Which West Duluth School did I Watch Burn?

This Month's "Ask the Historian"

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.
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Longfellow Elementary School, photographed in the 1890s. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

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.

This Month's "Ask the Historian"

18 Responses to Which West Duluth School did I Watch Burn?

  1. Gerald Belanger, I can not only “fog a mirror”, I can blow out 76 candles. I remember walking with you as I passed by your house on the way to Longfellow School. This was about 1948 when I had Miss Fleming for a teacher. I think it was 3rd grade. That was the year we had a kids travel bureau in the class.

    I looked Miss Fleming up a few years ago. She was living in an apartment by Memorial Field. We had a nice visit. Her memory for most of the kids was still sharp. She has since passed away. I remember her as being a kind person and an environmentalist back in “48”. That was my first memory of hearing the word “pollution”.

    Last year my sister Donna and I took pictures of our old house at 226 N 61st Ave and also of us sitting on the old steps at the school location. Neighborhood names I remember (forgive the spelling): Jim Routh, Rodney Bordage, the Hughes family across the alley, Bergs on the corner, Bruce Stockton, Don or Dave Hammer, I had a crush on Judell Hanson by the creek, Barb Forsman (I think she and Richard ? lived by you)and there were more. The school and the neighborhood are good memories.

    I’m retired and still live in the Arrowhead. I am also a North Shore historian and am looking for photos and stories. I used to have a picture of our class but lost it years ago. If you or any other Longfellow students want to get in touch I can be reached at: revmadison@lakeconnections.net
    Duane Pagenkopf / Madison

  2. in 1953 I attended kindergarten at this dear school. there was a playhouse in a corner, craft time with real clay and every day we went to a big room and drank milk. one of my best memories is the how good it smelled inside! old wood, varnish, soap.
    in 1912, my oldest uncle wrote his name in the tower with his new penknife. around 1944-45 my mother, Mrs O’Hara, was a Longfellow teacher and my brother Hank was in her class. he never forgot being forced to call her “Mrs O’Hara” 🙂

  3. This is so very cool. There are “ghosts” all over Duluth (ie: forgotten places that were once significant). One day last summer I was walking and I came to the intersection of Elinore and West 8th Streets. I noticed a concrete stairway going up the hill across from the end of Elinore. The stairs (with portions of steel handrails) were apparently, the way to get to the Longfellow School. My curiosity was peeked. Forgotten places that used to be important in people’s lives. Old buildings…such a legacy. Old buildings gone…such a loss. Look at the pictures…the majestic bell tower…imagination can’t do it justice, because it is tinged with “nevermore”.

  4. I moved from Superior (Carpenter Elementary) to 337 N. 60th Ave West in May 1951.Only had a month in 3rd grade. Believe teacher was Miss Fleming. Fourth grade was Miss Anderson. Fifth grade Miss Phoebe Young. Sixth grade Miss Anna Young.(Better not call her “Annie” to her face.) I still have the jackknife all 6th grade police boys received on graduation. I also have the program from our 6th grade graduation listing 43 students. Teachers now a days,along with their 2 or 3 teacher assistants insist they cannot possibly teach more than 25 students. Well, we turned out all right.
    When Longfellow was demolished, me and many other families retrieved bricks from the rubble. These bricks now line many gardens in the neighborhood. Longfellow lives on.

  5. Thank you for this. I went to Longfellow school in about 1953-54.
    I also had Miss Anqtil as my Kindergarten teacher. I moved to 1703 west 3rd street after that, but I remember watching them knock down the tower of the school from our back porch.

  6. I just happened to conduct a google search for “Annie Young” and “Laura MacArthur School,” but came across this site. I attended Longfellow from 1955 -1957 before Laura MacArthur Elementary School opened. I remember the corner store near Longfellow, and the central staircase and wonderful architecture of the old school. My Kindergarten teacher was Miss Anqtil and my 1st grade teacher was Mrs. Deutsch. I had been home, recovering from chicken pox when Longfellow burned in 1959 and I remember standing in my pajamas on the hillside overlooking the school and feeling a terrible sense of loss. My family moved to southern California the following year, but I managed to glean a wooden school desk from Longfellow’s demolition crew for the princely fee of one dollar before leaving Duluth. It sits on the front porch of my home in West Hollywood, today. I have wonderful memories of my life in West Duluth, especially of Longfellow and my classmates. I remember the Brandt’s, the Thompsons, the Beaudettes, the Bells, the Tasky’s (I had a terrible crush on Janet) and so many others (such as John Mikelson and Tommy Kreuger). In those days, the teachers taught music and gymnastics as well as the three ‘r’s. Annie Young had been a prairie school “marm” before teaching at Longfellow. She and Agatha Fleming were much loved by their students and irreplaceable (with all respect to the modern teachers of today). Having attended Longfellow, gave me an insightful view of what attending school was like in the early days of American public education. I wouldn’t trade my wooden school desk (solid maple, by the way) for the smartest lap top or niftiest iphone. The old-fashioned chalk board suits me just fine.

  7. Ghost Story: I lived in West Duluth in the late 80’s-early 90’s. One of the houses was at 5718 Elinor Street. My brother Windy Morrison was 3 or 4 at the time and he came home from head-start with a construction paper turkey. (thanksgiving season). Anyway, the turkey had feathers for every family member. One of the feathers said “Jordan” and I asked him who Jordan was and he said, “It’s my brother. His school is magic. It can start on fire!” He was pointing toward the top of Elinor Street. I knew there were stair remnants there but we NEVER knew there was an actual school up there and it burned down. We didn’t find out until doing some online research a few years back and I just had to tell my brother about it. So, I know “Jordan” wouldn’t have been a popular name back then but I wonder if there was a boy with a similar name who lived at or near our old address when Longfellow burned down.

  8. My husband and I are in the process of doing a family history for my mother-in-law.
    Her grand parents were Christian and Beatrice (Betsy) Anderson. My mother-in-law says they owned a (grocery) store which we think was located at 332 North 57th Avenue West, Duluth, MN. (now the Kom-On-Inn) They immigrated from Norway in 1884 and we know they were here in the early 1900’s. Would anybody know of this store? Any details, pictures, etc. would be appreciated. You can e-mail me at honeydew@mchsi.com

  9. I Went to Longfellow School 1955 thru 1956. I lived at 1018 N 59th Ave W. I enjoyed all of the kids and really learned a lot from Miss Young. I wish I could see all my class mates again.

    The best to all

    BILL

  10. I thank you too. When I forwarded your article on Longfellow to my older sister and younger brother (one in NJ and one in California – I am in Oregon) they responded with lots of wonderful memories of their years there (1930’s and 1940’s)which I have now put in my “history of my family” – the Halls and grandparents: Lundings who came from Denmark and settled in Duluth in late 1800’s. I enjoy your stories – Norshore Theater… Virginia (Hall) Green

  11. Thanks to all of you who shared your Longfellow stories.

    I don’t think Kim Cooper had any idea what his question to the folks at city hall would stimulate, but we at ZenithCity are pleased to answer his inquiry and to hear from so many who have those fond memories.

  12. I am so thankful for the kind folks at the city and the Maryanne. No one in my family can believe they were able to track this down. I was unbelievably young, but have a plethora of memories, probably due to the fact that all the memories from that time were associated with a specific location, and a fine location it was with driving on ice for fishing in the winter, smelt netting, building igloo’s with the neighbor’s (Brandt’s as I recall).

    There was a small stream that froze on a wooded area behind the house. We played on a grouping of rocks, which were almost like a mini national park to us when we were so young The plants that grew in between cracks in the flat rock seemed magical.

    On the corner was a little candy store. Thanks to Google Maps and the City folks and Maryanne I was able to look at this area and see the rocks we played on and the little candy store is still there. You can’t tell from the satellite what it is, but it’s pretty amazing I remembered it exactly where it was since we moved out shortly before 1st grade!

    When the school burned down the fire trucks came down a little dirt alley behind the duplex house we rented. The TV station was there and they filmed three of us young kids with one having his hands over his eyes, the other ears and the third mouth (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil). I wonder what they were suggesting!

    That night everyone huddled around the neighbor’s TV to see us kids on the screen. I believe they were the only ones with UHF, but that’s just a guess. Perhaps they all got together socially.

    For as cold as Duluth is, when we moved to Ohio my Mom was pretty upset about the humidity. She always said that 20 degrees in Ohio felt colder than 10 below in Duluth.

    In my memory, I do not remember them salting or clearing the roads completely. It seemed we were driving over snow more than pavement in the winter, and everyone had block heaters, something I bought in 1977, and I’m the only one I know in Ohio who had one! The new cars don’t seem to care much and just start for the most part.

    I have a lot more memories of Duluth, but for you people reading this, they are probably just common every day things, like watching the Bridge rise and fall, and the Viking Ship in a park nearby— and white birch trees – real nice to drive by anytime of the year! We don’t see those plentiful in Ohio!

    One last thing. Ironically, we moved out of Duluth because my Dad got a job with a company in Minnesota that gave him a territory in Ohio He worked for Red Ball Band when we lived in Duluth, and left there to work for Red Wing Shoe Company working a sales territory in Ohio. He loved the Minnesota based company, it’s owner and was very proud of their workmanship and ethics.

    One last five year old memory. In the grass in front of the School, a lot of big leafed soft fuzzy plants grew. I don’t know what they are called, but you rarely see them in Ohio. They do grow here, but we used to enjoy picking them for their texture in Duluth.

    Thanks again! —Kim Cooper

  13. My brothers and I attended Longfellow from about 1954 through 1956 when it closed. We then went to Laura MacArthur. We lived one block away at 5830 West 8th Street. I still remember the teachers and one in particular, Miss Fleming, roomed next door to us. Lovely woman! I remember Miss Watts, and Miss Young as well. We used to play around the school grounds before and even after the school burned. Also remember we used to pick the loads of wild strawberries that grew in the field above and west of the school.

  14. My good friends actually owned the house that is directly next to the Longfellow property for many years and we used to slide down the path that led to the Longfellow stairs. If I’m not mistaken, part of the vacant lot that Longfellow stood on is actually part of the land this house sits on and is where we used to stack wood. The brick retaining wall with the old metal railing still exists today where we would stack the wood.

  15. I went to Longfellow from 1937 when I started Kindergarten through the 6th grade (Miss Anne Young – wonderful 6th grade teacher)as did my brothers and sister. My mother who was born in 1907 also attended Longfellow. I have a photo of her in her classroom (I think third grade. My younger brother remembers skiing down those rocks beside the stairs when the snow was heavy. I remember going to the library and watching the first boats break through the ice in spring. I no longer live in Duluth or does my immediate family but we have wonderful memories of growing up in West Duluth and Longfellow school.

  16. It brings back many fond memories of my youth when I attended elementary school there. I lived just down the hill from the school at 617 N 60th Ave W. I began kindergarden there in 1945 and attended through the 6th grade. I wonder how many of my old clsss mates are still able to fog a mirror? I really enjoy these daily articles. Keep up the good work.

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