A Week in Duluth

With no grand jury, and no jail in the State nearer than St. Paul, but with a powerful gang of railroad laborers at hand threatening the rescue of their comrades, it was certainly a strong temptation to a hot-blooded young town to solve the difficulty by the simple device of a vigilance committee and a rope. Better counsels prevail, however, and five of the nine, proved to have been concerned in the murder, are imprisoned in a lager-beer brewery back of the town, where they spend a thirsty night—lager, lager everywhere, and not a drop to drink. To prevent a rescue, the streets are patrolled after dark by a strong guard of citizens, who can be heard walking up and down on the sidewalks all night long, and challenging each other under our windows.

‘”Who goes there?” “Friend.” “Advance, friend, and give the countersign,” The countersign is whispered loud enough to let any one within easy earshot know that it is the popular name of the afore-mentioned innocent beverage; and once it is bawled out prematurely by an inexperienced sentinel,

“Who goes there?” is the challenge.

“Lager!” is the bold response; followed by the rather unmilitary rejoinder, “Advance, Lager, and give us a drink, will you?”

There is happily no rescue attempted; and the next day the five are sent off, under a sufficient escort, to be lodged in prison at St. Paul. I hope that when they come to be tried and sentenced, the jolt through the woods will be taken into merciful consideration, as something that should mitigate their final punishment.

While our business-men are conferring with the citizens and discussing plans for dredging the inner harbor, building a breakwater for the outer harbor, and making one grand harbor of the two by cutting a canal across Minnesota Point, the rest of us have ample time to enjoy ourselves. One day we accompany them on a trip up the St. Louis River, to inspect the grade of the railroad at various points. Now it is a steamboat excursion down the bay to the end of Minnesota Point, where it tosses the seas upon the curved horn of a breakwater thrown out into the lake for the protection of Superior Harbor; and a visit to Superior City itself, lying on a low plateau across the channel—a desolate-looking town of deserted wharves, broken-windowed warehouses, dilapidated shops and dwellings, and one hopeful newspaper which keeps up a constant warfare with the rival sheet at Duluth. Then it is a fishing excursion up the trout streams of the north shore, a morning or moonlight row upon lake or bay, and a visit to the “floating-islands.”

These are among the most interesting  curiosities of the place. They lie in full view of the town, mostly off Rice’s Point, which separates Superior Bay from the bay of St. Louis,—a pretty sisterhood of green-wooded islets, each gracefully topped by the shaggy spires of its little group of tamaracks. They are actually floating, though anchored apparently by the roots of trees reaching down through them to the bottom of the shallow basin in which they rest. They undulate and rock in storms, and are sometimes moved from their moorings, by high winds and seas, when they float about till lodged in some new position. Not long ago one of these green-masted ships parted its cables in a westerly gale, crossed the bay under a full sail of tamarack boughs, and grounded on Minnesota Point, where it still remains. We touched at it in one of our excursions, and found it to all appearances a mere raft of living roots imbedded in an accumulation of vegetable mould. It is overgrown with moss and bushes, and trees twenty or thirty feet high. We did not land upon it (if setting foot on such an amphibious, swampy mass could be called landing), but satisfied ourselves with thrusting our oars under it, as we rowed about its edge.

The existence of these islands appears a great mystery to most people; and it is amusing to hear the ingenious theories suggest regarding their origin. The phenomenon is not, however, peculiar to this region. Pliny the Younger noted, on a lake near Rome, reed-overgrown islands which sometimes floated off with sheep that had ventured upon them from the shore. The “floating gardens” of Mexico seen by the Spanish discoveries, were similar formations, which the natives had put to a picturesque use, by covering them with rich sediment from the lake bottom, planting them with the luxurious fruits of the tropics, and even building huts upon them.  There are now on a lake in Prussia floating islands of sufficient size and solidity to give pasturage to herds of cattle. The great rivers of the world—those of South America, the Ganges, the Mississippi—frequently send forth from their mouths wandering islands, which are sometimes seen bearing out to sea the serpents, alligators, or wild animals that had found a home upon them. To these last the commonly received theory as to the origin of floating islands,—namely, that rafts of drift-wood became covered with flying dust and sand, forming a deposit in which plants could take root—may be applicable. But how about such curious appearances in waters where drift-wood is out of the question? There they must have had a very different beginning. I have myself witnessed, is the State of Vermont, phenomenon which seems to afford a simple key to the riddle. There is in Rutland County a small lake or pond, at one end of which is a cove entirely overgrown, to the extent of two or three acres, I should say, by a substance very similar to that which forms the base of these islands of Superior Bay. It is very spongy, it heaves and shakes as you treat or jump upon it, and I have thrust a fish-pole through it into a greater or less depth of shallow water beneath. There are no large trees upon it, but it is covered with various water-loving shrubs and plants, whose roots form a compactly quilted mass, thinnest at the outer edge, where it appears still to be in process of formation. One can easily imagine how such a mass grew out from the land, pushing forward first perhaps a vegetable scum, “the green mantle of the standing pool,” on which falling and drifting leaves lodge and decay, and which the minute fibers of shore plants penetrate and attach. The march of vegetation tends in the directions in which if finds sustenance; and soon, following the little foragers, an army of reeds and rushes and bushes advances even upon the unstable surface of the water, mortality in the ranks helping yearly to build the bridge on which the small feet find support, and so gradually preparing it for the approach of heavier battalions. This is no unfrequent phenomenon; and doubtless many ponds are at last quite quilted over in this way. If shallow, they may soon be filled by the thickening and sinking of the mass; or a subterranean lake may remain to astonish some future digger of well or cellar. But let the deposit take place on the borders of a larger body of water, let trees root themselves in it, then let fragments of it be torn off by storms or the lifting and wrenching power of thick ice, and you have something very like the floating islands of Duluth.

Crossed by a forest road a little way northeast of the town are two mountain streams—one of considerable size—which fill the deep-wooded solitudes with their enticing music and pictures. They come down from the heights beyond, and fall into the lake through wild gorges, whose leaning rocks and trees overhang many a dark pool of fascinating depth and coolness, many a chasm of rushing rapids tumbling over ledges and stones, many a white cascade leaping clear from some high shelf, through an embroidered gateway of green boughs. A Summer residence here, commanding a view of the lake on one side, and having a bit of nature’s own park with two or three of these delicious waterfalls in the rear, would not be very objectionable, Me-thinks one could hang up his hat here very contentedly during two or three months of the year.

The hillside immediately back of the town is not quite so enchanting, as I discover one morning, somewhat to my cost. Over the hummocks and hollows and springy places of the clearing, where hammers resound on the roofs of hotel church, and dwellings, I pass on—amid stumps and rocks and piles of lumber and cord-wood,—and enter a solitary “avenue,” opened the the axe and extending up the mountain slope.  On each side is a perfect wall of woods, which it is not hard to fancy a wall of grand house-front twenty years hence. The morning is soft and still, a few birds twitter among the trees, but otherwise the silence of the place is broken only by the far-off hammers of  the carpenters and the echoing strokes of axes at the upper end of the avenue.  There wood-choppers are at work cutting still farther into the forest their gigantic swath. Straight, smooth stems of pale poplar and birch, of the pine and cedar and spruce, fall before them, letting in the sunlight upon the overgrown thicket.  My way lies over cut boughs, strips of birch bark curled up on the ground, fresh chips, moss-covered, rotten trunks, a trickling brook bridged by a fallen fir-tree, and a few delicate, shade-loving plants nestled beside rocks and roots,—all soon to be swept from the pathway of great thoroughfare.

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