Welcome to “Swede Town”

The Saga of the Garfield Avenue District

This story originally posted December 1, 2012

Rice’s Point, like Minnesota Point, is a large sandbar created by silt carried toward the lake by the St. Louis River. It had been a summer home to some local Ojibwe—and the location of at least one native burial site—for at least 100 years before Superior pioneer Orin Rice moved his family across the bay in the spring of 1854. Soon after he filed a claim on the peninsula that jutted into the bay west of Minnesota Point and east of Oneota. Rice then operated a ferry service between Superior’s Conner’s Point, Minnesota Point, and the peninsula he had claimed, which in 1858 would be platted as Rice’s Point.

The township stretched from the end of the point north to Point of Rocks and included a great deal of what would later be called Duluth’s West End. Rice had big ambitions for his township, and attempted to have Rice’s Point made the St. Louis County Seat—even temporarily changed its name to “Port Byron” to give it a more glamorous appeal. His efforts failed, but the Minnesota Territorial Legislature did give him the sole rights to run his ferry service across the Bay—and state lines—to Connor’s Point for fifteen years.

Duluth’s geography would seal the fate of Rice’s Point as an industrial district. It was the home of Duluth’s first blast furnace, and once the canal was cut, its eastern side would be developed into slips. It would become the site of coal docks, grain elevators, and lumber yards. West of Garfield were the railroad yards and, later, a scrap-iron yard. Many other industrial businesses operated on the point, many along the northern portion of Garfield Avenue.

The Duluth Water and Light “Gasometer” tank, filled to capacity. (Image: Jeff Lemke, Twin Ports Time Machine.)

Rice’s Point was also home to Duluth Water and Light at 520 Garfield Avenue, which included one of the point’s most visible landmarks, a 3 million cubic foot “Gasometer” holding tank. Designed to hold coal gas, the “tank” was actually a large, cylindrical metal cage that contained an immense bag into which natural gas was pumped and stored.

But Rice’s Point wasn’t entirely industrialized. Those who worked as unskilled laborers, often immigrants who could not speak English and could rarely read or write their native language, established a shanty town along Garfield Avenue—the point’s main thoroughfare—ensuring a short, walkable commute to work. It became known officially as the Garfield Avenue District. In its early years it was known as “Swede Town.”

Most of Swede Town’s early residents were actually Finnish. While most of Duluth’s early Finnish immigrants set up housing on Minnesota Point, in the  late 1880s Swedish-speaking Finns or “Swede-Finns” first settled in Duluth on Rice’s Point along what was platted as Garfield Avenue—merely sand dunes at the time—and along two streets east of Garfield above the 600 block. According to historians, some of the Swede-Finns also lived on a tiny nearby isthmus in St. Louis Bay east of Rice’s Point called “Grass Island,” adjacent to what was platted as Elm Avenue, the street dividing the 700 and 800 block of Garfield Avenue.

Swede Town first developed after 1886. That year there were no boarding houses on Rice’s Point; two years later there were eight of them. By 1900, another four had been added. That same year residents had moved off of Grass Island to make room for the Peavey Grain Elevator, the first concrete grain silo built in Duluth and the largest in the world when planned (by 1910, the Zenith City boasted ten of them). It was built on the eastern edge off Rice’s Point between Elm And Lynn Avenues.

Rice’s Point in the 1880s. Notice the vegetation on the east (left) side of the point—those land masses may have been “Grassy Island.” The Roundhouse shown was replaced in the 1880s with another on the west side of Garfield Avenue. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

(The exact location of Grass Island is unknown and is not mentioned in Duluth newspapers or on maps of the 19th century. Thanks to dredging and slip-creation, Rice’s Point is significantly wider than it had been when Duluth first became a city in 1870, and the bay was filled with floating land masses often described as islands, including Meander Island, named for its mobile nature. So Grass Island was likely incorporated as part of Rice’s Point when the point was widened.)

Not all of the neighborhood’s residents were Swede Finns. In fact, by the 1910s most of Rice’s Point’s Swede-Finns had relocated to the West End, but many low-income families of  Finns and other ethnicities continued to live on Rice’s Point, including Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, Poles, and Assyrians. Long before that the enclave had become known less as Swede Town and most often as the Garfield Avenue Neighborhood.

The Saga of the Garfield Avenue District

24 Responses to Welcome to “Swede Town”

  1. So glad this brought back memories for you, Alice. Woodruff is still on Garfield, although today it is just a 3-man operation. I purchased wooden siding for my 1923 house from them just last summer.

  2. So many memories and questions remained when we had to move from Garfield Ave in 1953 after my wonderful father passed away This article was great! Thank you for it. I would love to hear more and contact others from the Avenue, like Gerry Larson, Sharon Kent, Rosie ? ,the Hannas, from under the bridge, and so many more. The picture of Hellman’s and the house next it where the Olson family lived was especially great. Although we attended Lincoln old and new, fond memories remain even though we were not able to graduate from there. We were sent to a Children’s Home on the East Side after my father’s death in 1953 and then to live with my Aunt and Uncle in St. Paul. We were totally surprised to see all of our Garfield Ave. gone in 1963 after my marriage, not having heard of any to the renovation which to place. Since we then we have visited several times and tried to get information on all that transpired without much luck, so when I came acros this site, I was truly grateful. Anymore info would be fantastic!!! By the way, what ever happened to Woodruff Lumber Co.?

  3. Ken Borgenheimer, I have to make comment on your post, I and the family are honored that you remember Bobby Daniels,he was my father so I have to respect that after 35 yrs he is still remembered however,yes, he did die off of 1st street,off the rocks, “vehicle accident” and although we have not accepted that as the cause of death,spreading BS about someone that is deceased is not very becoming as you so stated in your comment. My father was not into drugs and for you to say something like that I find very irresponsible and very derogatory,gossip is cheap and makes the person spreading such vile look even worse that the garbage they spread, I have no idea why you would say what you have said but especially on this beautiful site it was very uncalled for. You must have some negative insight with him and if you feel like defiling him in this matter was your way so be it. My father lived a very hard life and he worked hard and had many opportunities taken from him,he never faltered in being a repectable businessman, athlete father and friend to many and always had a smile for everyone even if the society of the times put him down. I think you owe this family and his friends an apology for putting in words what you do not know anything about. I tried to reach out to you personally but was unable to locate thru the net, I apologize to all that have to note this on this beautiful site but it deserved a response to the irresponsilbe post by Mr Borgenheimer…

  4. Ron,
    I am Ken Goldfine, youngest son of Monnie Goldfine. I read your post and literally teared up. Thank you for writing. I was too young for the Trading Post days, but I was there for the By the Bridge days and the hotel business after that. You captured a wonderful emotion in your writing. Dad and Erv (and Fannie too) were wonderful people and my siblings and I feel fortunate and obligated to carry on our family values as best we can. Again, thanks for writing and best wishes for the future.

  5. Thanks, “Flea”! That’s a great story–will pass it along to David Ouse, who writes about “Forgotten Duluthians.” Have a great Holiday Season yourself!

  6. O.K. Tony.
    The inventor is Carl Edvard Johansson and he invented the “JO-blocks” for measuring parts and engines and calibrating other measuring devices in industry. From 1923 to 1936 he worked for Ford Motor Co in “The Johansson Division” and was called the most accurate man in the world. Without accurate measuring and precision mass procuction is impossible, so he was very important for Ford when they manufactured the model A and the V8 engine. (And they also sold the “JO-blocks” to all other car manufacturers and other industries. They are still in use, by the way – over 100 years since they were invented.

    He came to Rice’s Point in spring 1882 and worked for Fish Sawing Mill, the Oneota Co a.o. In winter-time when it was cold, there was no work to get, except for some who worked building the new Opera House across from the St Louis Hotel, he writes in his diary. Most of the workers had gone to work as lumber jacks and during several days in the winter of 1883 the temperature was below -30°C.

    The 10th of November 1884 in the morning there was a large fire and many of the Mills and other workplaces were burned down. Carl Edvard Johansson and his brother Arvid (later Harvey Johnson) couldn’t get money for already worked hours and there was no work to get. Therefore they went back to Sweden on the next boat, but Harvey came back to Rice’s Point half a year later.

    Later Harvey assembled a work-team of his own for hire and he also worked in a grocery shop there, but eventually he settled down in Copper City on the Michigan peninsula, another location with many Scandinavians, building houses and later opening up a shop of his own. Carl Edvard visited him on many occasions when he lived and worked in Detroit.

    Mr Johansson did write down many conversations he had with Henry Ford, Edsel Ford, Mr Sorensen, Mr Liebold etc. – all very known persons in the Ford Motor Company and the history of the automotive industry and mass production at the time. Not bad for a man who started his life pennyless.

    The book will be published in Swedish next year, unfortunately for you (?), but I hope I will be able to get it translated to English if there is an interest over there.

    Have a nice Christmas and New Year Tony and all others in the Duluth area and Rice’s Point. You live in an area with a very interesting history and you may very well have ancestors, some from Scandinavia, who worked very hard to build your town to prosperity. Send them and Mr Johansson a grateful thought when you do your Christmas shopping, because without mass production there wouldn’t be any mass consumption and our world would look very different.

  7. Thank you for a very informative site! I’m doin’ some research about a famous swedish inventor who lived at Rice’s Point in a shanty he made for himself already in 1882-3. He worked in the lumber yards for about two years and then returned home to Sweden. 40 years later he was back in the U.S. and a famous man. I’m writing a book about him and the photo from the 1880’s will probably feature in it. So many thanks!

  8. I lived on the “Avenue” from 1937 to 1953, at which time the Highway Dept bought our house for the right of way for the new high bridge that my Father, Robert Borgenheimer, helped build. We lived @ 710 Garfield kitty-corner from Goldfines.
    What a wonderful place to grow up at with so many places to play and a r.r. yard on both sides of the street with railroad cars of scrap steel parked behind our house and grain cars with wheat, oats and corn to help ourself to when they were empty, but not the hollow walls.
    We had coal for our stove from the roundhouse and rats to shoot on the r.r. yards and the Bay to spend time at and swim in the Bay.
    I just wish there were more pictures of the houses way back in the ’30s.

  9. I have a question and it’s bugging me. Before Goldfine became Goodwill. And where you drop the donations off.. What was behind that door, when Goldfine was there??

  10. My wife and I spent a few days in Duluth recently. Like most tourists I suppose, we were drawn to the bridge in Canal Park and were lucky enough to see a few ships passing under the bridge. I one occasion we decided to see if we could observe the docking of the passing ship at one of the slips in the inner harbor.

    We headed up Lake Street and turned left on Railroad Street hoping it would take us to the other side of the inner harbor. We soon found ourselves on Garfield Ave heading out toward the end of what we now know is called Rice’s Point.
    It was dusk, there was no traffic, and we were driving slowly peering between the structures trying to locate “our ship”. We hadn’t gone very far when we noticed a couple of deer, one favoring her left rear leg, crossing the road. We stopped and watched them go through the gate of a fenced in property and continued moving deeper into the property. This place appeared totally devoid of any vegetation…..where were they going? We then noticed three more deer off to the right seemingly waiting for us to pass so they too could cross the road and pass through the gate. The spotted, streaked coat of these deer was consistent with the industrial environment that surrounded us. Do they actually live here we wondered.

    We continued down Garfield and then Helberg drive eventually finding our ship at the end of Port Terminal Road where it was in the process of tying up, apparently preparing to refuel. In the daylight we might have stayed to watch the lines being tied off, but it was almost dark and this seemed kind of a spooky place for tourists to be meandering through at night. As we headed back out Part Terminal Road a fox crossed the road in front of us. The fox’s coat was dirty like the deer. It seemed totally unfazed by our presence and moved purposely down the railroad tracks with something in its mouth…..perhaps a meal for some young ones.

    There are not many locations were the presence of deer would surprise me, but this was one. And a fox…..that was really surprising. And if a fox can call this home, I imagine there are other creatures calling Rice’s Point home. I wonder…..has anybody studied the wildlife of Rice’s point. Have there been any articles on this subject. I would love to read anything about this if anybody can identify links to related material.

    William Guyer

  11. This was very interesting – my father’s family owned the Heisler Hotel (Michael and Margaret Heisler) which, from what I’ve been able to determine, was on 3rd street Rice’s point near the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad. Finding this information helps me put this area into perspective and bring it more to life.

  12. Thanks for the kind words, Andrea! We eventually hope to include an entire “map room’ in the Zenith City History archive. In the meantime, I rely on Google maps to gain modern perspective of the city.

  13. Once again, thank you Tony, and all. We came to Duluth in 1970 and often shopped at Goldfine’s by the Bridge, the current Goodwill store. All the information you share is very interesting to me as I love to learn about the Duluth area. Since I am a relatively new comer to your page, perhaps something like this exists and I have not found it, but would it be possible for you to set current maps side by side with the overhead photos so that those of us who are not as good at placing things could see what is now in the same areas? I would appreciate it very much. Andrea Asleson

  14. Thanks, Ken! Yes, Greyhound kept a bus garage along Garfield. I’m pretty sure, however, that Green’s Crystal Terrace was in the Bowery on Superior or Michigan Street—but it could very well have relocated to Garfield Avenue after the Bowery was razed in the 1960s. I’ll take a closer look at my story and update anything that conflicts with your family’s history.

  15. Tony, thanks for the wonderful article. Very interesting history of one of Duluth’s ‘backbone’ neighborhoods. As you kindly mention, our family had close ties to the area for close to 50 years. In the interest of accuracy, here are the correct dates of our family business: Goldfine’s stable was established off of railroad street in 1922. In 1933 or 1934 Abe and Fannie Goldfine bought, or maybe rented, an old building, I think it had been used to store hay, on Garfield. They lost the building a year or so later and in 1936 they bought the building out of bankruptcy and opened Goldfine’s Trading Post. There is a full page newspaper ad framed and hung in our company office if you would like to stop in and take a look at it. The Trading Post was torn down in 1961 and in 1962 Goldfine’s By The Bridge opened and was in business through 1979. We also bought what was always called ‘the greyhound building’ a block away where we ran a Phillips 66 gas station. I was always told that it was the Greyhound bus terminal for many years. Directly across the street from the store was a popular restaurant in the 60’s and 70’s called The Branding Iron. I was told that earlier it was called Green’s Crystal Terris (sp) and that the comedian Shecki Green got his start there and took his stage name from there. This is an old family story and I am not sure if it is true.

  16. I remember the Diner being there in the early 60’s. . . I was probably 10 or 11 at the time. I also have memories of the Gasometer tank.

  17. Very interesting..I spent a lot of time on Garfield Avenue when I was a teenager, Kemp Fisheries had a plant there until we moved to a location next to shoppers City in West Duluth in late 1963… Let’s not forget Bobby Daniels use to live on Garfield Ave and use to train on a empty lot there some time, lot was between our Fish company location and the Tip Top Tavern on the corner..across the street from Goldfines

    Good times..

    Louie Kemp

  18. Hi Tony –

    Here’s an additional nugget of information for the Swede Town piece. My understanding of the typical Gasometer in the USA is that these structures were used originally for coal gas, aka town gas. If you look inside really old buildings in renovated downtown areas of major cities—fancy old hotels, bars and restaurants especially—you’re certain to find some of the old gas light fixtures still in place or at least some rather odd looking holes in the walls where the fixtures used to be hung to illuminate the room.

    Before electricity and the light bulb came along interior light was originally created by burning things in the fireplace. Then wax candles came along. John D. Rockefeller made his original fortune by selling kerosene oil for lighting America’s homes and businesses, that replaced the candles. His kerosene lantern was a staple in every home coast to coast. It was the flashlight of his day.

    Coal gas replaced Rockefeller’s kerosene in larger metropolitan areas where a plentiful supply of coal was available for conversion to coal gas. (Look up any of these terms on Wikipedia and you’ll find detailed explanations of how it all worked.) The Duluth Gasometer was just such a coal gas installation. Look at pictures of the Rice’s Point area throughout the first half of the 20th Century. The Perry Gallagher image that you used is perfect for this example. There were coal distributors everywhere! That was all inbound coal laying on the ground used mostly for heating homes in areas distant to Rice’s Point. Some was used for businesses. Some went to the steel mills. Some for fueling the steam powered lake boats and railroad steam locomotives of the day. Contrast that to all of the outbound coal that sits in Superior today. That coal gets transported out of the Twin Ports to feed power plants that make electricity around the Great Lakes. But I’m talking about inbound coal that was brought to Duluth and Superior to be taken by train, truck, wagon, buggy, cart and even by the bag full to every house and business that needed heat. Yes, charcoal briquettes were also used for a time (Stott’s Briquette Plant in Superior was the largest briquette plant in the world—but that is another story for another time) but coal was the fuel for heating and cooking in the Twin Ports region.

    Since coal was readily available in Duluth converting it into coal gas for use by local businesses to light and heat their establishments was a natural fit. It helped to make Duluth a truly modern city in the early days of the 20th Century. Coal gas was generally piped just short distances to the businesses that could afford it, along with homes of the wealthy in the same vicinity—especially on the bluffs and along Miller Creek. Duluth’s Gasometer supplied coal gas to Rice’s Point, Bridge Yard, downtown Duluth and the Miller Creek area. I can’t say for sure but I doubt that it went much further than that. There was only so much pressure in the line. The gas could flow only so far. Coal gas was used for lighting—but also for cooking and heating—supplied to households via this municipally owned piped distribution system.

    Look at photographs of major cities—especially the large downtown areas of early development—and you’ll surely see a large iron frame of a Gasometer plant towering above everything else. Like Duluth’s Gasometer, virtually all of those coal gas plants vanished overnight—right after WWII—when natural gas came along. Coal gas plants continued to be used for heating and cooking after electricity came along but when natural gas came on the scene that spelled the end to the coal gas businesses across the United States. There are some coal gas plants that were converted to use natural gas but the tank itself was used merely to help regulate pressure of the gas being distributed. This was particularly popular in Europe. Not so much in the USA. So technically speaking, the Duluth Gas Works Gasometer was really a coal gas plant, not a natural gas plant. It was the coming of natural gas that put the Gasometer out of action. Through the photos in your article I think everyone can readily see and understand what this behemoth contraption was all about. Thanks for bringing it back into the light after so many years of being absent from people’s minds. I will have more photos of the Duluth Gasometer in Vol. 3 of our Twin Ports Time Machine in case anyone is interested.

    Cheers!

    Jeff Lemke
    Twin Ports Rail History, Inc.

  19. Very interesting. I remember the gasometer tank and roundhouse now, but had forgotten about them until I saw these pictures. When I was a pupil at old Lincoln Elementary in the 1940s, just after the war, some kids from Garfield Avenue were bused to Lincoln — apparently right past Adams, which was still open (until about 1950). These kids were universally considered “poor” and included the only African American children in the school. Adams and Monroe elementary schools closed when “new” Lincoln elementary opened in 1950, and all the kids from lower West End and Garfield, when it still had residences, went to Lincoln. — Jim Heffernan

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