Brief History of Duluth, 1856–1939

This panoramic postcard of Duluth was manufactured in the 1920s. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Between the Wars

In 1915 Duluth appeared to be firing on all cylinders. Commercial fishing on Lake Superior hit its all-time high; Duluth fishing interests alone hauled in ten thousand tons of fish. Other industries profited from the first world war: U.S. Steel, itself fed by ore from the Iron Range, cranked out steel to feed the war machines. The Mesabi Range alone produced twenty million tons of ore during the war years. Alexander McDougall, who had closed his shipbuilding operation in New Superior as the century turned, opened a new operation at Riverside along with some new partners—Chester Congdon, Marshall Alworth, and Julius Barnes—and began making freighters eight at a time for the allied nations. McDougall-Duluth employed so many people that the company essentially turned Riverside into a company town much like Morgan Park. During the war and through to 1921, the McDougall-Duluth Company and other shipbuilders in Duluth built 103 vessels.

Prohibition, ratified in 1919, hit one of Duluth’s first industries hard. The brewery operation that started with four men during the lean years of the Fish Eaters had grown into Fitger’s Brewery, which by 1918 cranked out 150,000 barrels a year. Two other breweries, Duluth Brewing and Malting and People’s Brewing, kept many a family fed in Duluth as well. During Prohibition all three had to shut down their kettles and bottling lines. In order to keep their employees working, they turned to a variety of non-alcoholic drinks and other products—including soft drinks, candy, and even cigars—but they did not operate at full capacity again until 1933, when Prohibition ended. The lumber industry also suffered. It was thought all but dead in Duluth by 1920 when the Alger-Smith mill closed, but many had already considered lumber pretty much done in 1912, when Canadian investors dismantled the Howard Mill and hauled it north, across the border.

Despite Prohibition and the demise of lumber, the Twenties were good to Duluth. In 1920 the city held 98,917 residents who enjoyed the use of fifty city parks, and over 17,000 students filled its forty-one public schools. Grain elevators and coal and ore docks operated at maximum capacity, and as went the docks, so went the shipping industry. In 1921 Duluthians elected Sam Snively to the first of four consecutive terms as mayor. A longtime fan of Duluth’s park system and a road-builder in his own right, Snively made William Rogers’ dream of connecting the parks by a parkway his pet project. By 1929 Rogers Boulevard stretched westward all the way to Jay Cooke Park and the town renamed it “Skyline Parkway.” The Twin Ports continued to prosper throughout the decade, and Duluth’s population hit an all-time high of 112,000 residents in 1928.

But then in 1929 it hit the same wall that every other city in the nation would run smack into: the Great Depression. It affected every industry, and by 1930 one-third of all Duluthians had lost their jobs. Still, Duluth somehow managed to progress. The Williamson-Johnson Municipal Airport, Duluth’s first foray into air travel, opened in 1930, the same year workers finished transforming the Aerial Bridge from a transfer bridge to a lift bridge. Throughout the Depression not a single Duluth bank failed, and the city took advantage of Franklin Roosevelt’s W.P.A. program, with 450 area projects—from park improvements to storm sewers under downtown streets—keeping locals working.

But while most of Duluth weathered the Great Depression fairly well, the fishing industry again floundered. Already on the decline, it soon went the way of logging: its yield by the mid-1930s had dropped to less than four thousand tons and would soon fall to less than one thousand tons. World War II would briefly revive the shipbuilding industry and boost the demand for iron ore, but even that stalwart industry would slow to a crawl. While the Mesabi Range continued to produce impressive tonnage (and still does), the Vermilion shut down in 1963, and the Cuyuna, which never attained the level of the others, closed in the mid-1970s. Shipping would remain strong, but Duluth, Superior, and the smaller towns that dotted Lake Superior’s north and south shores would have to look at new ways to bolster the local economy.

As the 1930s came to a close, one landmark went up as another came down: Enger Tower, a gift from local businessman Bert Enger, rose above the town in June, but the Incline Railway carried its last passengers on Labor Day. Sam Snively, though voted out of office in 1937, had completed his vision of William Rogers’ plan; laborers had finally finished work on Skyline Parkway, which ran twenty-eight miles from Jay Cooke Park in the west to connect with Snively’s Seven Bridges Road in the east, nearly the entire length of Duluth.

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