The Zenith City’s Tallest Tale

Separating Truth from Fiction in the Story of the Duluth Ship Canal

The cover art of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune Magazine for June 3, 1945, did little to dispel the myths that the Duluth Ship Canal was dug by hand or cleared with a single blast of dynamite—and neither did the story inside. (Image: Zenith City Press)
The cover art of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune Magazine for June 3, 1945, did little to dispel the myths that the Duluth Ship Canal was dug by hand or cleared with a single blast of dynamite—and neither did the story inside. (Image: Zenith City Press)

It’s no secret that Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge is the most iconic landmark in the Zenith City. Considered the city’s most-popular tourist attraction, it is incorporated into the logos of countless businesses, the city’s logo, and also in the St. Louis County seal. The bridge means many different things to people, especially Duluthians. As a whole we seem to genuinely love the bridge, even though most of us in the Zenith City have probably cursed it when it has caused us delay. Many people have called the bridge the “gateway” to the St. Lawrence Seaway, even the “gateway to the world”—a poetic phrase, but not really appropriate. It is by way of the Duluth Ship Canal—not the bridge—that freighters and ore boats arrive at and depart from the docks and elevators along the harbor waterfront and Rice’s Point, making Duluth the largest inland port in the world. The bridge simply allows people and automobiles to cross the canal; in fact, lift bridge operators would argue that the “proper” position of the bridge’s lift span is up, allowing marine traffic to navigate the canal. By the time the city built a permanent bridge over it in 1905, the canal had already been boosting Duluth’s economy for thirty-five years. The bridge is a “gateway” only by default, an image reinforced when the 1929–1930 conversion from the transfer bridge to the lift bridge created a symbolic “gate”—the lift span—to “open” and “close.” The Duluth Ship Canal itself is the true gateway to the Duluth Harbor, and it has been the symbolic (if not geographic) center of the Zenith City—and the subject of myth and legend—since long before we ever built the bridge or converted it to lift out of the way.

Conceiving the Canal

It is thought that the site of today’s ship canal is the very site where Duluth’s namesake, Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Luht, first landed when he reached the end of Lake Superior in 1879. If true, du Luht and his party likely pulled their canoes to shore at this point because it provided quick access to the St. Louis River on the western side of Minnesota Point: the landing site was a trailhead for a path the local Ojibwe called Onigamiinsing or “Little Portage.” Why they didn’t simply canoe through what would become known as Superior Entry, the natural opening between Minnesota Point and Wisconsin Point, is open to speculation. They likely had reached the head of the lakes via the north shore, and the entry was a seven-mile paddle south.

Clarence Rosencranz's depiction of Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut landing at Onigamiinsing ("Little Portage") on Minnesota Point in 1679, which originally hung on the Greysolon Tea Rooms of Duluth's Glass Block Store. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)
Clarence Rosencranz’s depiction of Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut landing at Onigamiinsing (“Little Portage”) on Minnesota Point in 1679, which originally hung on the Greysolon Tea Rooms of Duluth’s Glass Block Store. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

When the pioneers of Duluth Township established their community in 1856, they incorporated the portage into a platt of the city’s future streets. Appropriately enough, they named the roadway “Portage Street.” A year later the Minnesota Legislature incorporated the Duluth Ship Canal Company with Duluth pioneers George Nettleton, James Ray, and Edmund Ely as directors. The state authorized them to cut a canal three hundred feet wide through Minnesota Point, but the Panic of 1857, a nationwide depression, put an end to the idea.

In the late 1860s, as Duluth boomed with Jay Cooke’s money and the promise of his coming Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, Duluth constructed a harbor on the lakeside of the point. Even though the city attempted to construct a breakwater to protect vessels at dock, Lake Superior storms quickly made it clear that the safest harbor was on the west side of the point. So one of the first acts of the City of Duluth when it was first established in March of 1870 was to dust off an old idea: dig a ship canal through Minnesota Point to allow vessels to pass through to safe harbor. They chose Portage Street as the path of that canal.

Digging that canal would become the biggest myth surrounding the city’s history, a tall tale many believe to this day.

The Legend(s) of the Digging of the Duluth Ship Canal

In the September of 1870, the city accepted a $50,000 loan from Cooke’s Railroad and used it to hire the Ishpheming, a steam-powered dredging tug owned by the W. W. Williams & Co. On September 5, the Ishpeming, with Major John Upham at the controls, took its first bite out of Minnesota Point. When winter froze the gravel digging stopped for the season. Over the winter, Superior, Wisconsin, worked to stop the digging. The city’s leaders recognized that the canal would divert shipping traffic from the nature Superior Entry, a blow to Superior’s economy, but they couldn’t argue to have the digging stopped simply because it would help Duluth better compete with Superior. Instead, they had to argue that the canal would actually physically hamper shipping traffic to Superior. So in order to receive an injunction to stop the efforts in Duluth, Superior argued that the canal would divert the waters of the St. Louis River through the canal, allowing silt to clog the Superior Entry, hampering traffic to Superior.

The Ishpheming, which cut the Duluth ship canal in the fall of 1870 and spring of 1871. (image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)
The Ishpheming, which cut the Duluth ship canal in the fall of 1870 and spring of 1871. (image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

That’s when the facts of the story get mixed up into tall tales.

In many versions of the myth, the courts sided with Superior the week before the Ishpeming returned to digging in April 1871. An injunction ordered Duluth to “absolutely desist and abstain from digging, excavating and constructing…said canal.” It was dispatched to Duluth via a courier: a soldier from Kansas (or St. Paul, or Chicago…), some said; others claimed the messenger was none other than Superior (and Duluth) pioneer George Stuntz, the first man of European descent to live on Minnesota Point. In 1922 memoirist Jerome Cooley claimed a telegram sent on Friday, April 28, told Duluthians the injunction would arrive by Monday. So the Ishpeming’s crew went to work at dawn Saturday and “didn’t stop until Monday noon.” The canal was open before the injunction arrived.

William Sargent. (Image: Duluth Public Library)
William Sargent. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Author Dora May McDonald, writing in 1949, tells that same portion of the story with more flair. In her account, after the Ishpeming struck frozen gravel that Saturday morning, word came that Stuntz had left St. Paul bound for Duluth with injunction in hand, destined to arrive Monday. Duluth city fathers called for every able-bodied man, woman, and child in Duluth “who could handle a spade or shovel, or beg, borrow, or steal a bucket or a bushel basket.” Citizens rushed to the work site and “dug, scratched, and burrowed till it was finished.” On Sunday rowboats filled with angry Superiorites arrived to watch and heckle the Duluthians’ efforts. At the break of dawn on Monday morning, the Duluthians had cleared a canal. When Stuntz arrived, the tug Frank C. Fero was making her very first pass through the canal; the canal was a navigable waterway, rendering the injunction moot. He tore up the document and that was the end of that. Except none of it was true.

Perhaps the most astonishingly inaccurate depiction of the canal’s birth appeared in the Duluth Evening Herald on July 1, 1929:

Leading Duluthians of the time…led by W. C. Sargent…formed the “Dynamite Club.” Under the cover of darkness they went to Minnesota Point at the site of the present ship canal. Bankers, clerks, professional men and laborers worked frantically with pick and shovel during the night to dig a ditch so the waters of Lake Superior and St. Louis Bay could join. As daylight approached and they realized they would not finish the task, leaders called for dynamite. The blast that followed cracked every window within a radius of several miles, pioneers recall, but when the debris settled the dynamiters were rewarded by the water rushing through the ditch thus created. The canal was dug shortly afterward by the government.

In 1871, Duluth was teaming with immigrants who had come to build Cooke’s railroad, so there would have been an abundance of laborers to put to work hand-digging a canal—Duluth’s business leaders need not have rolled up their sleeves. Also, the United State’s first dynamite manufacturer, the U.S. Blasting Oil Company—had been destroyed in an explosion in 1869; dynamite would have been very hard to come by in Duluth in 1871.

An article in the June 3, 1945, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune did little to dispel the myth, and came complete with a cartoon-like depiction of the fabled event.

Next: Separating Truth from Fiction

Separating Truth from Fiction in the Story of the Duluth Ship Canal

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