The Tunnels of Subterranean Duluth

Brewery Creek Drain

Although this stream runs near Chester Creek, it has a different personality, and a different path, down the hill. It begins in Duluth Heights and, along with Buckingham Creek, it drains a former wetlands and shallow lake in what is now the retail development above Arlington Avenue along Central Entrance.

Brewery Creek has been forced underground behind the Marshall School and travels first through concrete, then through brick and stone, to Lake Superior. Brewery Creek is so named because it flowed to—and supplied the water for—the 1857 Luce Brewery above 1st Street near 7th Avenue East, predecessor to Fink’s Lake Superior Brewery, which eventually became Fitger’s Brewery.

A postcard of Fitger’s Brewery c. 1900-1915. The artwork came from the company’s letterhead and includes some buildings that were never constructed, and a roof-top garden above the offices that was also never completed. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Unlike early Chester Creek, the upper portions of Brewery Creek were very close to residences. Duluthians began to enclose this creek in 1893 with a 300-foot tunnel between 1st and Superior Streets at 6th Avenue East. However, as the area above the crossing became more populated, the stream became a veritable open sewer for the East Hillside. Lament over its abuse became the regular subject of editorials.

To discourage the practice, and to stimulate development in that area, the city decided to enclose Brewery Creek within a stone tunnel between East 6th Street and 7th Street in late 1904. Nobody would want to think of drinking beer made from that stream, but they needn’t have worried; the brewery moved to Superior Street and began drawing its water from Lake Superior in the early 1880s.

There was a public push to push the creeks into tunnels.

In 1905 the project was turned from a culvert strictly used for freshwater into a one combined with sewage. The city found that if it did so, it could transfer some of the cost of the underground construction and the dynamite blasting entailed with it to the property owners. Even today, generally, property owners pay for their own sewer connections and cities pay for culverts for creeks and storm runoff.

Most homeowners could not pay for specialists to dynamite holes for their sanitary piping like the city could. In fact, to build many of its sewers, Duluth hired actual iron miners from the Mesabi Range to deploy explosive charges for tunnel construction.

The Zenith City’s rapid expansion through the 1920s demanded the enclosure of more of the creek. In 1913, the area between East 6th and East 8th Streets were revisited, adding another block of tunnels and enlarging the 1904 project. The lower portions of the drain were built largely out of brick in the early 1920s, part of which may be viewed today in the alley between East 4th and 3rd Streets, in the parking lot for the Whole Foods Co-Op.

Duluthians may recall seeing Brewery Creek a little too closely in 1972, when three inches of rain fell in about two hours, causing massive flooding across Duluth. That day, the invisible became visible when the culvert, which crosses 6th Avenue East around Tenth Street, exploded from the pressure of the water. Before long, the force of the water began to wash out the streets, houses, and businesses along Sixth Avenue. President Nixon declared the flood a federal disaster as Duluthians counted damages exceeding $22 million.

This section of Brewery Creek has a bedrock floor.

Brewery Creek also made a mess of things during the 2012 flood, when clogged culverts forced the creek to the surface in several location, damaging businesses and homes and, during the storm, pouring over the wall of I-35 above the Fitger’s complex like a waterfall onto the highway below.

Clark House Creek Drain

Clark House Creek is another Zenith City waterway that tends to bubble to the surface when the rain really begins to fall. It is named after Duluth’s first hotel, built adjacent to the stream in 1869 on the West 100 block of Superior Street.

The Clark House hotel.

Upstream from the Duluth’s first hotel, city leaders established Cascade Park in 1870, four acres near First Avenue West and Sixth Street, with the creek in its center. When an ornamental stone pavilion was added to the park in 1895, Clark House Creek was a major feature. Park planner William King Rogers had championed such a plan since May of 1888.

The stream was diverted into a culvert above Mesaba Avenue’s intersection with 1st Avenue West—the same place it begins it underground journey today. It was directed to flow through the pavilion’s lower level and out into daylight via a pool at the structure’s base. From there it was carried toward the lake in a stone and mortar trough built to match the pavilion, past picnickers and jaunters.

Clarkhouse Creek in Cascade Park. Postcard.

The artificial waterway extended to West Fourth Street where the flow was diverted underground via a culvert established in 1890. Lower sections had been completed in the mid-1880s and incorporated the runoff with an existing storm sewer following 1st Avenue West, eventually running to the railyard below Michigan Street.

The pavilion, sadly, was severely damaged during a storm in 1897. In the 1950s, parts of the park were divided and sold, and most of the structures were demolished, including the trough that guided the creek. Rather, the culvert above Mesaba was directly connected to the one above 4th, so that the creek would no longer see the light of day. Unless, it seems, the Zenith City finds itself below a giant rainstorm.

This room below Cascade Park was possibly the last trace of the original waterworks. It was destroyed in the 2012 storm.

Like Brewery Creek, Clark House has at various times erupted from the ground to the surprise of those who had no notion they were living atop miniature rivers. The flood of 1972 caused the usual gentle waters of the creek to bore right out of the ground and send mud, rocks, and other debris into downtown. The city replaced parts of the culvert left the creek to be forgotten by most of Duluth, until 2012.

Many Duluthians will recall the damage done to the west side of downtown when the largely ignored park below Mesaba was turned into a muddy geyser. Again, Clark House Creek had its revenge on the city that pushed it into an early grave, and it is doubtless not the last time. The place where the stone trough met the brick drain that carried the stream under downtown still exists under the park and is viewable through a small grate near the lower retaining wall.

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Story by Dan Turner. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Dan Turner. Or, visit Dan's website, http://substreet.org/.