Whether that is true or not, another Philadelphian, the financier Jay Cooke, certainly gave Duluth a hand up. The village had been born in 1857, only to collapse in the panic of the same year, one of its several panic flattenings. Jay Cooke boomed it into a city in 1870 by terminating a progenitor of the Great Northern Railroad there. The panic of 1873 bankrupted both Cooke and Duluth, knocking the city completely out of city status for fourteen years. It did not reincorporate until after still another Philadelphian, Charlemagne Tower, financed a railroad in 1884 to bring the first iron ore out of the Vermilion Range to the lake twenty-six miles northeast of Duluth.
Duluth at that time was scarcely interested in the iron, which was known to be present in its hinterland, preferring timber and grain. But some of the timber cruisers, notably the seven Merritts, of Duluth, looked as much for iron as for timber and thereby discovered the great Mesabi Range, source of more iron than all the other Superior deposits combined.
The Merritts were Duluthians who planned to extend their iron empire beyond the mines to include their own railroad, docks, shipping fleet and steel mills. What might have happened if they had succeeded is something Duluth can puzzle over for a long time. They did ship the first ore into Duluth in 1892, but they also borrowed extensively against their properties. Books have been written about what happened between the Merritts and John D. Rockefeller, who lent the money, but in the end Rockefeller owned the properties and the Merritts accepted a settlement which left little of their original dream. The panic of 1893, another flattening blow for Duluth, not only wounded the Merritts but nipped many of the small mining ventures that were starting on the Mesabi.
It is scarcely credible that in the 1890’s any Duluthians or anyone else fully glimpsed the immensities, which underlay their iron tradings. Timber families who sold cutover land to mining people were none too glad to get it back when buyers could not meet payments. Some of those who grumbled loudest at their failure to get rid of land containing nothing but iron are happily collecting royalties on it today.
A few dozen miles from Duluth, at Hibbing, is a hole in the ground out of which more earth has been moved than was dug in the Panama Canal. Duluth was in great part built on the work and wealth entailed in this and other open pit and shaft iron ore from the Mesabi, Vermilion and Cuyuna ranges. But Duluth doesn’t much give the appearance of iron or see a great deal of the ore it ships. Trainloads coming down the hill move overhead on trestlework directly to the two vast docks on the Duluth side of the harbor. The railroad that hauls most of the ore – the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range-has the highest traffic density in the country, but relatively little passenger or normal freight. And the Great Northern, second ore carrier, takes its ore to the Superior docks.
Despite its iron dominance, the city has a Middle West look and Middle West lack of eccentricities, except for topography. The largest pay roll in town is at the wire-and-rod mill of American Steel and Wire Company, but that is tucked off at one end, along the river. An unusual number of checkered wool shirts and red caps are observable on Superior Street, and store windows commonly display snowshoes along with inevitable skis, fishing gear and guns-St. Louis County is classified as 84 per cent wild land. The rolling gait of a visiting lumberjack is often seen, but the sawmills are long since gone and cool Duluth’s second-largest pay roll is, oddly enough, the Coolerator Company’s refrigerator plant.
Out on Rice’s Point, near the grain elevators and coal docks, are small frame houses, which come close to slumminess. Elsewhere the average Duluth house is squarish frame, sometimes yellow brick. The west end is less pretentious than the east end, and its Democratic-Farmer-Labor politics have overbalanced the east end Republicans for years.
Considering that a good deal of royalties from fee land in the iron ranges settles on the slopes of the east end, the houses sprawled there are not ostentatious and are indeed less padded with lawn and garden room than would be the case if Duluth were not trying to clamber up its rocky bluff.
Culture is largely a possession of the east end, and includes not only a very good St. Louis County Historical Society but the Chisholm Memorial Children’s Museum, a useful little organization which has portable exhibits that are used by the public schools. Sinclair Lewis lived in a house overlooking Congdon Park, a mining-family name which, like Crosby and Sellwood, is memorialized in the city’s street names. Lewis was a temporary resident, however. Duluth’s principal literary contribution is a native, the novelist, Margaret Culkin Banning.
The University of Minnesota maintains its only branch in the east end of Duluth, and by an odd coincidence young Doctor Raymond Gibson, president of the UM Duluth branch, comes from the original bailiwick of Proctor Knott in Kentucky. Doctor Gibson has elaborate hopes for the university branch, and so does Duluth. Only recently established, a horizon of 10,000 enrollments is glimpsed for the school, hundreds of them doubtless to be Johnsons.
A daily Finnish newspaper in Duluth gave up last year and its plant was taken over by the Labor World, which has a substantial circulation. But the main morning and afternoon newspapers are Ridder papers, which cover the port and iron-range news as a matter of course and also devote regular space to one of the city’s odd whimsies, an inordinate interest in the game of cribbage. The number of cribbage boards around town is astounding, and the presence of a near-perfect 28 hand in a tussle between two teams of the City Cribbage League is a matter for serious news report.