Duluth’s Woodland Neighborhood: Shaped by Streetcars

An early photo of the streetcar line along Woodland Avenue, likely taken in the 1890s. (Image: private collection of Diane Oesterreich.)

Duluth’s neighborhoods each have their distinct histories and personalities borne out of the developers who carved them out of the wilderness, the settlers who lived there, and the circumstances that shaped what they became. Duluth’s Woodland neighborhood was no exception, and its developers relied heavily on the Motor Line Improvement Company—and later the Duluth Street Railway Company—to make the community accessible. In the process, these elements created Duluth’s premier “streetcar suburb.”

As in many neighborhoods, one can trace the “following-the-theme” method of naming streets. In Woodland, this is reflected in the Minnesota city names used for most east-west streets. A recent query to Zenith City Online wondered why so many of Woodland’s street names are of prairie towns, rather than communities in the much closer north woods. It can only be speculated that those relatively southern places (some of which are mere blips on the map today) had meaning for the developers who named them—and that perhaps more northern names like Hibbing, Ely and Virginia were either too recently developed or already graced other now-lost Duluth streets. (Many of the eastern avenues in Duluth, for instance, were once named for states of the union, and so a second street named Virginia would have been a confusing repetition.)

While street names reflect a neighborhood’s development, social history more often relies on residential women who have reached back and gathered stories of their elders. Woodland is lucky to have life-long resident Diane Oesterreich, who took the time in the 1980s and 90s to record and transcribe interviews with many elderly (now deceased) residents who remembered the early days of Woodland. These oral histories have been gathered in an unpublished manuscript titled “At the End of the Carline,” and she was generous enough to share it with this author as a resource. Many of the photos that appear with this story were also provided by Diane.

The Streetcar and the Racetrack

Originally called Woodland Park, Woodland was so-named for the obvious reason that it consisted of mostly uncleared forest when the property was sold by Guilford Hartley to real estate men like Francis Colman and Ole Kolstad, both of whom developed the neighborhood and have streets named for them there.

When the land around Woodland Avenue, from Hunter’s Park up to Woodland Park, was first developed, it was still heavily forested, and encounters with wild animals were common, as this humorous postcard from 1905 illustrates. (Image: X-Comm.)

A major catalyst for this development was the heavy investment made by the capitalists of the Motor Line Improvement Company, most of whom also owned real estate all along Woodland Avenue from the present-day Mount Royal area through Glen Avon, Hunters Park, and on up the hill to Woodland. These investors wanted their land to be valuable, and thus they had to make it accessible. So they ran a single-track electric streetcar from Fourth Street at Twenty-fourth Avenue East (the same route now taken by the #13 bus, excepting the UMD loop) to Forest Hill Cemetery; it was later extended to Austin Street. As in Duluth’s other developments, once the car line was in place, its operation was turned over to the Duluth Street Railway Company.

The first streetcar waiting station along Woodland avenue at 2012 Woodland, now a private residence. (Image: X-comm.)

In Hunters Park, the streetcar line was served by a waiting station at 2012 Woodland Avenue (corner of Lewis Street), now a private home described as a Queen Anne cottage. Another stood along Woodland between Austin and Red Wing Streets, the site of a Super One grocery store parking lot today. The car line first ran on April 20, 1891, and it quickly became the primary mode of transportation for everyone from the genteel residents of Hunters Park to the more rural folk of Woodland Park.

One of those streetcar and real estate investors was Guilford Hartley, whose huge Allendale Farm occupied the property covering today’s Hartley Nature Center. Before it was forfeited to the city during the Depression, the farm was most famous locally for its huge fields of lettuce and celery. In fact, Hartley is partly credited with making celery an American dietary staple.

Caroline and Guilford Hartley and two of their children, date unknown. (Image: private collection of Diane Oesterreich.)
The tree house at Allendale Farm. (Image: private collection of Diane Oesterreich.)

As a family and business, the Hartleys dominated the Woodland social scene—even though the Hartleys themselves did not live in the neighborhood. Early residents often found work on the farm, if not as common laborers (including Japanese immigrants recruited from western states), then as foremen and managers. Children who grew up in Woodland when Allendale was an active farm especially remember a tree stand that had been erected on a very tall pine in the middle of the property, a hundred feet or more up, where all the family would go to survey their holdings and perhaps shoot a few deer.

In 1892 Hartley built the Duluth Driving Park, a horse racing track and the main reason the streetcar route was extended to Woodland. The driving park’s buildings were designed by prominent Duluth architects Oliver Traphagen and Francis Fitzpatrick. On opening day, September 20, 1892, it attracted 2,500 people, many of whom were delayed by the streetcar’s struggle getting up Dairy Hill, a steep, winding part of Woodland Avenue so-named for the dairy that once stood where Concordia Lutheran Church now stands.

In an interview with Oesterreich, longtime resident Roy Dryke described the racetrack:

You know where Rendle Avenue is? That was part of it. Owatonna Street is the other part. Wabasha was the other. What should be the alley between Mankato and Wabasha was the south bank of the track. There was a slough in the middle of it with cattails. [ … ]Sometimes the streetcars were so filled with people to get to the racetrack that they had some riding on the roof. They stopped racing about 1911-1912, along in there, because it burned down. Some of the local boys around here had something to do with it burning.

[Editor’s note: Dryke’s memory of dates may have been failing him; the racetrack is not mentioned in Duluth newspapers after 1907, and we could not locate a story about it burning.]

Getting to the racetrack was not the only streetcar-related issue for folks in Woodland Park. The Duluth Ski Club faced similar issues during their first year of operation, when they built its first ski jump, Duluth Hill, in Woodland behind the newly built Washburn School on St. Andrews Street in 1905. And on the day after Christmas in 1902, residents of the streetcar suburb nearly rioted when the Duluth Street Railway Company did not provide enough cars for their ride home from downtown, where many had been enjoying a show at the Metropolitan Opera House on Superior Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues West. According to the Duluth Herald,

When the last car after the close of the Metropolitan Theater was about to depart and half of the people were unable to secure passage, they took possession of the car and ordered the motorman not to leave until another car came to accommodate the rest of the crowd. He refused to obey and started the car. The crowd fell upon him and threw him off the platform. He called a policeman, but the people, anxious to reach their homes, told him to go about his business, and he, realizing the situation, did as he was told. The motorman was kept off the platform, and the car stood until another was sent for and the remainder of the Woodland passengers were able to secure passage on it. Mayor Hugo, in speaking of the incident at the City Hall this morning, said, “I don’t want to appear as an advocate of mob law, or anything of the sort, but after their trying experience of the night before, when some of the residents had to ride on the roof of the last car, with the terrible wind that was blowing at the time, making the journey miserable, if not absolutely perilous, I can’t blame them much for forcing the street car company to get them home.”

Frog Town, Dagoville, Oatmeal Hill, and the KKK

As was common at the turn of the nineteenth century, ethnic communities stuck together and formed enclaves that became identified by  ethnicity. The part of Woodland where Minneapolis Avenue runs steeply down the hill was known as French Town (or more colloquially, Frog Town), for the many French-Canadians who lived there.

Grew’s Grocery (the proprietor of which was also French-Canadian) was located at the corner of Austin and Woodland directly across from the streetcar Waiting Station, and was a center of community activity. Boxing matches were held in the back, and it was a favorite gathering place of neighborhood children after school.

Many Hunters Park residents were of Scottish descent, which is primarily reflected in that neighborhood’s street names. One stretch of Waverly Avenue was nicknamed “Oatmeal Hill”for the Scottish staple often served there and the Hunter’s Park Grocery (better known to today’s Duluthians as the old Snow White store) even stocked tam o’ shanter hats. A portion of the neighborhood’s Carlisle Avenue was home to the Italian gardeners and domestics who tended to the lawns and homes of the elite and was known pejoratively as “Dagoville.”

In the early 1900s, the Ku Klux Klan was a growing national threat, and Duluth was not exempt from its local chapter’s terrorist exercises. Perhaps because Woodland had a strong Catholic presence and Duluth’s only Jewish Cemetery, there were reports of white-sheeted night-rides down Winona Avenue and cross-burning gatherings held on the Rock Knob outcropping within Allendale Farm.

Oesterreich recounts a story about the Dryke boys, members of a very large family of Dutch descent, who snuck up on a night-time Klan gathering on Rock Knob. “They got a bunch of kids together—all 13 to 14 years old—and they got sticks and tied kerosene soaked rags to them, and belly crawled up around the rock in the dark. One of the guys gave the order, and they lit a ring of fire all around the bald rock, the flames moving quickly upward toward the top. They said you never saw such a scattering of white—and the Klan never met up there again.”

The Fire of 1918

The 1918 Fire had a huge impact on Woodland, perhaps more than any other Duluth neighborhood. There had been a terrible drought that summer, and by the time this flaming hurricane was done with the region, 1,500 square miles—from Moose Lake to Cloquet and up around the edges of Duluth to Lester Park—was devastated. Out of 453 people confirmed dead by the fire’s end, 85 were from the Duluth area. (It should be noted that the death count was likely higher, as many bodies were never found.)

Throughout that horrible October day, refugees from north and west of town streamed into Duluth and made their way to the Armory on London Road. They crammed the streetcars on Woodland Avenue, and as the flames got closer and closer, Woodlanders themselves realized—sometimes too late—that it was time to run for their lives. Survivors reported that the 100 mph winds were so fierce the cinders would skip from rooftop to rooftop, hitting and burning houses at random. Some brave souls stayed behind in effort to save their homes, tying themselves to rooftops and spraying property with garden hoses connected to house spigots.

Cars left abandoned and burned along Woodland Avenue following the historic fire of 1918. (Image: private collection of Diane Oesterreich.)

Few people owned cars then, but many of those Duluthians who possessed one volunteered for the evacuation, repeatedly putt-putting up and down Woodland Avenue to help those fleeing and then careening down the hill nearly blind with the smoke, passengers precariously perched on the running boards. Witnesses reported seeing several expensive cloth-topped cars climbing the hill only to return later that night as battered-looking convertibles.

According to one Oesterreich interview, a woman was so frightened she put one single shoe from three different pairs into a pillowcase in her panic before catching the streetcar. People threw themselves into swamps and ponds trying to save their lives, sometimes in vain, while the flames swept overhead. Many left trails of possessions behind them, paring down the important things to whatever they could carry. While there was some looting during the chaos, a spinster daughter of the Magney family forced to abandon her hope chest on a Woodland Avenue sidewalk found it untouched when she returned. When the flames subsided, people found a blackened nightmare, littered with abandoned cars in ditches and both Homecroft and Cobb Schools burned. Most nearby farms were wiped from the map, many never to return.

Bootleggers and the Fireworks Factory

During Prohibition, an area of Farley Lane called Gobbler’s Knob became known as a place where one could procure illegal alcohol. Several families who lived there were bootleggers, selling bottles out of hidden stashes in their barns and in the woods. Moonshiners plied their trade in a house at Minneapolis Avenue and Anoka Street. A Woodland milkman was caught delivering moonshine amongst the milk when the police noticed that not all of the bottles popped their tops when the temperature dropped below freezing. And according to resident Phil Myzel, when the Waiting Station was torn down in the 1960s, workers found bottles stashed inside the walls.

Everett Campbell, Woodland resident, itinerant preacher, and bootleg fireworks manufacturer. (Image: private collection of Diane Oesterreich.)

An illegal fireworks factory operated at the top of Allendale Avenue in the 1920s. Owner Everett Campbell, according to childhood friends, had a fascination with blowing stuff up from the time he was old enough to light a match. He worked as a motorcycle-riding itinerant preacher during the day, but when he came home his avocation turned to manufacturing and selling bootleg fireworks from a stand at the junction of Howard-Gnesen and Calvary Roads.

On May 11, 1928, tragedy struck when a young, inexperienced assistant named John Erickson accidentally blew the place—and himself—to kingdom come. This was no minor explosion. The mushroom cloud could be seen in downtown Duluth, and those from the neighborhood knew immediately what had happened. The explosion blew several buildings off their foundations, cracked chimneys, broke dishes in nearby kitchens and blew out every window on one side of Cobb School, which was in session at the time. The accompanying fire lasted some hours.

Everett, badly burned, managed to crawl to a nearby swamp, but succumbed to his injuries five days later. His widow, Lilybelle, was pregnant at the time and was soon after rendered financially destitute after several neighbors sued her for damages.

So It Was

Interior of the Woodland Wait Station that stood where what is today a parking lot for Super One Foods, photographed some time in the 1950s, at least 15 years since the last streetcar ran on Woodland Avenue. (Image: private collection of Diane Oesterreich.)

The streetcar system that helped shape Woodland was dismantled by Labor Day, 1939, but the waiting station at Woodland remained for decades afterward—and as mentioned, the station at Woodland and Lewis Street still stands as a residence. Many residents of Woodland mark the neighborhood’s transformation to modern times as the day the Waiting Station was torn down in the 1960s to make way for the Piggly Wiggly grocery store parking lot. The station had been the heart of the community, the place where people could hire a jitney cab out to Homecroft or grab a soda at the fountain. It was where the kids could buy penny candies and mom could pick up a dime novel. But by the time it was demolished, the station’s original purpose had been sidetracked in the name of personal vehicles and buses. The small grocery stores at the same intersection—where neighborly credit and bartering ruled the day—had long since gone out of business.

Woodland is still marked by its history as a place at the end of the streetcar line, and today it feels more like a post-war suburb of Duluth rather than a neighborhood more than 100 years old. It may be hard to imagine Hartley Field as a celery and lettuce farm, but if you live in an old Woodland house you might find a couple of 1918 burn marks on basements structural timbers, and if you remodel your kitchen, keep your eye peeled for a dusty old bottle hidden in a wall.

9 Responses to Duluth’s Woodland Neighborhood: Shaped by Streetcars

  1. Eugene Singleton, my father, Clyde Erickson, remembers you from Wabasha St. Are you on any social media that he could contact you through?

  2. My father built our home at 112 W. Wabasha St. It started as a 2 bedroom home but grew as the family grew. I attended Cobb Elementry school. I also delivered the Duluth Herald newspaper for about a year and a half. We moved to Florida when I finished the 6th grade.
    I have fond memories of Duluth.

  3. My grandmother was Jesse Campbell of Duluth from 1885 until about 1920. She married Frank Church from Albion, Michigan. He taught at Duluth High School and coached football. They moved to New York in about 1920 Phillip Church

  4. Hi. I’m a Duluth native, having grown up in the Central Hillside. I’m considering moving up to Woodland and I absolutely love this article! It speaks as if its the “Old West” of Minnesota. The history and charm is something that I’m looking forward to being a part of! Dee

  5. Two things: Because both of my parents were born in the 19th century, they never referred to the area as anything but “the end of the Woodland car line.” As a result, that’s the way I refer to it today. Second point: Many, many Duluthians should recall when, in the 1960s (a circa guess, but close) an asphalt Soap Box Derby racing track was built in Hartley Park, on a hillside just west of Woodland Avenue. So horse racing wasn’t the only such pastime in the history of the Woodland Area. (For the record: Before Hartley, Soap Box racing was held on London Road on what is now called Lemon Drop Hill.)

  6. The Mahoney family, my grandparents and my dad, lived on Winona Street. The family home burnt down in the great fire, and was rebuilt on the same sight. My dad recalled the streetcars, and the fact that they were integral to the community in the 1920’s. He always loved Woodland, and built a home in the neighborhood as an adult. He also remembered, as a St. John’s Catholic School student, the KKK lighting a cross in what we called the Knob, in Hartley Field. He said it was quite upsetting! I, as well, love Woodland, I raised my children here, and live in the neighborhood! Ann Mahoney

  7. Everett Campbell is my great-grandfather, and I am interested in seeing some of the sources for this article since I don’t know much about him. Heidi – Not sure if my e-mail will be revealed to you via this post. Let me know! Thanks!

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