A Week in Duluth

The wood-choppers show me a track by which they say I can reach the end of another avenue west of them, and I think it will be pleasant to return to town that way. But there is some mistake; it is soon evident that the path is carrying me too far up the mountain-side. I quit it at length, and, plunging into the intricacies of the untrodden woods, make for a light space which seems to indicate the opening I am in search of.  After a terrible scramble over and about tangled treetops and trunks fallen and crossed, gullies and rocks and springs, I reach the space, which turns out to be no avenue, but a forest windfall. Here the tweaking forefinger of a tornado had uptorn by the roots and thrown in to twisted heaps a few acres of trees, to which fire had afterwards been set, leaving a melancholy waste of ruins. I now find that I have passed to the westward of the town, far above the reach of its avenues. The spot is the haunt of hawks, pigeons, crossbills, small birds, and mosquitos. The birds are there for the raspberries which have sprung up profusely all about the windfall; and the hawks are after the birds.  The mosquitos seem to be there chiefly on my account. But for their too persistent attentions, I should be content to pass the residue of the morning in this spot. The berries are abundant and sweet; and from the summit of the ledge I look out upon a wondrous picture of the world—the windings of the St. Louis River, the sister bays, the great lake itself, with floating islands, dividing points of land, and blue lines of forest sweeping round distant shores, all lying enchanted under a misty spell. A steamer coming up the bay, an idle schooner, and a canoe on the lake, appear suspended in the glassy stillness. With which exquisitely lovely scene before my eyes, I sit on a half-burnt log, and fight mosquitoes, and think what a fine place this would be to have a Rip Van Winkle nap, and wake up some years hence, when all this jungle shall have been displaced by the paved and spacious streets of a city overlooking a harbor thronged with shipping. Then what gentle and easy way of descent will there be, where now to reach the town by a short cut I am forced to pass through the fanged jaws of a wild beast of a thicket!

There linger about Duluth a few degenerate Indians, who hunt with white mans’s powder, fish with white man’s nets, and drink white man’s whiskey. The most distinguished figure among them is a young brave with heroically painted features and a feather in his hate, who gets a living by picking blueberries, and selling them for white man’s money.

It is a region of mirages. Nearly every day we discover baseless promontories across the lake, and forests magnified or growing downwards; and I am told that it is no very uncommon thing to see two or three streamers when only one is approaching, —the real steamer on the water, another inverted above that, and perhaps still another in the clouds. Wonderful sun-dogs and moon-dogs are seen here and throughout the state. “You think the sun is rising in two or three places at once,” said a lady to me; who also told of having seen five moons in the heavens on a winter’s night. Around the real moon was a luminous circle, and this was quartered by a cross formed by four bright bars extending to four mock moons through which the circle was drawn. That is, the central orb appeared as the hub of a wonderful celestial wheel with four spokes, and a mock moon oat the juncture of each spoke with the rim.

The winters are milder and the summers cooler at Duluth than at St. Paul—the immense body of the lake water serving to modify the extremes of temperature. The lake is not always closed over with ice in winter, and it opens to navigation quite as early in the spring as Huron and Michigan.

I HAVE already intimated my belief that here is to be one of the foremost cities of the West. Not even the infancy of Chicago gave such promise of early greatness, for Chicago had no settled country behind it, whereas Duluth will enjoy at once, on the completion of its railroad, an immense traffic with the Upper Mississippi and the region beyond. All the railroads radiating from St. Paul, penetrating the State in every direction, will be tributary to this grand trunk, which is to unite, by a brief connecting link, the two great navigable fresh-water systems of North America. The head of Lake Superior lies four degrees of longitude farther west than the head of Michigan, yet it is practically no farther (by water communication) from New York and the ports of Europe. On the other hand, it is only one hundred and fifty miles distant, while the head of Michigan is near four hundred and fifty miles distant, by railroad from St. Paul. At least four fifths of the grain of Minnesota, which now seeks the markets of the East through other channels—by railroad to Milwaukee or Chicago, or by water to some point of transshipment down the river, or by the hot and tedious passage of the Gulf—will naturally find this easier and cheaper outlet. The shortening of the route, especially at the railroad end of it—for it is the railroad transportation that costs—will tend to raise the price of wheat in Minnesota, and to lower the price of flour in Boston; while the great returning tide of Eastern merchandise flowing to the far Northwest will be sure to pass this way.

Duluth has not immediately surrounding it the fertile prairies which attracted emigration, and fed the infant Chicago; but back of it lies a magnificent forest belt, invaluable in the first place for its timber, and next for its soil, which appears peculiarly adapted to grazing and wool-growing, and the cultivation of winter wheat. In the midst of the lumber district, where the railroad crosses the river, some twenty miles from its mouth, are the falls of the St. Louis—the dalles of the French voyageurs—which afford a water-power not inferior to that of St. Anthony. The dalles—flag-stones or steps over which the river falls—are the outcrop of one of the most extensive bodies of valuable slate in the world. It is available for all purposes to which slate is ordinarily applied; and experienced men, who have visited the quarries opened on the line of the road, declare that the whole surrounding country, and the entire valley of the Mississippi, may here be suppled with this useful material for centuries to come. Then there are the adjacent regions of copper and iron, whose importance in the future development of this now remote district cannot be calculated by any array of figures. With all which advantages of position, it is inevitable, as I see, that here must soon be built up a great commercial, agricultural, and manufacturing centre.

Yet here we are but just on the threshold of the great new empire of the Northwest. Here is the summit of the water-shed of near half a continent, the hills of Northeastern Minnesota pouring from their slope streams that flow to the lakes and the Atlantic on the east, to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico on the south, and to Hudson’s Bay on the north. The head of Lake Superior is about equidistant from Boston, New Orleans, and the sources of the Saskatchewan, towards which the course of empire is fast taking its way. Not far from this geographical centre we may look with Mr. [William H.] Seward for the ultimate political centre of America; and it will not be many years before the frontier State of Minnesota will wake up and find herself in the heart of the Union.

A few landmarks show how powerfully the tide of human affairs is tending in this direction. In 1854 Minnesota had a population of twenty-four thousand. In 1864 she had sent more than that number of soldiers to the war. As late as 1858 she imported her breadstuffs. In 1868 she exported twelve million bushels of wheat, and was reckoned the fifth “wheat State” in the Union. This year [1869, ed.], with a population of near half a million, and more than a million acres of wheat under cultivation—promising a crop of at least twenty million bushels, sixteen or seventeen millions of which will be for exportation—she will take rank as the second or third wheat State; in a few years she will be the first, and that position she will retain until outstripped in her turn by some more youthful rival.

Rivals all about her she is destined soon to have. The North [ern] Pacific Railroad is now speedily to be built, running from the head of Lake Superior almost due westward to Puget Sound, through the most favored region of all the proposed transcontinental routes. It I’ll sow cities on its borders, and link new States to the old, .. Northward from the proposed line of the North Pacific Road one must travel some six hundred miles before he reaches the parallel of Edinburgh. What a region is here! rich in soils, rivers, forests, remote from the mother country, and adjoining our own, of which it must before many years form a part. Of the future of America, when all this old and new territory, stretching from Lake Superior to the Pacific coast, shall have become, with Minnesota, a cluster of populous and powerful States, who shall venture to prophesy?

It is Sunday again (August 22d) just a week after our arrival, when the larger of the two little steamers that brought us to Duluth is once more thronged, together with the wharf at which she lies, with a crowd of people. There is much cordial hand-shaking, and hurrying ashore, and hurrying aboard; and the crowd separates, one half remaining on the wharf, the other moving slowly away from it on the steamer’s deck. A mutual waving of hats and fluttering of handkerchiefs, and adieu to Duluth, and its week-old friendships, and its never-to-be-forgotten hospitalities!

Down the bay we go tipsily staggering; the crank little “side-wheeler” rolling over first on one paddle-box and then on the other, to the breakwater at the end of Minnesota Point, where is moored a long, black-hulled lake steamer, the St. Paul, awaiting US; we are soon transferred on board of her; before us lies a dim horizon of waters, and soon behind us is trailing an endless black flag of smoke, miles away, over the darkening waves; and we are homeward bound.

The preceding article—written by John Townsend Trowbridge describing his visit to Duluth in August, 1869—was published in the Atlantic Monthly in May 1870.

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