Duluth’s Development, 1856–1939

This perspective map of Duluth and Superior in 1910 was made by Henry Wellge. (Image: Zenith City Press)

1900 – 1939

Duluth’s western environs had been platted in the 1880s and 1890s, but not greatly populated until U.S. Steel built Morgan Park in 1913 on land between Riverside and New Duluth. Named for U.S. Steel’s J. P. Morgan, Morgan Park was a carefully planned  company town for the families of the steel firm’s managers, foremen, and skilled laborers—Germans, Scandinavians, and native-born Americans of European descent. Most unskilled laborers, recent Eastern and Southern European immigrants and Blacks, populated New Duluth, a portion of which had been purchased by U.S. Steel and renamed Gary in honor of Elbert H. Gary, a co-founder of U.S. Steel. Gary contained a faction of Orthodox Serbs, who were recruited to Duluth in 1905 to build the Thompson Dam (which provides Duluth with electricity) and stayed to work at U.S.S. and its affiliate, Atlas Cement.

In 1917, as World War I was tearing apart Europe, the McDougall-Duluth shipbuilding company—flush with government contracts to build naval vessels—developed Riverside along the St. Louis River between Morgan Park and West Duluth. The community provided housing for workers employed at the shipyards. Riverside had its own clubhouse, hospital, and theater. By 1918 nearly one thousand people called Riverside home, and many more shipyard workers moved to nearby Smithville.

By 1920 most of Duluth’s major neighborhoods had taken shape. In 1920 a section east of Hunter’s Park was developed as Morley Heights. Named for Albert Morley Marshall of Duluth’s Marshall-Wells Hardware, Morley Heights was created for employees of the Marshall-Wells Hardware company. It was not a company town, as Duluth provided all of its utilities; instead, it was considered part of a benefit plan. In 1919 Marshall Wells purchased over eighty houses from the DuPont company in Barksdale, Wisconsin. The houses were dismantled, placed on packing freighters, and shipped to Duluth over Lake Superior. They were then hauled up Woodland Avenue on sleds and reassembled along Spear Avenue and Morley Parkway. The idea didn’t go over very well with Marshall-Wells employees, however, and the neighborhood opened to anyone who wished to live there.

By the time Morley Heights was developed, Duluth was home to about 100,000 people from backgrounds as diverse as any city in the U.S. Its neighborhoods had developed and divided on lines financial, religious, and ethnic. Its most ambitious period of growth had come to an end, and the city was filled with examples of its development: homes both impressive and modest; commercial buildings simple and grand, many towering exclamations of native brownstone; and public buildings that spoke loudly of Duluthians’ commitment to their government, their children’s education, and their varied faiths. And behind it all the hum of industry kept the city at work.

While Duluth’s population would not hit its peak until 1960, it didn’t grow much in the 1920s and 1930s. By the twenties the great immigrant waves had subsided. The 1930s brought the Great Depression, retarding growth throughout the country. (The post-war housing boom that swept the nation in the 1950s and into the 1960s was seen in Duluth primarily in Piedmont and Duluth Heights, with Duluth Heights growing further in the 1970s with the construction of Miller Hill Mall and surrounding developments.)

The Great Depression and World War II would help the immigration pot to finally start melting in earnest. It took many years, but as the decades rolled on ethnic, religious, and financial lines blurred further and further. The middle class emerged, and people moved out of the neighborhoods of their youth. Others moved to town without the need for the ethnic communities that had been so important to an immigrant’s adjustment just decades before; now they were simply looking for a neighborhood that provided comfort and convenience. The congregations of churches divided along ethnic lines began to decline in numbers, and many eventually merged. Duluth would change in other ways as well, as most of the industries that helped shape the city and drove its economy would be dead or dying by the 1950s. Its population would peak at 104,000 in 1960; today about 85,000 people live in the Zenith City.

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