Originally published March, 2013.
This request was originally sent to the Duluth Planning Department and was forwarded to me. Kim Cooper, who now lives in Ohio, lived in Duluth as a small boy. He told the planning department he remembers that sometime between 1957 and 1959, directly behind his family’s home, he watched a large, vacant school burn and he wondered which school it was—and he had no idea where his family lived.
This mystery was easier to solve than we thought. City directories indicated that in the late 1950s a John S. Cooper lived at 5917 West 8th Street. This address was then practically next door to Longfellow Elementary School at 6015 Elinor Street. Longfellow was destroyed by fire in 1959. John Cooper was Kim’s father.
Longfellow was built in 1891 at 6015 Elinor Street on a hill in West Duluth to serve students living between 53rd Avenue West and the railyard for the West Duluth Incline Railway in Bay View Heights as well as those west of 61st Avenue West. Slated to open in the fall of 1891, Longfellow Elementary didn’t see a student until April 1892 due to a Scarlet Fever epidemic. It officially opened on October 3, 1892, and served grades K-9 until 1915, afterwhich grades 7-9 were moved to a junior high.
Its twelve classrooms served West Duluth for over sixty years. Named for American author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and designed by Duluth architect’s Palmer and Hall, the brick school featured many architectural details, including arched windows and corners dressed with quoins, but its most distinctive feature was its tower, which held no bell nor clock.
Private sources raised the $3,000 needed to add the tower, which served as a landmark in West Duluth—and could be seen from Superior across the bay. In 1949, when structural engineers were calling for the tower to be removed (it was unstable and hampered efforts to renovate the building), the Duluth News Tribune said it was “to West Duluth what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris” and reported that West Duluth mothers would tell their children, “if you ever get lost, just walk to the tower and all will be well.” When sixth graders graduated, they were allowed a tour of the tower so they could see the amazing view of the harbor it provided.
The elementary school closed in 1956; it stood empty and was vandalized repeatedly. On April 22, 1959, Longfellow was destroyed by a fire which was determined to have been arson. Cooper told me he was “pretty sure” who started the fire, because there were “older kids who used to play with matches in it.” The fire damage forced the building’s demolition.
The school’s most celebrated teacher, Laura MacArthur, arrived in 1896 to teach Latin, algebra, and civics to ninth graders. She later became the principal of Irving Elementary. Ely Elementary was destroyed in 1956, the same year Longfellow closed. Both schools were replaced by Laura MacArthur Elementary in 1957, and West Junior High became the west wing of Laura MacArthur in 1983. Both schools were demolished in 2011 to make room for a new Laura MacArthur Elementary as part of the Duluth School District’s Long Range Facilities Plan.
Cooper also wondered where he had gone to kindergarten and thought it was a Catholic school about two blocks from his home. St. James Catholic Church and School still stand just two blocks away at 715 57th Avenue West. The house the Cooper family lived in is still on West Eighth Street in West Duluth, and the lot on which Longfellow School stood is still vacant; only the steps remain as reminder of the school Kim Cooper watched burn.