The northwest corner of Lake Superior wasn’t always the tourist-welcoming center of Duluth it is today, but was once a working harbor and certainly not the part of town you’d spend time skipping stones during a family vacation.
Development of the corner of the lake began in 1856, when Sidney Luce built the first warehouse at what was then the southeast corner of Portland Township, where East Third Street meets Lake Superior. Luce’s warehouse stood three-stories tall, with half its foundation carved into rock on one side and the other perched atop cribbing submerged in the lake on the other. The Luce family lived on the top floor. Until the late 1860s, it was one of only a few buildings in what would become Duluth.
The Financial Panic of 1857 restricted development until 1869, when Jay Cooke financed Duluth’s first grain elevator next to Luce’s warehouse. Cooke’s Union Improvement and Elevator Company purchased wood from Roger Munger’s sawmill on Lake Avenue to build Elevator A, a grain terminal that could hold 350,000 bushels of grain and came equipped with a steam-powered conveyance system. Cooke’s Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad then brought rail to the elevator by building large docks and constructing Duluth’s first railroad freight depot at 300 East Michigan Street, next to the grain elevator.
The railroad also added docks along a timber-and-stone breakwater that protected vessels from Lake Superior’s often turbulent waters. On May 30, 1871, the steamer St. Paul took Elevator A’s first load, 11,500 bushels of wheat, and became the first boat to carry a cargo of grain out of Duluth and down the lakes.
By June 1871 the outer breakwater had been extended to 950 feet and stood six feet above the waterline. A “great storm” on November 16, 1872, caused severe damage to the structure, leaving Elevator A, warehouses, and docks vulnerable. Workers had made repairs and added heavy stones to the breakwater’s exterior in an effort to fortify the structure.
After that, Duluth spent no more time or money attempting to keep it in place. The canal was in full operation, and with access to the safety of the bay, the breakwater became more a burden than an asset. Only one other grain elevator, 1878’s Elevator Q, was built on the lake itself.
By the summer of 1873, traffic on the canal was in full swing and nearly all shipping commerce in Duluth had moved to the bay inside of Minnesota Point, rendering repair to the breakwater much less important.
Early grain elevators were made of wood, and grain dust is highly combustible; elevators often went up in flames. Elevators A and Q burned on November 27, 1886, taking with them about 500,000 bushels of grain and the lives of elevator foreman Edward Lee and fireman Charles Moore. The loss was so substantial it actually led to a rise in value of the Chicago grain market. The fire also consumed a saloon, a carriage factory, houses, and warehouses on the 400 block of East Superior Street.
The following year wheat from both burned elevators remained on the site, rotting away—and creating an awful smell. It was loaded onto barges dumped in Lake Superior. In January 1892, founders of the Duluth Curling Club used Elevator A’s foundation to build the club’s first rink, which was destroyed in a blizzard in March of the same year.
With no grain elevator to serve, in 1890 the railroad leased its freight depot to Duluth Iron and Metal, a scrap iron business; the company continued to use the old depot until a fire on August 16, 1963, destroyed it. The lake eventually claimed what remained of the breakwater.
While Jay Cooke was investing in Duluth, Zenith City citizens stepped up as well. Duluth’s first mayor, J. B. Culver, financed the construction of Citizen’s Dock which reached into the lake from Morse Street, about two blocks south of the canal. Like the outer breakwater and docks along Elevator A, Citizen’s Dock was subjected to poundings by Lake Superior and was not a safe place for a vessel to tie up. Again, the digging of the canal rendered it unnecessary, and by 1880 it had been abandoned. The dock was reportedly destroyed in 1886, but was shown on insurance maps as late as 1902.
Meanwhile, almost as soon as the ship canal had been dug, work began on wooden piers that would frame the canal. The piers were in constant need of repair from the start. Some portions of the cribbing sunk to support the piers had gone in crooked and were never properly aligned, causing problems throughout the wooden piers’ entire existence. Each spring the same problems arose: damage from ice and log rafts had battered the piers. The canal’s engineers thought spending money on further repairs was far from practical, so only absolutely necessary work was done on the piers throughout the 1880s.
The wooden pier included two lights and a fog signal. In 1872 contractors hired by the Corps of Engineers built a wooden pyramid tower on the outer end of the south pier and capped it with an octagonal cast-iron lantern housing a fifth order Fresnel Lens (a lens developed specifically for navigational lights by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel). The light, which cast a red beacon visible 12.5 miles away, was lit for the first time on June 2, 1874. In 1877 the light was upgraded with a fixed red fourth order Fresnel lens. Lighthouse keepers reached the South Pier Light by walking over a trestle walkway, so the keeper could reach the light even when the pier was submerged by large waves.