Knott Puts Duluth on the Map
The Duluth-Superior rivalry reared its head in Washington, D.C., on January 27, 1871. Wisconsin investors were still seeking to build the Hudson-to-Superior route while at the same time lobbying to halt construction of the Duluth ship canal, financed by the LS&M. Congress debated both issues. Then the representative from Kentucky’s Fourth District—an obscure lame-duck lawmaker named Proctor Knott—rose to speak against the railroad land grant. By the time he finished his satirical philippic, he had catapulted himself—and Duluth—to national attention.
Historian David McCullough wrote of Knott that, “He…had a name that seemed designed especially for being chiseled in stone or signed with a flourish on documents of state.” Knott, who did not seek a third term in Congress in 1870, was among the lawmakers disgusted by Gilded Age corruption, epitomized by the scandals surrounding the 1869 completion of the Pacific Railroad. He stood against granting subsidies, especially to those—like Jay Cooke and the NP—who stood to benefit instead of his Kentucky brethren. Knott was a mere month away from leaving office when he made an indelible mark on history.
Knott’s speech, alternately titled “Duluth!” or “The Untold Delights of Duluth,” became a sensation. According to McCullough, “In an age of elaborate and energetic oratory it would be talked about, printed and reprinted, quoted and misquoted, for years to come…By the turn of the century the speech had appeared in at least three anthologies of American oratory.” The gist of Knott’s sarcastic address (interrupted 62 times by laughter from his fellow congressmen) was that Duluth—at the time a village of 3,000 inhabitants, most newly arrived—was the center of the universe and destined to become the greatest city in the history of the world, if one could only find it. You can get a fairly clear idea of the speech the first time Knott mentions the Zenith City:
Hence, as I have said, sir, I was utterly at a loss to determine where the terminus of this great and indispensable road should be, until I accidentally overheard some gentleman the other day mention the name of “Duluth.” Duluth! The word fell upon my ear with peculiar and indescribable charm, like the gentle murmur of a low fountain stealing forth in the midst of roses, or the soft, sweet accents of an angel’s whisper in the bright, joyous dream of sleeping innocence. Duluth! ’Twas the name for which my soul had panted for years, as the hart panteth for the water brooks. But where was Duluth? Never, in all my limited reading, had my vision been gladdened by seeing the celestial word in print. And I felt a profounder humiliation in my ignorance that its dulcet syllables had never before ravished my delighted ear. I was certain the draughtsman of this bill had never heard of it, or it would have been designated as one of the termini of this road. I asked my friends about it, but they knew nothing of it. I rushed to the Library and examined all the maps I could find. I discovered in one of them a delicate, hairlike line, diverging from the Mississippi near a place marked Prescott, which I supposed was intended to represent the river St. Croix, but I could nowhere find Duluth.
[Click here to read Knott’s “The Untold Delights of Duluth.”]
The speech came close to never being uttered. Perturbed over previously denied attempts to speak against the grant—and because he was only allowed 10 minutes instead of his requested 30—Knott admonished Speaker of the House James G. Blaine by saying, “I can not pretend to do justice to this subject in…ten minutes. It does seem to me, sir, that my facilities for getting time on this floor are so poor that if I were standing on the brink of perdition and the sands were crumbling under my feet I could not get time enough to repeat the Lord’s prayer.”
Seeking the perception of fairness, a proponent of the bill (likely William Windon, referred to by journalist C. E. Lovett as “Mr. Wilson of Minnesota”) spoke out on behalf of Knott or whomever else wished to speak in opposition to the bill, saying, “I wish the house to be as generous to the friends of the bill as to its enemies. We are willing to meet every objection made against the bill with arguments supported by facts [emphasis added].”
Knott was granted his half hour. When Blaine banged the gavel after 30 minutes, Representative (and future president) James A. Garfield of Ohio led a chorus in support of allowing Knott to continue. Receiving no objections, Blaine acquiesced. When Knott concluded, the chamber emptied with the members in such a jovial mood that no one made a motion to adjourn. The bill for railroad from Hudson to Superior was never taken up again.
To this day myth and mystery regarding the speech persist. It is not clear why Knott focused on Duluth when the bill dealt with a land grant for a railroad terminating in Wisconsin, or if his connection to the Superior Proprietors factored into his rhetoric. Dr. Thomas Foster, editor of the Duluth Minnesotian, considered Knott’s speech a win for Duluth:
…It might be a subject for curious investigation to what extent the Lobby Agent of Duluth at Washington pulled the wool over the eyes of the Kentucky mountaineer and made him think he was rowing one way when in fact he was pulling another: that he was serving his Kentucky constituents, the old rebel founders of Superior and Bayfield, by first pitching into Duluth and then by voting against their last forlorn hope for the revival of those old town site speculations, viz., the renewal of this Land Grant! Somebody has been very cunning or somebody has blundered, Mr. Knott—evidently one or the other! (Duluth Minnesotian, February 11, 1871)
Knott explained himself to Lovett in 1892. Duluth took the brunt of his contempt over government subsidies because he claimed a lobbyist named Rittenhouse sought his approval on a Duluth harbor improvement bill of $500,000 (about $9.3 million today). Knott considered such a large appropriation for such a small community “supremely ridiculous.” “I saw a chance to make a hit,” he told Lovett. “I could get the house in good humor by having a little fun with Duluth first, and then I could launch into my statistical speech against the St. Croix [River route between Hudson and Superior] subsidy. But I had to secure recognition first, and there was the rub.” Knott also claimed to be under the assumption the harbor improvement funding was related to the land grant, when in fact the bills competed over the same funds. Regardless of this explanation, a theory that Knott had a ghost writer—namely journalist Col. Peter “Pat” Donan—hangs over the affair. Prior to his Duluth speech, Knott had not displayed much skill writing humorous speeches—and never displayed them again.
Knott returned to politics in 1874 and was elected to Congress four consecutive times prior to becoming Kentucky’s governor in 1882. He served one term and then took a position as professor of civics and economics at his alma mater, Centre College, and later became dean of its law school. His 1870 speech would not soon fade away. It inspired villages in Georgia, Kansas, and Knott’s own Kentucky to adopt the “Duluth” moniker. The Northern Pacific Railroad later gave away copies of the speech in its dining cars, and, according to the Duluth News Tribune, “the Duluth Chamber of Commerce frequently published the speech to show that the statements made ‘in ridicule and derision’ turned out to be facts ‘in reality.’”