End of the Lane for Stadium Lanes

Jim Heffernan looks back at a landmark that straddled the West End and West Duluth

Originally published April, 2014.
Duluth’s Stadium Lanes, standing in the shadow of the ore docks for over 50 year. (Image: Google Maps)

I have a long history with Duluth’s Stadium Lanes, none of it involving bowling.

Well, I suppose bowling had to be involved or there wouldn’t be a bowling alley on the site that qualifies it as a West Duluth bowling alley, although its distance from the West End could be measured in feet.

The sprawling single-story building sits in the shadow of the CN Ore Docks (formerly Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Ore Docks) in the morning, when the sun is rising over the West End, but bathed in West Duluth sunshine once the zenith is breached. The ore docks are the informal border between West End and West Duluth.

After 54 years on the site, Stadium Lanes will close next month, its owner has announced.

I was present at the creation in 1960, being a West End kid, almost a man but not quite. When I was a bit younger, the site had been occupied by a long-forgotten drive-in restaurant—Bloomer’s Drive-In. Bloomer’s was built in the later 1950s, and became a popular hangout for young people from western Duluth neighborhoods, competing with the A&W Root Beer drive-in just a couple of blocks east.

Bloomer’s served both drive-in customers and walk-in patrons. On warm summer nights the building would be ringed with cars being served by scampering carhops. Bloomer’s served great hamburgers—all I ever ordered there when I could afford the half-dollar or so that they charged for them.

The large drive-in parking lot disappeared when Stadium Lanes was built in 1960, featuring the very latest in bowling technology. I can’t be sure about this, but Stadium might have been the first alley in Duluth to have automatic pin-setting equipment. There were two other alleys downtown—Pioneer and Center—and another in the West Duluth business district, a small alley called 20th Century Lanes at Central and Grand Avenues that seemed more 19th century, never adapting to the new technology.

In that era, if memory serves (as it so often doesn’t), if you wanted to bowl in Duluth, those establishments were where you had to go, and until about 1960, bowling alleys employed human pin setters, usually high school-age boys who sat on a ledge behind the 10 pins in each alley and removed those that had fallen, send the ball back up the alley to the bowler, and set the pins again at the end of the frame.

This was not an occupation to embrace for a lifetime of employment. But an acquaintance of mine did embrace a career as an automatic pinsetter mechanic when the machines—with many moving parts—were installed at the new Stadium Lanes. As I understood it at the time, the mechanic was sent to a technical school operated by the manufacturer to learn the ins and outs of the complicated machines.

So Duluth was really perking along in 1960. First, we got the first escalator in our history just a few years earlier in what was then the new First American National Bank (now Wells Fargo), and now automatic pinsetters. Miniature golf came in about that time too—Duluth’s on the site of what is now Miller Hill Mall.

But back to Stadium Lanes. Even though I didn’t bowl, I’d hang out there with friends once it opened, challenging the pinball machines, drinking Coca Cola and sometimes kicking tires out in the parking lot. It was the life of a directionless superannuated teenager, although I was going to the University of Minnesota Duluth Branch at the time. (They later dropped the Branch, to everyone’s relief). I actually recall studying for exams at a table in Stadium Lanes, my books and notes spread out before me, an ashtray overflowing with the butts of Pall Mall straights. I didn’t smoke at home.

I have one final anecdote reflecting my association with Stadium Lanes. A date having fallen through for one of the big UMD dances—Homecoming, or Sno Ball—I had hoped to attend, I was desperate enough to intrepidly call a prospective alternate date on the very Saturday of the dance. Reaching her home by phone, her mother told me she was bowling at Stadium Lanes.

I called the bowling alley, had her paged, asked her to the dance starting in a few short hours, and, bless her soul, she agreed to go. She was a good sport I’d known for a long time.

So without ever bowling there, Stadium Lanes served me quite well, if briefly, more than half a century ago. But I haven’t been in there in 50 years so I guess I won’t miss it when it shuts down. I have the memories.

Jim Heffernan looks back at a landmark that straddled the West End and West Duluth

6 Responses to End of the Lane for Stadium Lanes

  1. This is a very belated appreciation to all of you for your kind comments. It is fun to reminisce about our old neighborhoods. Thanks so much for your responses.

  2. My mother worked as a waitress, then as a bartender at Stadium Lanes during the 60’s and 70’s. She would take my youngest sister and brother (twins) to work with her on the weekends. They would bowl while she worked. That makes Stadium Lanes one of the first on-site workplaces to offer child-care.

  3. Jim-Glad to see your journalist pen is still working. Brings back good memories of Duluth. Those 50’s were a fun time.

  4. Jim,
    Another great article. Since we grew up with the same group of friends which transcended the barrier of the ore docks, your history lessons bring back many memories of my (our) youth. Please keep it up! I am always looking forward to your next release.

  5. I set pins (by hand) at Century Lanes in W Duluth for a few years in the early 1940’s. Graduated from Denfeld in 1948. The bowling alley was really 19th century, but it provided the necessary income to be able to go to the Bridgman’s Ice Cream store and Johnson’s 5 & dime store nearby. Great times!

  6. Thanks, Jim, for putting your memories down in writing. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose own memories are jogged by your reminiscences. And thanks not only for sharing your memories but for writing in clear, lucid prose, with just enough poetry that clarifies my own memories and brings back the feelings of an earlier time. You have a remarkable talent. Thanks for sharing it with us. Please keep it up!

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