West Duluth’s Historic Hospitals

West Duluth’s Webber Hospital shortly after it opened in 1927. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

During the first half of the twentieth century, four hospitals served the western half of Duluth. Recently a patron at the Duluth Public Library, where I volunteer, asked the reference staff if they knew anything about the Webber Hospital in West Duluth. I was surprised to learn there was more than one hospital serving the western half of Duluth in the first half of the twentieth century. Over the years, there were four.

Likely the first hospital to serve West Duluth was the Red Cross Hospital at 53rd Avenue West and Ramsey Streets, which operated from 1899 until 1908. Not much is known about this hospital, but it was likely put in place by the charity organization to fill a void: Back then, it would take a long time to bring an ill or injured person in West Duluth all the way to St. Luke’s or St. Mary’s east of downtown Duluth. (The Hearding Hospital, which opened in 1923, and the 1934 Miller Memorial Hospital would also choose sites near downtown.)

In 1903 Dr. David Graham saw the need for a hospital in West Duluth and opened the Graham Hospital on the second floor of the Traphagen Block at 301 North Central Avenue (the Traphagan block was designed in 1888 by—who else?—Oliver Traphagen.) Graham was a native of Florence, Ontario, who came to Duluth in 1893 after finishing his education at the Detroit College of Medicine.

Graham was very civic minded. He was elected as one of two representatives of the 49th District (serving West Duluth) to the state legislature in 1902, serving a two-year term. He did not run for reelection in 1904, but in 1908 and was pressured by friends and Republican community leaders to run again and, along with incumbent and fellow Republican Joseph Austin, took the seat.

In 1908 Graham also won the government contract to build a new post office building in West Duluth. The new post office, a modest 50 x 50 foot brick building, was built on Bristol Street near the corner of Central Avenue, described as “directly in the rear of Dr. Graham’s hospital.” It may actually have been attached to the hospital building.

On November 10, 1909, a fire thought to have started in two locations severely damaged most of the buildings on the 300 block of Central Avenue. The Traphagen Block, including the hospital, was completely gutted; the loss was estimated at $17,000, about $400,000 today. Graham had the hospital rebuilt quickly, with the post office operating in the rear of the building, and it reopened January 31, 1910, with a new name: Duluth Hospital.

Dr. Graham’s most notorious patient was 19-year-old Irene Tusken, who in 1920 falsely accused black circus workers of raping her, which set rioting and the lynching of three innocent men. Dr. Graham testified at trials in the wake of the tragedy, repeating an earlier statement he had made to the Duluth News Tribune that he “did not find physical evidence that a rape had actually been committed.”

Dr. Graham died in 1933 at the age of 74. His son Reginald, also a physician, took over the hospital, but he himself died less than two months after his father. The hospital officially closed in 1935. Today the building is home to Ganucci’s Italian Village.

Fortunately for residents of Duluth’s western environs, another hospital just a few blocks away was also serving West Duluth and Proctor residents.

In 1927 Dr. Edward E. Webber opened the Webber Hospital at 5601 Grand Avenue in a neoclassical building of brick and sandstone designed by Harold Starin and A. Reinhold Melander. The building features an entry with stone columns and carvings of medical symbols. When it first opened it also housed the Webber Pharmacy along Grand Avenue.

(Another hospital in what is now considered West Duluth was built in Morgan Park by the Minnesota Steel Company in 1916 on a lot near Spirit Lake and the St. Louis River. The Morgan Park Hospital offered services for U. S. Steel’s employees and their families. It closed in March, 1927 when roads to Duluth had been improved, and possibly because the Webber Hospital had just opened.  The building became an office building for Minnesota Steel Company.)

Dr. Webber first came to Northern Minnesota from his hometown of Saginaw, Michigan, in 1911 and opened a hospital in Chisolm. In 1919 he moved to Proctor after taking a position as chief surgeon for the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway (DM&IR). It soon became apparent to Webber that most of DM&IR’s employees lived in West Duluth, which encouraged him to open his own hospital.

While he practiced in West Duluth, Webber spent his later years as a resident of Duluth’s East End and at one time owned the John & Julia Williams House at 2601 East Second Street. In 1943, Webber sold the house to noted American novelist Sinclair Lewis, who lived there for two years. The doctor moved into his own hospital; his health was failing.

Webber died in January, 1944, while both of his sons were fighting overseas for the American army and navy. After his death, Webber Clinic president Arthur Rohweder could not find another physician to lease the hospital and take over operations, and so it closed in December, 1944.

The building stood virtually vacant until January, 1947, when Arrowhead Health Center agreed to lease it; the Health Center opened there in 1948. By the early 1950s part of the building was being used as the Lake Haven Rest Home. In 1975 Lake Haven became Wesley Residence. The Arrowhead Health Center closed in 1988, and today the entire building is home to Wesley Assisted Living.

Story by Maryanne C. Norton. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Maryanne C. Norton.