The Duluth Ship Canal

Detail of a photograph of the Duluth Ship Canal, Duluth, Minnesota, by W.H. Jackson, 1899. The concrete piers were constructed between 1896 and 1902; note that while the light poles are in place, their diffusion globes have yet to be installed. (Image: National Park Service)

In the spring of 1870, fearing the railroad’s docks on Rice’s Point and at Fourth Avenue East would not be adequate to handle future commerce, Duluth built the Citizen’s Dock, which reached six hundred feet from Minnesota Point into the lake just north of Morse Street in what is today considered Canal Park. J. B. Culver, Duluth’s first mayor, paid for the dock’s construction. Elevator A and about four hundred feet of the breakwater were completed over the summer, and the first trains of the LS&M rolled into Duluth on August 1 that same year.

While Duluth had floundered to find its feet, life in the late 1850s and throughout the 1860s had been more stable across the bay in Superior, Wisconsin, which was considered the only town of note in the entire region. But the LS&M’s terminus in Duluth threatened Superior’s position as the region’s premier city. Superiorites had campaigned aggressively to get the railroad to come to their city—even suggesting that Cooke drop the word “Lake” from the railroad’s name—and felt Cooke had snubbed them.

So Cooke’s railroad and his other projects brought prosperity to Duluth rather than to Superior. But slighted Superior still had one great advantage over Duluth: the Superior Entry kept the majority of fledgling industry on the Wisconsin side of the bay. A canal in Duluth would change all of that. And Superior would do all it could to stop any digging.

While Cooke’s company pushed to expand the breakwater, Duluthians were convinced it would never hold up, and that the only safe harbor must be located in the natural bay. In the fall of 1870, the Duluth City Council exercised the power of its charter and decided the canal should finally be dug. Its members determined the canal would be 150 feet wide and 16 feet deep and protected by piers on each side stretching 18 feet into the lake. To finance this and other harbor improvements, the city accepted a $50,000 loan from Cooke’s LS&M in the form of one hundred $500 bonds bearing 7 percent interest, final payment due on September 1, 1890.

Cutting the Canal

On September 5, 1870, the steam-powered dredging tug Ishpeming took its first bite out of Minnesota Point at what was plotted as Portage Street—the path that for hundreds of years had been the Ojibwe and French fur traders’ Onigamiinsing or “Little Portage” that provided passage over Minnesota Point without having to paddle through what had become the Superior Entry. When winter froze the gravel, Major John Upham of W. W. Williams & Co.—the dredge’s owner—stopped digging for the season.

The Ishpeming went back to work on April 24, 1871, and dug continuously during daylight hours until Saturday, April 29. She had cut a swath thirty feet wide and eight feet deep to within a few feet of the lake-side beach when, according to the Minnesotian, Duluth’s first newspaper, she struck a vein of gravel frozen so hard it stopped her. Immediately a group of men went to work with “shovels and picks and drills and powder (two kegs).” They scooped, smashed, bored, and blasted through the rocklike frozen chunk of sand bar, allowing the Ishpeming to go on dredging. At 1 p.m. that day the waters of Lake Superior joined with those of Superior Bay or, as Dr. Thomas Foster wrote in the Minnesotian, “the union of the waters became forthwith an accomplished fact.” Duluth’s first publisher, Foster often came across as part poet and part contract attorney, and he fancied himself a grand orator. At a speech given during an Independence Day picnic on the Point in 1856, he coined Duluth’s first nickname: “The Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.”

Read the legends surrounding the digging of the ship canal here.

Foster’s paper reported that the waters of the Bay, a few inches higher and a few degrees warmer than the lake’s waters, cut and thawed through the dredged channel. The next morning, Sunday, April 30, a channel five feet deep and twenty wide flowed with a six mile an hour current into the lake. That afternoon the small steamer ferry-tug Frank C. Fero, piloted by Captain George W. Sherwood, navigated the canal. The Ishpeming returned to work the next day, and kept cutting throughout the summer, making the canal deeper and wider.

Foster didn’t get the news out until May 6. Seth Wilbur Payne’s Morning Call scooped him as the first newspaper to report the completion of the canal, at the same time bemoaning the lack of pomp and circumstance surrounding the event:

An event occurred yesterday of greater importance than would have been the commencement of the [Northern Pacific] docks. We refer to the opening of the canal across Minnesota Point. Why did not our capitalists and real estate criers not show their love for Duluth by some appropriate public demonstration?

Bolstering the Canal

Throughout the years of litigation, efforts to improve the canal had continued. Almost as soon as the Ishpeming finished its initial cut, work began on wooden piers that would frame the canal along the dig site and expand its length on the lakeward side. It was 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. Further, the same November 1872 storm that destroyed the breakwater also severely damaged the piers, requiring $25,000 worth of work in 1873. The federal government helped pay for the repairs, and that same year the piers were completed.

In 1874 the federal government unofficially took control of the canal. When the 1875 shipping season opened a large section of the north pier had tilted and many feared it would fall into the canal. It took over three hundred cords of stone riprap to bolster the pier once it had been put back in place. As Duluth prospered from its railroads and ship canal, the canal’s piers needed frequent attention. In 1879 ice damage forced engineers to replace 250 feet of cribbing; in 1880, 325 feet of the north pier were completely rebuilt, along with 190 feet of the south pier. In 1882 workers finally placed decking on the piers. The natural flow of water through the canal also undermined the piers—literally. Originally dredged to a depth of fourteen feet at the time the workers laid the piers’ cribbing, by 1882 portions of the canal near the piers had been naturally scoured to a depth of eighteen feet. With its feet washed out from under it, the north pier again listed toward the canal. Workers pulled the pier back and bolstered it again, this time with large iron rods fastened to the face of the cribbing.

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. In 1881 Congress had passed the River and Harbor Act, which authorized plans for the Corps of Engineers to improve the Superior Entry and the Canal. Five years later the Corps established a district office in Duluth, and engineers focused on designing a better canal and pier system, one that would stay in place and could handle an increase in ship trafficking and larger, heavier boats that required deeper waters. Work on this “new” canal would not begin until the 1890s.

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