The Tunnels of Subterranean Duluth

The Lesser Tunnels of Downtown Duluth

Buckingham Creek flowed under a series of bridges before a new path for it was blasted through the base of the Point of Rocks in 1888. The dynamite blasts came just three years after the men of the Duluth silver mine walked away from their dreams a few hundred feet down the rock face. Although the tunnel facilitated rail development, the creek was becoming unsanitary even where it ran atop the hill, past Emerson Elementary School, where it was used as an open sewer by the poor immigrants who built shanties nearby.

The foul smells and accumulating garbage caught the attention of the Fifth Ward Improvement Club in 1912, which pressured the city to enclose most of Buckingham between Fourth Avenue West and the granite tunnel.

The creek follows the same path today as it did in 1912, and the rock tunnel is visible below the M&H gas station on the west side of Interstate 35.

Buckingham Creek Drain in the wintertime.

Miller’s Creek runs underground through one of the longest and widest storm sewers in the Twin Ports. Today the creek is enclosed in a series of tunnels for over one quarter of a mile under Twenty-Sixth Avenue West, just downstream from Lincoln Park. Construction of the first section of tunnel began in 1911 with a 110-foot long section near West Superior Street and extended toward Piedmont with a sandstone arch block section in 1916. Most of the section is quite wide, around fifteen feet, to accommodate flooding and to keep water speeds slow enough for trout to navigate.

During the Second World War there was a discussion of whether to turn tunnels like this into official air raid shelters. The debate flowed predictably; according to one report in the News Tribune, “There’s one argument against this—the sewers aren’t healthy, and it isn’t healthy to get in the way of a train in a railroad tunnel. But then, bombs aren’t conducive to long life, either.” The idea was scrapped.

Millers Creek Drain is large enough to drive through.

The Spalding and Holland Hotels, which stood diagonally from each other across the intersection of Superior Street and Fifth Avenue West, were at one time connected below street level.

The subterranean passage was called “Duluth’s First Subway” by some, but the tunnel itself was humble. It was six feet wide and six feet tall inside and sat 18 feet below Superior Street, contained within fifteen inch thick walls. 20 men worked night and day in January, 1921, to blast bedrock with dynamite. Once complete—and lined with concrete—the “subway” conveyed steam from the Spalding to the Holland, and a small passageway was maintained for employees to use as well. While the tunnel was probably destroyed during the Gateway Renewal Project, there is still a tunnel nearby one can walk through today. The Zenith City’s Skywalk system actually goes underground to cross Fifth Avenue West between First and Superior Streets, and continues below Superior Street where it emerges inside the Duluth Public Library.

Many municipal buildings in Duluth are connected by tunnels built, like the Skywalk, to make the business of moving people and utilities easier. Just a clock above the Skyway’s underground section, City Hall and the former St. Louis County Jail both connect to the County Courthouse via tunnels—the one leading from the jail was constructed to provide the safe and discrete transfer of prisoners from the jail to court and, often, back to jail. Duluth’s former Washington Junior High and Old Central High are joined below East Third Street across Lake Avenue by a small utility tunnel.

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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/.