Saturday Evening Post’s “Duluth”

Taxicab rates are exceptionally high in Duluth, and there are no chain stores. Duluthians believe that the absence of chain supermarkets is somehow hitched to the fact that there is almost no place in town where an adequate trade-area circle could be drawn without running its circumference into the lake or over the hill, or both. About the only thing that will get residents together from the extremes of Lester Park and Fond du Lac is the Duluth Symphony, which was once rather loosely described as one of the country’s ten best.

Finns still take steam baths in and around Duluth, but Old World and native customs are disappearing. A young couple who have a folk craft store downtown stock it with North Carolina woodcarvings, West Virginia hand-blown glass and other imports. Only rarely can they find a Chippewa squaw who is still turning out porcupine-quill work, willow basketry or Indian moccasins. Some heavy Finnish socks of tinted and matted, rather than woven, wool are still made, and there is a modest business in native foods that can be combined with the wild rice from the up county marshes.

The marshes north of town hold an immense supply of peat, which was used for one season to supply all the fuel requirements of a large Minneapolis hotel. No efficient way has been devised for handling the peat yet, but several people are interested in it, including a resources-and-rehabilitation commission of the state of Minnesota, which has also sponsored a promising wood-products plant in Duluth turning out fine pressed board. The state’s interest in St. Louis County resources stems from the possibility of iron exhaustion someday. It is only proper that the state should be interested, since it is itself the largest holder of iron land and not only collects its private royalties but taxes all other iron land and iron production onerously.

Duluth was once famous in the country’s retail stores as the home of the Patrick Mackinaw, a short, heavy wool coat worn by pre-1920 youth. The Patrick label, on different garments, is currently being revived by the Alworth Woolen Mills, owned by Royal Alworth, whose father once cruised timber and bought land in the iron country.

Alworth may not be the heaviest holder of fee land in the iron range, but he is undoubtedly the most active Duluth businessman. He is owner of the two main office buildings, among other properties, in the 300 block on West Superior Street. Largely because of his Alworth Building and Medical Arts Building, the string-bean city has a surprising business concentration in this one block.

Up the hill a block are two vital spots, the Duluth Board of Trade and the Oliver Iron Mining Company. Over the sample tables and in their offices members of the Board of Trade may handle a quarter billion dollars’ worth of grain and flax in one season. Duluth now handles only cash grain, having lost its once-brisk grain-futures market.

In the offices of the Oliver Iron Mining Company, modestly housed in the Wolvin Building, is the thickest concentration of Duluth’s highly important iron streak. Oliver Iron is a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation. So is the D. M. & I. R. Railroad, in the same building. So also are the American Steel and Wire plant, the cement plant and one of the huge ship companies. In a west-end laboratory Oliver Iron-whose president, up to retirement three years ago, was Le Roy Salsich, Margaret Culkin Banning’s husband is working on a problem over which Duluth could theoretically hold its breath for the next twenty years, or until it is satisfactorily solved. Seven other laboratories, including a state laboratory, are pounding at the same thing, the problem of reluctant iron ore.

The Minnesota iron ranges, particularly the great Mesabi, have for a half century been handling a hematite ore so agreeable that it is ready for the furnace as soon as it is shoveled up, or willingly parts with the rock in which it occurs, if that is necessary. This “shmoo” ore is now estimated to be good for only another fifteen or twenty years. There will remain, however, billions of tons of considerably less amiable ore, leaner ore, ore which clings quite tightly to its accompanying rock. How to crush, separate and process such ore and how to handle its variations in rock hardness and iron quality without running the costs to prohibitive levels is the biggest question in Duluth. It has been done, all right, in the laboratory and pilot plant. But can it be done to produce 200,000 tons every day of the year?

One of the benefits conferred on the growing city by its hinterland several decades ago was a wholesale-distribution business of substantial size and variety. Some of that has now been lost, but two large hardware wholesalers, Marshall Wells Company and Kelley-How Thomson remain in full vigor, their ledgers often turning up items peculiar to the Northwest. Kelley-How-Thomson, for example, annually sells hundreds of dozens of lumbermen’s mittens with detachable linings. Both concerns together-Marshall Wells is the world’s largest hardware jobber-sell 20,000 double-bit axes against, 12,000 single-bit, a ratio that clearly spells timber. The city’s other commerce includes occasional items peculiar to its situation and make-up. Duluth ships millions of Christmas trees and, thanks to the Scandinavians, consumes abnormal quantities of coffee. It is a poor town for gin, but a good one for whiskey. A Duluth company is one of the large growers of Chinese vegetables and bamboo sprouts, and the Klearflax Company, which sells flax tow for cigarette papers, also possesses what is probably the country’s only plant where linen rugs and carpeting are made.

Duluth, just naturally a skiing and skating town, has a hundred little ski jumps for juniors alone and one floodlighted jump for night skiing. This last winter an elaborate and picturesque winter-sports area was completed at Fond du Lac to bid for winter-tourist business to supplement the large summer influx the city has been receiving.

Possibly the most nonathletic place in town is the Duluth Athletic Club, a bright new downtown club at which businessmen eat lunch and play cribbage. In the evening the nonathletes can be seen at the city’s club-life showpiece, the Kitchi Gammi Club on East Superior Street, Minnesota’s oldest social club. Kitchi Gammi, a variant of Gitche Gumee-Duluth has a terrible time with spelling; for example, Mesabi, Missabe, Mesaba, Mesabe – is scarcely as whimsical as its name. A ponderous building, the clubhouse was built in heavy English style. Small bits of iron-land income sometimes change hands here over the cribbage board, the planked fish is really splendid, and to fit the English character of the building, it looks out on the lake over London Road. Since there is nothing very British about the purposes or membership of the club, it is just as well that the building also overlooks Leif Erikson Park, a statue of Jay Cooke, a du Pont powder division office – and the membership list – includes three each of the Johnsons and the Andersons.

The only straight-out supper club in Duluth, The Flame, is a flossy restaurant which booms in summer, starves in winter, and of course serves planked whitefish, lake trout and wall-eyed pike. It is cunningly situated on the waterfront, for Duluthians can sit here and endlessly admire the aerial-lift bridge, which spans the canal through Minnesota Point, and reminds them of a past victory over Superior, Wisconsin. Minnesota Point is the sand bar, about a block wide, which stands between the lake and the inner bays. Entry into the harbor was formerly made only at a spot close to Superior, requiring Duluth-bound boats not only to go several miles out of their way but also to be exposed to the sight, of Superior docks. In 1870, Duluth began to dig a canal through the sand bar at the Duluth end. Indignant Superior secured a Federal injunction against the canal, but while it was on its way from Washington, numbers of Duluthians rushed out with shovels and completed the short canal.

Originally the aerial-lift bridge was not exactly a bridge, but a high arch from which was suspended a sort of basket which traveled back and forth with passengers and vehicles across the open canal. It is now one of the fastest vertical-lift bridges in existence, rising to its full height of 138 feet in less than a minute. It is so delicately counterbalanced that when snow or sleet adds to its weight, the matter is adjusted by tucking concrete blocks into small pockets in the counterweights. Duluth eyes are often on the bridge. To strike a rough average, there is a vessel moving through the canal every twenty minutes of the season, night and day, and according to the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the port, bulk freighters of the Great Lakes haul more than twice the normal tonnage of all the rest of the United States merchant fleet combined. The cargo record is 20,634 short tons in a single ship. At the record loading speed, this ship could have been loaded in less than one hour.

Traffic beneath the bridge will pass very close to a spot where, a little more than two decades ago, Duluth made rowing history. The Duluth Boat Club produced Walter Hoover, who won the world’s single-sculls championship in 1922, and so-called “iron-man” crews of four and eight made records thirty years ago that still stand. Chief sponsor of the boat club in those days was Julius H. Barnes, who was United States Wheat Director in the late years of Woodrow Wilson’s Administration, and whose name is still on a trophy for which oarsmen in national meets compete today. Barnes, however, dropped out of grain and the boat club at about the same time, and turned to shipbuilding. Today he is president of the National St. Lawrence Association and is Duluth’s most fervent proponent of a seaway from the Lakes to the Atlantic.

Barnes was an early associate of Capt. Alexander McDougall, who built ships that older residents in the Great Lakes region will remember very well. Called whalebacks, they had pointed prows and rounded sides, and quickly earned the name “pigboat” from sailors. Most famous of the breed was the Christopher Columbus, built for passenger cruises from the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

The whalebacks eventually gave way to the straight-sided, shallow-draft, flat-bellied ore boats of today. Barnes built similar adaptations of the whaleback, some of which got out into the oceans. But only those shorter than 255 feet could get through the Welland Canal from Lake Erie into Ontario, and Barnes, who wanted to build ocean-going ships larger than this, was aroused to greater indignation than most people by the bottleneck in the St. Lawrence outlet. All Duluthians, peering under the skeletal outlines of their precious lift bridge, can visualize ocean vessels steaming off to distant continents, and incidentally making Duluth an exit port for all the Northwest down to Omaha, Nebraska.

Of course, within the 255-foot limit, Duluth is already a seaport. Four Swedish vessels visited Duluth last season, bringing English motorcars and lutefisk, taking back farm wagons and merchandise. Once a Swedish ship brought wood pulp for a paper plant near Duluth at a price cheaper than the wood pulp from the surrounding forests, which gave the city a sharp lesson in the two-sidedness of foreign trade. Nevertheless, Duluth yearns so passionately for a St. Lawrence seaway that it has been called “an old maid city looking under its bed every night for an ocean.” The only good thing Duluthians can see in the development of iron ore in Labrador is that it might help open the lake to deep-water traffic.

Probably no other city so far inland has ever seriously contemplated big ocean vessels at its door. Duluth is 2329 miles from Belle Isle Strait at the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At that point a ship for Liverpool would have less than half its trip remaining, a mere 1898 miles. The total of these two legs, it is apparent, is 4227 miles, which catches the erroneous Proctor Knott in another of his wrongful Duluthisms. Knott said it was 3990 miles from Duluth to Liverpool, and summed up his opinion of the city’s substance in 1871 by adding, “though I have no doubt, for the sake of convenience, it may be moved back ten miles so as to make the distance an even four thousand.”

It was that kind of crack that built Duluth.

The preceding article by Arthur W. Baum first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post of April 16, 1949.

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