Duluth’s Underground

A Subterranean History of the Zenith City

Part 2: The Lesser Tunnels of Downtown Duluth

The Buckingham Creek Drain. (Image: Dan Turner)

Buckingham Creek flowed under a series of bridges before a new path for it was blasted through the base of the Point of Rocks in 1888. The dynamite blasts came just three years after the men of the Duluth silver mine walked away from their dreams a few hundred feet down the rock face. Although the tunnel facilitated rail development, the creek was becoming unsanitary even where it ran atop the hill, past Emerson Elementary School, where it was used as an open sewer by the poor immigrants who built shanties nearby.

The foul smells and accumulating garbage caught the attention of the Fifth Ward Improvement Club in 1912, which pressured the city to enclose most of Buckingham between Fourth Avenue West and the granite tunnel.

The creek follows the same path today as it did in 1912, and the rock tunnel is visible below the M&H gas station on the west side of Interstate 35.

The Miller Creek Drain. (Image: Dan Turner)

Miller’s Creek runs underground through one of the longest and widest storm sewers in the Twin Ports. Today the creek is enclosed in a series of tunnels for over one quarter of a mile under Twenty-Sixth Avenue West, just downstream from Lincoln Park. Construction of the first section of tunnel began in 1911 with a 110-foot long section near West Superior Street and extended toward Piedmont with a sandstone arch block section in 1916. Most of the section is quite wide, around fifteen feet, to accommodate flooding and to keep water speeds slow enough for trout to navigate.

During the Second World War there was a discussion of whether to turn tunnels like this into official air raid shelters. The debate flowed predictably; according to one report in the News Tribune, “There’s one argument against this—the sewers aren’t healthy, and it isn’t healthy to get in the way of a train in a railroad tunnel. But then, bombs aren’t conducive to long life, either.” The idea was scrapped.

The Spalding Hotel photographed in the 1890s. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

The Spalding and Holland Hotels, which stood diagonally from each other across the intersection of Superior Street and Fifth Avenue West, were at one time connected below street level.

The subterranean passage was called “Duluth’s First Subway” by some, but the tunnel itself was humble. It was six feet wide and six feet tall inside and sat 18 feet below Superior Street, contained within fifteen inch thick walls. 20 men worked night and day in January, 1921, to blast bedrock with dynamite. Once complete—and lined with concrete—the “subway” conveyed steam from the Spalding to the Holland, and a small passageway was maintained for employees to use as well. While the tunnel was probably destroyed during the Gateway Renewal Project, there is still a tunnel nearby one can walk through today. The Zenith City’s Skywalk system actually goes underground to cross Fifth Avenue West between First and Superior Streets, and continues below Superior Street where it emerges inside the Duluth Public Library.

Many municipal buildings in Duluth are connected by tunnels built, like the Skywalk, to make the business of moving people and utilities easier. Just a clock above the Skyway’s underground section, City Hall and the former St. Louis County Jail both connect to the County Courthouse via tunnels—the one leading from the jail was constructed to provide the safe and discrete transfer of prisoners from the jail to court and, often, back to jail. Duluth’s former Washington Junior High and Old Central High are joined below East Third Street across Lake Avenue by a small utility tunnel.
Click on “2” for the rest of the story….

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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