to sue the industrialist for fraud, but only managed to get back just under a million dollars—barely enough to pay off their debt. After toiling ceaselessly for five years, the Merrits had created and lost a fortune. Their efforts did little for them, but they had created the Mesabi Range, which, along with Charlemagne Tower’s Vermilion Range and, eventually, the Cuyuna Range, made up the Minnesota Iron Range in the heart of Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region. The Range would be a major contributor to the region’s economy for nearly one hundred years to follow.

As the century ended, commercial fishing and lumber industries reached their peak, the Army Corps of Engineers completed improvements on the ship canal, and Duluth’s population had reached nearly fifty-three thousand. Attorney and real estate investor Samuel Frisby Snively had begun a labor of love, a roadway that would wind from his farm near Hawk Ridge to the Lake Superior shore near the mouth of the Lester River, crossing the western arm of the Lester and Amity Creek over several stone bridges along the way. (It would later be known as Seven Bridges Road.) Duluth’s other great parkway continued to grow and change, and in 1899 the Park Board renamed Terrace Parkway—now extended by an additional mile—“Rogers Boulevard” in honor of the man who had first envisioned it.

In 1905 Duluth would enjoy a banner year. The Great Northern Power Company constructed the Thomson Dam, bringing electricity to town. That same year Duluth fulfilled a promise to Park Point residents made sixteen years earlier as the Aerial Transfer Bridge rose up and reached over the canal.

Shipping, iron, and lumber magnates had been building stately homes in Duluth’s eastern environs and along London Road, and that year construction reached its symbolic peak when work began on Duluth’s most famous mansion, Glensheen, the Congdon Estate. Lakeside blossomed with grand Victorian homes built by lawyers, merchants, and other professionals as well as the more modest houses of the servant class who had found employment tending to the estates and families of the rich. That same year city fathers would first make the oft-repeated claim that Duluth had “more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the U.S.” Just two years later the 1907 shipping season saw Duluth overcome New York in tonnage that moved through the harbor—Duluth, in the middle of the continent, had become the biggest port in the U.S. By 1910 more than seventy-eight thousand people lived within its borders.

The same year Duluth surpassed New York, the United States Steel Corporation announced plans to build a “monster” plant in Duluth as part of a compromise between the Steel Trust and political leaders throughout the state to kill a bill that would have essentially doubled taxes for steel producers and ore exporters alike. But it would take eight years to get the plant up and running—it didn’t produce steel until 1915. By then U.S. Steel had invested twenty million dollars into the project and had built an entire town along the way. Named for U.S. Steel founder J. P. Morgan, Morgan Park sprang up on the banks of the St. Louis between Gary and Riverside. The company town (only U.S. Steel employees and their families could live there) was built with concrete manufactured on site at the Universal Portland Cement Company, a U.S. Steel subsidiary: the homes, buildings, and churches (one each for Catholics and Protestants) were made of poured concrete and cinder block. Civic and business leaders optimistically thought that the U.S. Steel plant would be one of many that would dot the shoreline “from Fond du Lac to Two Harbors” and that the population would reach 300,000 by 1920, but that promise never materialized.

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