Saturday Evening Post’s “Duluth”

The port is actually that of Duluth Superior, sometimes called Twin Ports or Head-of-Lakes. Duluth often uses the double name, though not always, and gladly includes the traffic tonnages of its junior across the bay when bragging on the size or merits of the combined port. On all other occasions, it is capable of blandly ignoring the very existence of Superior, which has a population more than a third the size of Duluth’s.

Any harbor that moves sixty-odd million tons a year is a remarkable port. But Duluth does it with only eight months of navigation, spending four months a year ice-bound. As a bulk-commodity port, 98 percent of tonnage is bulk. Duluth-Superior is doubtless unmatched in importance anywhere. It moves more than half of all Lake Superior iron ore, the chief sustenance of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago-Gary steel, the steel heart of America.

Mechanized to its teeth, Duluth’s waterfront pours twenty or more tons of iron ore into 600-foot lake vessels for every ton of anything else. Yet more of its waterfront is occupied by rows of stately concrete grain elevators than by ore docks, and the value of the grain it handles is not far behind that of its ore. Only three American cities exceed its 50,000,000 bushels of storage capacity, and it is the chief handler of the Northwest’s spring wheat, flaxseed and the macaroni wheat, durum.

Coal, ore, grain and eight railroads coming into the harbor give Duluth a thoroughly industrial face, and properly so. But directly across the thin civic torso-at times narrower than a mile-the city turns so wild that the body of a suicide within the city limits once remained undiscovered for three years. And in 1918, a tragic forest fire swept through the city’s decorative upper fringe of aspens, birch and pines, burned out the Northland Country Club and almost reached the waterfront. Across this upland border wild animals frequently enter town.

Slightly embarrassed by the uncivilized implications of its wild-animal affairs, Duluth yet relishes the distinction of so intimately combining industry and commerce with an occasional whooping moose chase across residential lawns. In 1947, Duluth police answered an average of two animal alerts per day. Happily, the city’s crime is way below the national average in every category but larceny, and the police have time to rout deer from gardens and bears from garbage cans. Nor do these skirmishes between the police and fauna always occur on the fringes. Witness the morning of Sunday, August 18, 1929:

At 2:15 A.M. on that day a black bear was reported out in the east-end residential district where the high grade of table scraps in the refuse cans reflects in many cases the presence of royalties from fee land owned in the iron ranges. Undoubtedly it was the same bear, a 350-pound beauty, which somewhat later fell in behind the truck of Arvid Petersen, preceding west on Superior Street toward the center of town. In two respects the bear was thus behaving exactly like a Duluthian. First, because Petersen’s truck was full of Lake Superior fish, and all Duluthians are fond of the lake’s excellent whitefish, lake trout and wall-eyed pike, preferably planked. Second, because he was on Superior Street, the lengthwise traffic artery paralleling the water, on which everybody travels every day.

Petersen, fish and bear, in that order, eventually reached Third Avenue East -the city’s streets are atrociously named-three blocks from the mathematically central cross corner. Petersen turned here, but the bear did not. At 5:50 A.M. the bear was sighted two blocks farther west, very near the exact center of the business district. At 5:55 A.m. he had perversely turned about, retreated two blocks and was reared up against the fifteen-foot plate-glass window of the coffee shop in The Duluth, the city’s largest hotel.

It was shortly apparent that whatever the coffee shop was preparing for breakfast that morning was as good as or better than a truckload of fish, because the bear casually slapped a huge hole in the window, ambled through, and made for one of two short flights of steps, which led to the kitchen at the rear. He was met by a chair hurled by Albert Nelson, the night watchman. He tried the other flight and was again bowled over by a slung chair. It is reported that on his third try the bear was looking less interested in conventional breakfast, and extremely interested in Nelson. At that point, 6:10 A.M., Police Sergeant LeBeau, of the ursine unit, who had arrived with a rifle, dropped him. The name of the coffee shop was quickly changed to The Black Bear Lounge. The bear still presides, but mounted.

If this incident characterizes Duluth, it is not primarily because of the black bear’s beachhead in a midtown hotel, but rather because, of the five central figures in the affair, two were named Petersen-the assistant manager was O. M. Petersen-and one was named Nelson. Smiths and Joneses are infrequent in Duluth. Gustafsons, Andersons, Larsons, Hansons, Olsons and several other “sons” are prevalent. Fifteen per cent of Duluthians are native-born of Scandinavian parentage. And of the 20 per cent foreign-born in the population, more than half are Swedes, Norwegians and Finns.

Of the “sons” of Duluth, the most wonderfully numerous are the Johnsons. There are more than 700 Johnsons in the phone book alone, including the distinguished-looking Mayor George Johnson, who has a low, vibrant voice that brings the platform right into ordinary conversation. Mayor Johnson is also commissioner of parks and boulevards under Duluth’s commission form of government, and has the quite pleasant job of tending the city’s Skyline Drive, an attractive road rimming the bluff and overlooking the harbor. The mayor also has ninety parks and park areas under his jurisdiction, more recreational space than most cities twice as large ever dream of.

Mayor Johnson believes that the people of Duluth possess a marvelously co-operative spirit -a doubtful premise, since there are several cleavages along its stringy length. The main personality split in Duluth occurs about where an interfering spine of rocks comes down from the hill to Superior Street just a few blocks west of midtown. West of this point of rocks Duluth is politically left, east of it it is politically right. But there is a certain uniting force in cold weather, of which Duluth has its share. Hostile parties have been known to refer to a Duluth winter as a year, “except for that week of poor sledding,” but actually the climate is moderated by the presence of Lake Superior, and the city has never known an official winter temperature colder than a bracing forty-one degrees below zero.

This is nevertheless cool enough to afford ice-skating, and neighbors everywhere join in preparing small earth-dike rinks. One of Mayor Johnson’s special examples of “the spirit of the people” is a skating rink in Duluth Heights, where community-club members built a warming house and recreation building with their own hands last fall. This illustration of co-operation has a Johnsonian sidelight, though the three people who were sponsor, president and building-committee chairman were, respectively, Mayor George Johnson, Dewey Johnson and Charles Johnson, not related.

The name Duluth, nicely adapted to the silver-bell tones of the Scandinavian tongue, is nevertheless a relic of seventeenth-century New France. The city was named for Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, or Luth, a fur trader from Montreal who made himself favorably known at the head of the lakes in the late 1600’s. The county of which Duluth is the seat is St. Louis County, larger than the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut together. Fond du Lac, site of the earliest settled fur-trading center at the mouth of the St. Louis River and birthplace of the region’s first almost white child, is now part of Duluth.

Place names like Mille Lacs and Lac La Croix, which occur mixed in with Chippewa Indian names like Kabetogama and Eshquagama, are about all the imprint the French left on the region known as the Arrowhead Country. Duluth is the capital and St. Louis County the central slice of the Arrowhead, a territory squeezed to a sort of arrowhead point between the Canadian boundary and the north shore of Lake Superior. The Arrowhead has been under eleven different sovereignties in its time, and if a story about the thrifty Benjamin Franklin is true, the whole region owes a debt to Philadelphia. Franklin, it is alleged, hearing that Isle Royale in Lake Superior, northeast of Duluth, was the site of rich Indian copper mines, shrewdly hoisted the United States boundary line to include it when he signed the post-Revolution treaty with the British, thus capturing the Arrowhead and its iron-ore ranges, including future Duluth.

Read more of this story: 1 2 3 4