Duluth Ship Canal Dig Legends

The Ishpheming, which cut the Duluth ship canal in the fall of 1870 and spring of 1871. (image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

Perhaps the most astonishingly inaccurate depiction of the canal’s birth appeared in the Duluth Evening Herald on July 1, 1929:

Leading Duluthians of the time…led by W. C. Sargent…formed the “Dynamite Club.” Under the cover of darkness they went to Minnesota Point at the site of the present ship canal. Bankers, clerks, professional men and laborers worked frantically with pick and shovel during the night to dig a ditch so the waters of Lake Superior and St. Louis Bay could join. As daylight approached and they realized they would not finish the task, leaders called for dynamite. The blast that followed cracked every window within a radius of several miles, pioneers recall, but when the debris settled the dynamiters were rewarded by the water rushing through the ditch thus created. The canal was dug shortly afterward by the government.

In 1871, Duluth was teaming with immigrants who had come to build Cooke’s railroad, so there would have been an abundance of laborers to put to work hand-digging a canal—Duluth’s business leaders need not have rolled up their sleeves. Also, the United State’s first dynamite manufacturer, the U.S. Blasting Oil Company—had been destroyed in an explosion in 1869; dynamite would have been very hard to come by in Duluth in 1871.

An article in the June 3, 1945, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune did little to dispel the myth, and came complete with a cartoon-like depiction of the fabled event.

Separating Truth from Fiction

The Ishpeming went back to work on April 24, 1871, and dug continuously during daylight hours until Saturday, April 29. She had cut a swath thirty feet wide and eight feet deep to within a few feet of the lake-side beach when, according to the Minnesotian, Duluth’s first newspaper, she struck a vein of gravel frozen so hard it stopped her. Immediately a group of men went to work with “shovels and picks and drills and powder (two kegs).” They scooped, smashed, bored, and blasted through the rocklike frozen chunk of sandbar, allowing the Ishpeming to go on dredging. At 1 p.m. that day the waters of Lake Superior joined with those of Superior Bay or, as Dr. Thomas Foster wrote in the Minnesotian, “the union of the waters became forthwith an accomplished fact.”

Foster’s paper reported that the waters of the Bay, a few inches higher and a few degrees warmer than the lake’s waters, cut and thawed through the dredged channel. The next morning, Sunday, April 30, a channel five feet deep and twenty wide flowed with a six mile an hour current into the lake. That afternoon the small steamer ferry-tug Frank C. Fero, piloted by Captain George W. Sherwood, navigated the canal. The Ishpeming returned to work the next day, and kept cutting throughout the summer, making the canal deeper and wider.

So there is some truth within the legend: hand work and blasting was needed to get through a particularly tough patch of frozen gravel, but once this was breached, the Ishpeming returned to work. And there was an  injunction to halt the the digging of the canal, and it was indeed delivered by by George Stuntz—but not until May 6, nearly a week after the Ishpeming had finished its initial cut.

Further evidence that the hand-digging is a tall tale (or at the very least, a grand embellishment) is that Foster didn’t get the news out about the canal’s completion until May 6. Seth Wilbur Payne’s Morning Call scooped him as the first newspaper to report the completion of the canal, at the same time bemoaning the lack of pomp and circumstance surrounding the event:

An event occurred yesterday of greater importance than would have been the commencement of the [Northern Pacific] docks. We refer to the opening of the canal across Minnesota Point. Why did not our capitalists and real estate criers not show their love for Duluth by some appropriate public demonstration?”

Certainly if the canal had been dug by hand or by dynamite those facts wouldn’t be ignored in both of the fledgling community’s newspapers, who reported on every detail of life in the Zenith City, down to the names of who arrived on what vessel or was staying in which hotel.

So how did we all come to believe the canal was dug by hand? The legend likely got its start by elaborating on the true events. In the late 1890s, as the federal government was making improvements to the canal (it was dredged wider and deeper and made longer with new concrete piers), newspapers interviewed pioneers to tell the story of how the canal came to be. R. S. Munger, who built Duluth’s first sawmill, told one paper the following tale:

“I was engaged by the citizens of Duluth to dig the channel. We began work on a Saturday and by night Superior knew what we were about. At once the people over there began to scurry around to get a federal injunction restraining us. I hired a gang of several hundred men…and we worked all that day and far into the night…When the Superior people came over Monday morning there was the channel open and they couldn’t do anything.”

If Munger’s tale has any truth to it, the government courts once worked quickly—and on weekends. Munger himself actually hired the Ishpheming in the first place, so he knew quite well the canal was not dug by hand. Perhaps the pioneer was assuring that the feats of his generation would not be forgotten as Duluth was fast becoming the world’s largest inland seaport.

In the end, the truth involves more lawyers than shovels. There were no heroic feats by man nor machine, and Wisconsin’s effort to close the canal lasted seven years and never once stopped dredging and improvements. But the legends make much more interesting stories, and they also display another aspect of the city’s lore: the work ethic and determined self-sufficiency of Duluth’s pioneers. The truth is often just as fascinating.

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