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Canal Lawsuits & the Dike Debacle

This detail from Gilbert Munger’s painting of early Duluth shows the dike as a faint line stretching between Minnesota Point to the east and Rice’s Point to the west. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

The Dike Debacle

While the Ishpeming dredged the canal and lawyers battled the injunction, Duluthians had continued work on the outer breakwater begun by Cooke’s outfit, extending it to 950 feet by June of 1871; its older portion was repaired and bolstered with riprap, heavy rocks placed within the timber cribs.

The Northern Pacific Railroad took a deeper interest in the city on the hill that year, arranging to use the Lake Superior & Mississippi’s line to connect it to Duluth from its eastern terminus in Carlton. By winter Northern Pacific was building docks on Rice’s Point and along the shoreline inside the bay. Northern Pacific also arranged with the city to help pay to complete the canal and widen it to 250 feet. Its trains would also help construct the dike to satisfy the injunction’s dissolution.

The dike proved a problem from the start, for both Duluth and Superior. Superior’s Major D. C. Houston, the engineer in charge of harbor improvements who believed the dike a necessity, said that “It will be impossible to locate this dike anywhere so that someone will not object to it.” Indeed, the structure— designed to be continuous from shore to shore with no gates—would prevent any vessel entering the Duluth Ship Canal from reaching Superior and the St. Louis River; conversely, vessels entering through the Superior Entry would be cut off from the Duluth side of the bay. Houston recommended holding off the construction until after the spring of 1872.

General Humphreys disagreed with Houston, so the dike work commenced. Duluth City Engineer C. G. Franklin drew up specifications for the dike’s construction: a single row of pilings sixteen inches thick driven at eighteen foot intervals with four-inch wood panels driven and bolted between them. The dike would commence on Rice’s Point at Spruce Avenue and terminate on Minnesota Point at Chamber’s Street. But it didn’t have to be completed in December as stated in the injunction, as the City had received an extension to complete the dike by March 15, 1872.

Feeling the dike would be temporary, Duluth did not follow its own plans, driving the piles thirty feet apart instead of eighteen. When Major Houston inspected the work, he found piles poorly driven and improperly aligned—and the planks did little to hold back the flow of the St. Louis. Indeed, much of the dike had already broken up and floated away. Houston reported it was “of no value whatever” and that even if Duluth had followed the plans, “it would have been little better.”

Humphreys then warned Duluth that it must build the dike or else fill in the canal, so the city contracted with Roger Munger and R. A. Gray to build a new dike, this one made of cribbing and filled with riprap. But even before work on the more substantial dike commenced, Wisconsin governor Lucius Fairchild wanted it gone, arguing as early as June 1871 that it “cut off the people of Wisconsin from the free, unobstructed navigation of the public waters of Superior bay.” It would also cut Superior off from the railroads that terminated in Duluth. In December, as the first dike already lay in ruins, nearly one hundred Superiorites signed a letter urging the federal government to take action. At the end of January 1872, newly elected Wisconsin governor Cadwallader C. Washburn—who as a congressman initiated the first injunction—called upon the federal government to take action in any one of three ways: closing the canal, replacing the dike with another located closer to the canal that would provide greater access to the bay, or rebuilding the damaged dike to include gates.

Meanwhile, Munger and Gray had put their men to work in January 1872. By March 25, Houston reported that a 10-foot wide dike of timber and rock stretched 4,490 feet from Rice’s Point toward Minnesota Point. Except for a single section 100 feet long, the final 800 feet connecting to Minnesota Point would be made of logs; that final section of cribbing was designed to be removed in the future. The dike was designed well enough, in Houston’s opinion, to satisfy the requirements of the injunction. A rail line sat atop the dike, not for passage between the points, but to carry riprap material to fill the crib work and secure the dike.

The work was dangerous. On April 20, 1872, the Minnesotian reported that a “Frenchman” working on the dike had been severely injured when another worker accidentally struck him with an axe, and that a “Swede from St. Paul named Hendrickson,” who had been riding on one of the gravel train’s dump cars, died when the car “accidentally and suddenly tilted on one side—throwing him down on the track where eleven cars passed over him, killing him instantly.” The paper blamed Hendrickson’s death on “the men or jealous rivals who made that unnecessary Dyke [sic] a necessity.” Despite incidents such as these, work continued until June of that year, but it was never completed, at least not to the recommended standards.

Not only was the work left incomplete, but saboteurs tried their best to stop it. On May 4, 1872, the Minnesotian reported an attempt had been made by “sacrilegious scamps” to blow a hole in the dike using gunpowder; the attempt had been unsuccessful because the bombers had placed the charge on top of the dike, not below the water line. The newspaper reported that repairs had already neared completion, then taunted and berated the attackers: “Children! Babes! When you come again with your powder in tin tubes, with your water-proof fuse inserted at the middle, bury it deep in the centre [sic] of the Dyke [sic] and then stand on top and touch it off. . .”

That same month Superior once again asked for an injunction, this time to stop construction of the dike; it was quickly dismissed. Justice Miller determined that the circuit court in which the bill was filed did not have the jurisdiction to hear the case. The next day Miller visited Duluth and, while being treated to a tour of the harbor and dike, wondered aloud why Superior had waited until the dike had been constructed before asking for an injunction to restrain Duluth from building it.

While the new dike looked solid, problems lay beneath the surface. The bay’s depth varied greatly, and the dike began settling in deeper waters. After a July storm, the receding waters created a current the dike couldn’t handle, and it broke near Minnesota Point. Knowing that their Wisconsin neighbors would take their failed injunction to a higher court, Duluth decided to invest no more time or labor—or money—into the dike.

The suit was indeed rejoined in the United States Supreme Court on November 1, 1872. The state of Wisconsin made the complaint; the defendants were listed as Duluth, Sidney Luce (Duluth’s mayor at the time), and the Northern Pacific Railroad, who had become a party when it took over construction of the canal and allowed its trains to be used to fill in the dike cribbing. The railroad had never wanted to be involved with the dike, and it certainly didn’t enjoy being party to the lawsuit.

So Northern Pacific wrote to Governor Washburn in Wisconsin and requested he meet with the railroad’s president, G. W. Cass, to discuss removing the dike and making navigational improvements to the bay that would benefit all parties. Washburn then wrote Luce and invited a delegation from Duluth to join him to meet with the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, at its headquarters in New York. J. B. Culver and B. S. Russell joined Luce as representatives of Duluth. The meeting couldn’t have gone better.

If Wisconsin would abandon its efforts to force Duluth to build a dike, Northern Pacific offered to extend its rail line from Rice’s Point to Connor’s Point in Superior and run it along the shoreline to the mouth of the Nemadji River and to connect the railroad to future wharves and docks. Northern Pacific would even build a bridge between the points and a grain elevator in Superior. The railroad’s intention, it declared, was to “place Duluth and Superior on equal footing as to leave the commercial world to elect for itself where to do business without any discrimination in favor of either place, delivering passengers and freight both at Superior and Duluth.”

Armed with this agreement, the delegations from Duluth and Wisconsin together headed for Washington, D.C. The group approached senators and congressmen from their respective states and worked together to appropriate funds for harbor improvements. They succeeded: Congress would give them $10,000 in March of 1873. The controversy was settled and the Supreme Court suit dismissed. It looked like the towns had found a way to come together. The St. Louis River had already demonstrated that it was folly to try to keep them apart.

The dike was partially dismantled in July 1873; years of neglect finished the job, but not thoroughly. In 1956 the Duluth News Tribune wrote that “spooners”—unmarried couples seeking privacy—who went boating in the harbor often used the ruins as an excuse, claiming “our boat got stuck on the dike” years before spooning motorists came up with “the car ran out of gas.”

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