Duluth’s Underground

A Subterranean History of the Zenith City

The stone pavilion at Cascade Park, photographed between 1895 and 1897; that’s Clark House Creek emerging from “castle.” (Image: Duluth Public Library

Clark House Creek Drain
Clark House Creek is another Zenith City waterway that tends to bubble to the surface when the rain really begins to fall. It is named after Duluth’s first hotel, built adjacent to the stream in 1869 on the West 100 block of Superior Street. [Click here to see a map of Clark House Creek’s underground path.]

Upstream from the Duluth’s first hotel, city leaders established Cascade Park in 1870, four acres near First Avenue West and Sixth Street, with the creek in its center. When an ornamental stone pavilion was added to the park in 1895, Clark House Creek was a major feature. Park planner William King Rogers had championed such a plan since May of 1888.

The stream was diverted into a culvert above Mesaba Avenue’s intersection with 1st Avenue West—the same place it begins it underground journey today. It was directed to flow through the pavilion’s lower level and out into daylight via a pool at the structure’s base. From there it was carried toward the lake in a stone and mortar trough built to match the pavilion, past picnickers and jaunters.

The section where the stone trough met the underground tunnel through downtown, with high stone ceilings. (Image: substreet.org | Click to Enlarge)

The artificial waterway extended to West Fourth Street where the flow was diverted underground via a culvert established in 1890. Lower sections had been completed in the mid-1880s and incorporated the runoff with an existing storm sewer following 1st Avenue West, eventually running to the railyard below Michigan Street.

The pavilion, sadly, was severely damaged during a storm in 1897. In the 1950s, parts of the park were divided and sold, and most of the structures were demolished, including the trough that guided the creek. Rather, the culvert above Mesaba was directly connected to the one above 4th, so that the creek would no longer see the light of day. Unless, it seems, the Zenith City finds itself below a giant rainstorm.

Like Brewery Creek, Clark House has at various times erupted from the ground to the surprise of those who had no notion they were living atop miniature rivers. The flood of 1972 caused the usual gentle waters of the creek to bore right out of the ground and send mud, rocks, and other debris into downtown. The city replaced parts of the culvert left the creek to be forgotten by most of Duluth, until 2012.

Many Duluthians will recall the damage done to the west side of downtown when the largely ignored park below Mesaba was turned into a muddy geyser. Again, Clark House Creek had its revenge on the city that pushed it into an early grave, and it is doubtless not the last time. The place where the stone trough met the brick drain that carried the stream under downtown still exists under the park and is viewable through a small grate near the lower retaining wall.

Forgotten Train Tunnels

Construction of Duluth’s Soo Line Tunnel, 1909. (Image: Zenith City Press | Click to Enlarge)

Downtown’s Soo Line Tunnel
Construction began on the Wisconsin Central Railway terminal at 602 West Superior Street in early 1907, when the company was relatively small, only operating on about 1,300 miles of track. The station was Romanesque in design and just two stories in height, but engineered to bear the weight of additional levels if traffic demanded more capacity. [Click here to see a map showing the former location of the Soo Line Tunnel.]

Bringing trains into the middle of downtown was not straightforward. To carry service to its new platforms, Wisconsin Central planned a 1,600-foot long tunnel. It would be 16 feet wide, 22 feet tall, and run 16 feet below the height of Superior Street.

Workers began excavating stone from both sides in November 1907 using explosives and air hammers. Shortly after excavation began, the Soo Line Railway acquired most of the shares of the Wisconsin Central and took control of the tunneling operations. It would now be the Soo Line Tunnel for the Soo Line Depot

Workers and officials pose in front of the newly completed Soo Line Tunnel in Duluth in 1909 (Image: Duluth Public Library | Click to Enlarge)

The two crews met in late 1909, uniting the two halves of the project, with plenty of time to lay track for the station’s opening, set for June 17, 1910. All told, the last mile from the yard to the new depot cost $2.5 million: the bottom line of removing more than 50,000 cubic yards of rock. The superintendent in charge of blasting made a slight miscalculation, and the two tunnels did not meet as planned. The mistake was corrected at significant cost: money, labor, and the superintendent’s life, by suicide.

The Soo Line Tunnel made little news, except for an almost continuous stream of complaints of ever-worsening street conditions above the tunnel, which the railroad was aggravatingly slow to address.

Aside from this, there were a few colorful incidents. Once, in 1915, a conductor found a strange man passed-out in the tunnel. The railman reportedly told the police, “There’s a man down in the tunnel here with all Ireland in his voice and he is as black as Africa. Come and get him.” According to the report, “he was too dirty to be handled; so dirty, in fact, not a white or light spot showed on him… even his hair had ‘lost’ its color.” He was later identified as Rod Ogra, and held for drunkenness, after a long rest at Police Headquarters.

Another dramatic moment for the Soo Line Tunnel came on November 6, 1922, when Duluthian Ralph Marotta’s car brakes failed, sending him hurtling toward the tunnel’s eastern portal. Thankfully, the vehicle became partly lodged on the fence over the tunnel, causing Marotta and the car to teeter, balancing on the edge of a big fall. It gave Marotta just enough time to crawl to safety.

Looking out of the east end of Duluth’s Soo Line Tunnel in 1963, shortly before it was demolished. (Image: Doug Fairchild)

In another incident in 1909, a train crew member was struck and killed by a falling rock while he was clearing the tunnel ceiling; he was on a ladder and could not move out of the way. The Soo Line Tunnel was also the site of another suicide when a depressed homeless man shot himself above its east portal. He would die a half hour later in a hospital bed.

By 1964, the terminal sat vacant and awaited demolition when it was evaluated for reuse to become the Saint Louis County Heritage and Arts Center. Sadly, though, its long period of neglect ultimately doomed the building. A flooded basement undermined the depot’s foundation, influencing city planners to push the project into the Union Depot—then slated for demolition—where the Center remains today.

Duluth’s Soo Line Depot was razed in 1972 as part of the Gateway Urban Renewal Project. It was then that the tunnel was filled, destined to forgotten. Today the west portal is buried under a retaining wall below West Superior Street near the Glen Place Apartments; the east portal is under the middle of Gateway Plaza near Gateway Tower and the Union Depot’s parking ramp.

DWP Short Line Park Tunnel
There are two ways to get to the other side of Duluth’s hills, said the rail man to the dock man: over, and through. The Duluth, Mesabi & Iron Range Railroad delivered iron ore to the West Duluth ore docks through its yards in Proctor—essentially, over the hill. This left the Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific (DWP) with the second option when it arrived in Duluth in 1910.

The DWP Short Line Park tunnel under construction (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections | Click to Enlarge)

Because Duluth is surrounded by glacial cliffs formed out of basalt and granite, it would be no easy task for the DWP to link its iron ore yards in Virginia, Minn., with its planned yards in West Duluth. While engineers cut many trenches as the grade arose, one section of rock had to be bored through completely. For this tunnel, the DWP contracted Wick O’Connell & Company of Houghton, Mich., to cut and blast a two-track-wide hole through solid granite roughly 20 miles from downtown Duluth. [Click here to see a map showing the location of the DWP Short Line Park Tunnel]

About 60 men worked from both sides of what any Minnesotan would call a mountain, near a rail stop known as Short Line Park and Nopeming Sanatorium. The tunnel would have to be about 500 feet long to match the grade on both sides and 18 feet wide to accommodate two sets of track. To make things more complicated, the tunnel would have to include a seven-degree curve through it to match the swing of the ridgeline, or the tunnel would open to a shear cliff face.

Inside the DWP Short Line Park tunnel. (Image: Dan Turner, substreet.org)

Work began in August 1910 with a mix of drills, hammers, rock bars, and dynamite. A News Tribune writer described what he saw as crews worked to shatter one layer of the granite at a time: “There is a cry of warning, the men scurry to cover, and with a roar that shakes the ground for a mile, a section of the hillside is rent in fragments and scattered far and wide.”

Progress was an incredibly tedious 10 feet per day as autumn turned to winter. Waste rock removed from the tunnel was used to help smooth the bed for the rails that would lead to the city. As the work around the tunnel was coming to an end in the spring of 1911, its completion became a priority. In the final months, the number of men on site doubled. Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific was aiming for an August 15th opening date, but that marker came and went as fast as a lit stick of dynamite.

The entrance to the DWP Short Line Park Tunnel. (Image: Dan Turner, substreet.org | Click to Enlarge)

Finally, in late September, the tunnel was properly conditioned for track to be laid. As the size of the tunnel would not allow the track laying equipment to operate inside of it, the tracks were laid by hand.

The tunnel saw heavy use through the 1980s until, thanks to a merger with Canadian National RR (CN), it fell into disuse. When CN took management over all DWP assets in 1996, the tunnel was abandoned. Now, nearly all ore going through Duluth’s ore docks, also operated by CN today, passes through Proctor.

DWP’s former grade along Ely’s Peak, including this huge tunnel, are now publicly viewable as part of the Superior Hiking Trail.

A Subterranean History of the Zenith City

17 Responses to Duluth’s Underground

  1. As a youngster in the 1940’s, I used to slide on the frozen Clark House Creek in a tunnel from Cascade Park to just below 4th Street, where it came out just across the avenue from Washington Junior High School.

  2. Did the Silver Mine entrance below Michigan Street lead into the hillside horizontally, or did it drop down vertically? And in the case of the former, didn’t they run into it when the Soo Line tunnel was built in that area years later?

  3. My memory tells me that in 1965 the Flame Nightclub was across Superior street from the Glass Block department store. A portion of the Flame’s ground floor was thick glass that showed a lighted grotto with a small flowing creek.

  4. As a child several of us kids took a journey through several of these tunnels. Thought we were going to end up at Enger Tower and actually came out by Target. To this day I could not retrace those steps.

  5. Hello from Ohio. Wow..Fantastic history of my home town. Amazing I was raised and grew up in Duluth…and did not know this history at all. Thank you so much for this Zenith City site !

  6. There are several tunnels at Marshall. The nuns used them back in the day. There is also a rumor of a tunnel that connects central and Marshall.

  7. There are steam tunnels under Riverside, however I don’t know if they are passable. Riverside had it’s own central steam heating plant probably from the shipyard. I remember lifting a culvert cover on my grandmother’s property and seeing that it may have been passable at the bottom. Grandpa told me this culvert was the steam passage. Thanks for the history.

  8. Tansy,

    Nearly all of the sewer tunnels run from the middle of the hill to the lake, but the former Soo Line tunnel is right along that route! Maybe she walked down to the tracks from West Michigan (stairs connected the two at the time), then she could have gone through the Soo Line tunnel to the depot, then taken the Incline (or hiked it) to Third or Fourth Street. It sound possible!

  9. Sue,

    That tunnel carried steam and electricity from the Central High School boiler room (extant) to Washington. It still exists, but I’ve been told it is blocked from both sides, now.

  10. there is a tunnel from Washington to Central, my dad used to talk about it. I know where the beginning is in Washington but not te central end. The last I knew, the Washington end was gated off, which would imply that it was passable but no idea. I know somebody who worked at the Chinese lantern when it was on superior street and they told me they stored linens in an old tunnel.

  11. My mother grew up in Little Itlay and she told me about walking in the sewers to Central school- in the 1930’s- I often wonder how this was done-

  12. Very interesting! My children probably found them all living in the hillside and running free!? There is a tunnel from Washington school to the old Central! I am a fan of history!

  13. Thank you so much for posting this piece. I’m looking forward to part two.

    The description of Brewery and Chester creeks reminded me of some of my subterranean explorations as a young Duluthian. This is a fascinating topic.

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