Prescott’s Lost West Duluth Legacy

Marinette Iron Work & a Grand Victorian Mansion

Built as Marinette Iron Works in 1890, this building served Duluth from 1903 to 1973 as the home of Union Match and Chun King Foods; it was demolished in 1986. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

Duluth began making things out of metal about the same time it officially became a city. In 1871 J. B. Culver, Luther Mendenhall, J. D. Ray, J. C. Hunter, and W. W. Spalding formed the Duluth Blast Furnace Company and built the city’s first blast furnace on Rice’s Point to make rail cars for Jay Cooke’s great Northern Railway. That business failed along with Cooke and the rest of Duluth in 1873, but metal fabrication came back in the 1880s and over the years Duluth hosted such firms as Duluth Iron & Steel, West Duluth Blast Furnace, Zenith Furnace, Iron Bay Works, National Iron Clyde Iron, Atlas Iron & Brass Works, Duluth Brass Works, and of course the Minnesota Steel Company of U. S. Steel in Morgan Park. One short-lived venture in West Duluth by Dewitt Clinton Prescott left behind not one but two Duluth landmarks, both now lost to history.

In 1867 26-year-old Illinois Native Dewitt Clinton Prescott and two partners erected a machine shop in Marinette, Wisconsin—on the shores of Lake Michigan’s Green bay about 50 miles north of the city of Green Bay—to repair and manufacture sawmill and mining machinery. Precott named the company for himself until moving into a new facility in 1870, when he changed it to Marinette Iron Works. The company thrived, at one point employing more than 140 workers. But by the end of the 1880s, Prescott was looking for greener territories.

Meanwhile, at the head of the lakes the town of West Duluth was young and growing and was promised by its promoters that it would become a center of metal fabrication and other industrial concerns, the “Pittsburgh of the Northwest.” So in 1890 Prescott moved his company to West Duluth built a foundry, machine shops, and carpentry shops—all served by a rail system—at 200 North Fiftieth Avenue West to produce sawmill machinery and marine engines. Despite relocating, he didn’t bother to change the name.

And unlike other Duluth industrialists who owned businesses in West Duluth, he didn’t build his grand mansion east of Duluth’s downtown. He built it right in West Duluth at 4831 West 5th Street the same year he built his iron works. The house (see a picture of it here in 1895) exemplified the exuberance of the Queen Anne–style, sporting three towers, an encircling veranda, stained glass windows, gables with bargeboards, a third-story balcony, patterned brick chimneys, finials, brackets, and many decorative wood panels. Prescott outfitted the interior with hand-carved panels of South American hardwoods, elaborate staircases, five fireplaces, inlaid floors, imported English earthenware plumbing, stained-glass windows, and zinc bathtubs. Even the closets boasted hand-carved wood panels. The house’s third floor was a grand ballroom, and in the first floor reception room a gold-plated, flower-engraved wash basin awaited guests arriving by horse-drawn carriages after traveling dusty roads.

At first the iron works looked like it would be a huge success. One of its marine engines, outfitted for Captain Alexander McDougall Colgate, was said to be “the finest marine engine ever put into a whaleback steamer,” and in 1892 ore would start to flow from the Missabe Iron Range to Duluth to be loaded into more whalebacks McDougal planned to build. But the Financial Panic of 1873, as it did many times in DUluth, caused the iron works financial hardship it was difficult for Prescott to overcome. By 1896 the Prescott’s had left their home and DUluth and the Marinette Iron Works operated under receivership until 1898. Its last contract was to build the motors and pumps that operate Duluth’s Lakewood Pumping Station.

After the Prescott’s left, Hansen Evesmith, one-time president of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce, purchased their home and lived there until about 1910. In 1914 it was purchased by Thomas F. Feigh, who in turn offered it to the Duluth Catholic Diocese as a children’s hospital. It is unclear whether the house ever held the Thomas Feigh Hospital for Crippled Children. The house remained vacant and became known to area residents as the “Haunted House.” St. Louis County then took over the home, placing it on the delinquent tax list.

Elmer J. Woefler bought the deserted house from the county in 1944 for $1,500 and dismantled it. Many parts of the house—including three of its fireplaces—were used in a house Woefler built for himself along Highway 61 in Duluth at Rest Point. He also built some tourist cabins at that site with materials salvaged from the Prescott House, and Mrs. Woefler kept the gold-leaf basin. By the 1950s, other homes had sprung up on the Prescott lot.

After the Marinette Iron plant closed in 1900, the newly organized Union Match Company acquired and remodeled the Marinette facility and began to manufacture wooden friction matches in 1903. Each day the factory’s ten match-making machines could take forty thousand feet of lumber and mill it into enough matches to fill two rail cars. In 1922 Union Match merged with Minnesota Match and a year later that firm was purchased by Delaware’s Federal Match Corporation. In 1941 the firm became Universal Match.

By 1950 the market for wooden matches had slumped and the match company closed. In 1950 Jeno Paulucci, Duluth’s self-described “incurable entrepreneur,” remodeled the plant to process his Chun King line of Chinese foods. Ten years later Chun King enjoyed an annual sales revenue of $30 million and sold more than half the prepared Chinese food in the United States. The food plant closed in 1973 and was demolished in 1986 to make room for a paper manufacturing plant owned today by NewPage.

The former Marinette Iron Works and Union Match facility in 1964, when it was Jeno Paulucci’s Chun King food manufacturing plant. This photo was taken from the corner of Roosevelt Street and 51st Avenue West. (Image: West Duluth Memories Facebook Page.)

Marinette Iron Work & a Grand Victorian Mansion

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