531 Central Avenue | Oliver Traphagen | b. 1888 | Lost: 2014
With the exception of the Oneota Township (first settled in the 1850s), most of what would become today’s West Duluth was described as “a barren wasteland” as late as 1887. In the spring of 1888 the West Duluth Land Company, led by Charles E. Lovett, purchased several hundred acres in that wasteland: flat terrain with water frontage on the St Louis River, an ideal site for manufacturing industries to set up shop.
The company actively courted manufacturing businesses to move to or start up in Duluth by offering free property and found immediate success in securing the Minnesota Car Company, which built railroad cars for an expanding railroad system. Other industries followed, including the Duluth Iron and Steel Company and West Duluth Manufacturing Company. The focus was on metal manufacturers, and soon the land company was touting West Duluth as “Little Pittsburgh,” and “The Pittsburgh of the Northwest.”
The village of West Duluth, including Oneota, first incorporated in 1888. On October 16 of that year, the village elected Leonidas Merritt, whose family founded Oneota with the Elys and Wheelers, as the first president of the Village Board of Trustees. Meetings were held in his office before moving to the new Oneota Elementary School, built in 1888 at 4420 West First Street.
West Duluth experienced explosive growth in 1888. By the end of the year, the village had a train depot, hotel, school, church, brickyard, ten stores, over one hundred houses, and more developing industries.
With growth of industries, businesses, and homes, village trustees quickly realized that West Duluth needed fire and police protection. So they hired Duluth architect Oliver G. Traphagen to design a building. The previous year Traphagen had just designed Duluth Fire Department Engine House #1 at 101 East Third Street for the City of Duluth. It appears as though Traphagen began his West Duluth building with the same design he used for Duluth’s fire hall. Both are brick-and-brownstone Romanesque Revival-style buildings with arched entrances on the front façade, a hose tower, and ornamental brickwork.
But Traphagen created a smaller building with less ornamentation for West Duluth; one reason for this may have been a more restricted budget for the West Duluth facility.
Completed in 1889 on the corner of Central Avenue North and Cody Street, the West Duluth Village Hall stands three stories high. Initially, the first floor was divided into an engine room for the steamer and horse stalls as well as a jailor’s office and six cells—two for women, separated from the men’s cells by a brick wall. The second floor housed a dormitory for firemen while the third story—one large room—did double duty as a municipal courtroom and meeting hall of the village council. The multipurpose village hall cost $27,000, about $609,000 in today’s dollars.
The village trustees first met in the new facility on December 21, 1889. The building served the community for the next five years. Unfortunately, the Financial Panic of 1893 brought the growth of West Duluth to a grinding halt. Manufacturing shut down, businesses closed. While many of these same facilities would fire up again by the turn of the century, the damage to the Village of West Duluth had been done. Duluth, which had been annexing local townships and villages such as Park Point and Lakeside since it regained its city status in 1887, stepped in to keep the community alive by annexing the village. In January 1894, West Duluth went from an independent village to one of the Zenith City’s largest neighborhoods and increased Duluth’s financial value by 20 percent—and the “marriage” of Duluth and West Duluth was joyously celebrated.
Officials gathered in the Village Hall for the last regular meeting of the city of West Duluth on December 21, 1893. When the village became part of the city of Duluth, the community no longer needed a meeting space for a council. Police and fire protection, however, remained a necessity. So the 1888 West Duluth Village Hall became Duluth Fire Department Engine House #8 and Duluth Police Department Station #3. The courtrooms continued to handle municipal cases in West Duluth.
Twenty years later, Duluth city officials decided to replace the 1888 building with a new facility, the 1916 West Duluth Municipal Building. Meanwhile, the 1888 Village Hall continued to serve West Duluth. From 1917 until 1925 Frank Kreidler operated a Buick sales and service station at the facility. Waelen Brothers Garage later operated out of the building, and in 1975 it became home to Twin Ports Vending and Amusements. At that time the building was severely remodeled with removal of the hose tower and a one-story brick addition to the front façade. The building was demolished in July 2014, several years after Twin Ports Vending and Amusements closed its doors.