The Corps of Engineers Building

How the need for bathrooms created a museum


The Corps of Engineers Building photographed in 2013 (Image: stillhowlyntravels.blogspot.com)

While Duluthians financed the construction of the Duluth Ship Canal—with help from Jay Cooke’s Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad to the tune of $50,000—the federal government took control of the canal after Cooke went broke in 1873, ushering in an international economic depression that cost Duluth its city status in 1877. Along with the canal and its piers, the feds also gained the two strips of land on either side of the canal. The government called the property “Canal Park,” but it didn’t do anything to make it very park-like. It made sense that they didn’t spend anything to develop the property. The Weiland Tannery sat adjacent to the waterway on eastern side of what is today the parking lot for Grandma’s Saloon & Deli from the 1870s to the 1890s. The air along the canal would have been filled with the smell of animal skins and the acidic tannins used to soften them as the waste material from this process drained into the canal.

The tannery shut down in 1895 to allow the government to widen the canal and install the concrete piers that still serve us today. Duluth was then the Lake Superior headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but there was talk of moving those operations to Houghton or Marquette on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In 1905, an announcement by Duluth commander Major Charles L. Potter put an end to that. The federal government, he said, was going to construct a building to serve as the Corps of Engineers headquarters, and it would stand alongside the corps’ newest achievement, the Duluth Ship Canal’s concrete piers, which held a brand new engineer marvel of their own—Duluth’s brand new Aerial Transfer Bridge.

Duluth architects Wallace Wellbanks and William T. Bray designed a three-story square neoclassical office building with Doric elements faced with pressed brick and trimmed with Bedford limestone. One room in the basement was dedicated as a laboratory for testing concrete, as concrete played a key roll in most marine engineering projects of the day. Besides the test lab and offices, it included facilities for draftsmen, a photo studio, dark room, and blueprint room. It was the first building constructed for use by the Corps of Engineers in the nation.

Workers stopped work on the Corps of Engineers building to pose for this picture in 1906. (Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

The entire cost would come to $30,000 (about $766,000 today), with about $20,000 going into the building and the rest to improvements to area on either side of the canal including “concrete walks, grass plots, and trees.” Canal Park was finally much more park-like. (What most of us call “Canal Park” today is actually the “Canal Park Business District.”)

But the  commercial area between the canal and downtown took a long time to catch up with the beautification made by the Corps of Engineers. It remained a center of industry and vice for quite some time, even as the aerial bridge became more and more of a tourist draw. By the end of the 1960s, most of the manufacturing businesses had moved out of the area, though many saloons remained. The area was becoming more tourist friendly: the city charged for “bridge rides””and in 1968 floodlights were installed to display the city’s icon at night. In 1973, the bridge was painted silver so that the lights would actually illuminate it (the bridge was until then a very dark “Essex” green, which didn’t reflect light very well.)

Two years before the bridge’s silver paint job, the park received an $82,000 facelift thanks in part to Jeno’s, Inc., which purchased a portion of the park to create more employee parking at its facility in the former Gowan-Lenning-Brown building. The Corps used the money to improve its own parking, fix drainage issues, create a circular drive to ease traffic, add additional green spaces, plant more trees, and improve the lighting to make the area more hospitable to visitors.

The Corps of Engineers Building and Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center, photographed in 2007. (Image: Zenith City)

The increasing tourist traffic put a strain on the bridge’s “comfort stations,” added below the bridge approaches in 1929 at the request of the Corps of Engineers, who were tired of tourists asking to use the office building’s bathroom restroom facilities. By the late 1960s the bathrooms under the bridge become so decrepit that the city removed them, turning the space into storage. Soon afterward, desperate tourists began relieving themselves in and around the park. So the Corps of Engineers decided to build restroom facilities adjacent to the Corps building.

The original plans for the bathroom addition demonstrated that its height didn’t complement the existing structure, so another level was added. Someone then suggested that the extra space could house an exhibit or two about Lake Superior’s shipping history, which in turn sparked more ambitious ideas. By the time the building was completed in 1973, what had started as a simple bathroom addition had become the Canal Park Marine Museum.

The museum, designed by architects Aguar, Irying, Whiteman & Moser to resemble a ship’s bridge, tells the history of shipping on Lake Superior through fascinating exhibits that range from actual artifacts of maritime history to recreations of sailors’ quarters aboard ore boats to scale models of a variety of vessels that once sailed the lake. C. Patrick Labadie served as the museum’s first curator of what has been renamed the “Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center.” By the time the aerial bridge celebrated its one hundredth year in 2005, more than 12 million people had visited the museum.

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Zenith City Online publisher Tony Dierckins examines a one of Duluth’s Grand Old Buildings each month. Catch up with past installments here.

How the need for bathrooms created a museum

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