Duluth’s Historic Outer Harbor

A postcard of Duluth’s outer harbor made from a photograph taken in 1871. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Duluth had already gained a reputation for extremely thick fog. So in 1880 engineers installed an automated fog bell inside the tower of the South Pier Light, but it proved inadequate. Five years later it was replaced with tin steam-powered fog whistles housed in a small structure near the light. Duluth experienced one of the foggiest seasons on record in 1895, and the fog-signal whistle screamed for over 1,000 hours, gobbling forty-five tons of coal in the effort. The whistles not only sent a warning to mariners on the lake, they also bounced off Duluth’s rocky hillside, creating a cacophony Duluthians couldn’t bear. To remedy the problem, the signal’s horns were relocated to the roof and covered with a parabolic reflector. The reflector not only directed sound away from the city, it nearly doubled the signal’s reach.

While the South Pier Light helped mariners find the canal, another light was needed to provide a focal point by which to guide them through. In 1880 the Lighthouse Board recommended appropriating $2,000 for another light at the south pier’s western (or inner) end. The light would stand taller than the South Pier Light; when used together, the two lights helped navigators establish range, as lighthouse historian Terry Pepper explains: “By maintaining a line in which these two lights were constantly oriented one above the other, a direct course could be followed to the opening between the two piers.”

Placed atop a wooden pyramid, the South Breakwater Light shined for the first time in September 1889. The beacon boasted a red fourth order Fresnel lens, but instead of a continuous beam, it flashed a signal every six seconds. It wasn’t foolproof: just sixteen days after the light commenced flashing, the steamer India collided with the pier at the base of the light itself, damaging the foundation.

The canal hadn’t been sufficiently wide since 1881, when the locks at Sault Ste. Marie were enlarged. The iron ore industry arrived in the early 1890s by way of the newly opened Mesabi Iron Range, creating more shipping traffic through Duluth. The canal and harbor’s shallow depth prevented bigger ships from carrying more profitable loads. Between 1896 and 1902 the old wooden piers were removed, the canal was widened, and substantial concrete structures replaced the rickety, crooked wooden piers that once lined the canal.

Building the new concrete piers meant tearing down the shaky old wooden piers—and everything on top of them. A new lighthouse and Inner Light were built on the south pier (the North Pier Lighthouse was built in 1910).

On shore the old waterfront was no haven for stone skippers. For over 100 years beginning in the late 1860s, the eastern side of Minnesota Point above the canal—today’s Canal Park Business District—suffered as the least valuable chunk of real estate in Duluth. During this period the base of Minnesota Point to the canal was made up of two divisions called Cowell’s Addition and Industrial Addition, known collectively as Uptown—at least on the western or bay side of the Point. Poor immigrants set up shanty housing on the eastern or lake side along St. Croix Avenue (today’s Canal Park Drive) north of Buchanon Street; locals called the area“No Man’s Land.”

By 1895 No Man’s Land had become known as “Finn Town” as it was primarily populated by Finnish (and some Swedish) laborers and their families, many of whom were at work building the canal’s concrete piers, earning two dollars a day for their efforts. Locals began calling St. Croix Avenue “Finlander Avenue”; Finns called it Rottakatu or “Rat Street” due to the large number of rats living among the outhouses. Near their homes they built a Finnish church, a Finnish school, a large Finnish bathhouse, Finnish restaurants, and Finnish boarding houses. Finn Town later became home to other minority groups, and other boarding houses and cheap residential hotels hosted sailors and migrant workers.

Uptown could be a rough and rowdy place, and some of the city’s seedier citizens spent their free time in its many saloons and brothels. Children passing through the area to get to and from Park Point were warned by parents to “stay away from the pretty ladies dressed in kimonos.” From the the 1880s to the 1930s housing units occupied by prostitutes were labeled “female boarding houses” on insurance maps. All were clustered together in Duluth’s own red light district: either side of the St. Croix alley south of Railroad Street and north of Sutphin Street. The red light district was “cleaned up” in the late 1930s, and illegal activity shifted to the Bowery.

Fewer and fewer people chose to live in the Finn Town area over the years. More of it was industrialized, and much of it fell into decay. By the late 1960s wrecked cars, broken appliances, and other abandoned items lay strewn among the ruins of Finn Town.

There are few reminders left today of Duluth’s once active outer harbor. The ruins Whitney Brothers gravel hopper—aka “Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum”—has become a popular summer tourist attraction, and just off the Lakewalk at about Third Avenue East sits a large iron device painted to look like some sort of animal. It was originally a tool the Duluth Iron and Metal used to cut cable used to tie up scrap.

A few years ago a large piece of wooden cribbing washed up during a storm and beached itself in the corner of the lake. It is still there. Many have speculated where it may have came from: the old wooden ship canal piers, Citizen’s Dock, the outer breakwater, the docks of Elevator A, perhaps even the front half of Sydney Luce’s warehouse. The cribbing was examined by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society. Find out what they discovered here.

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.