Originally Published December 2014
Driving north on Congdon Boulevard through Lakewood township, roughly three miles beyond the Lester River, motorists pass a castle-like structure on the edge of Lake Superior. Many Duluthians know exactly what this building is for, but for the majority of those driving through town on their way up the shore, it is an architectural curiosity. The structure is essentially a shell containing equipment that brings safe drinking water to the home of nearly every Duluthian, and it was brought to us by a guy Duluthians called “Typhoid” Truelsen.
Typhoid Fever comes to Duluth
In Duluth’s early days, drinking water was obtained in the simplest of ways: drawing it from Lake Superior and the streams that fed it. Pioneer Camille Poirer, founder of Duluth Pack, turned it into a business. He would fill a hogshead with Lake Superior water drawn from the bay and deliver it about town in a horse-drawn wagon or sledge. This method seemed to work fine until the early 1880s, when Duluth became a breeding ground for typhoid fever.
The bacteria that causes typhoid, typhus bacillus, develops in water supplies tainted with the feces of an infected person. In the 1870s there was no proper sewer system in Duluth, so all waste eventually found its way to Lake Superior and the St. Louis River. Water drawn from these sources often contained typhus bacillus.
When an outbreak of typhoid threatened Duluth in 1881, Reverend J. A. Cummings of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church responded by converting an abandoned blacksmith shop at 12 North 3rd Avenue East (the parking lot in back of the Hotel Duluth today) into a makeshift hospital. With a few chairs, a dozen beds, and a stove donated by British officials at the Duluth emigrant station, Cummings began treating typhoid sufferers. Church leaders chose St. Luke’s as the hospital’s name because they first met to plan the facility on October 18, 1881, St. Luke’s Day (in his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul calls Luke “our beloved physician”). Cummings placed an ad in local papers and within a week the tiny hospital had filled its twelve beds.
In 1884 Duluth’s first water reservoir was built above 1st Street between 10th and 11th Avenues West, constructed over a natural spring from which eight barrels of water flowed every day. The reservoir was constructed by the privately owned Duluth Gas & Water Company and would serve Duluth until 1898. Its ruins still stand (the city acquired the reservoir in 1898 but did not use the facility; read more abut the reservoir, aka “Fort Corcoran,” here).
Duluth’s other major hospital also started because of a typhoid outbreak. In 1888 monks from St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville built a boys’ school and seminary at 2002 West 3rd Street in the West End. When the school failed due to poor enrollment, the monks rented the building to Benedictine nuns who used it as a hospital they named St. Mary’s. By 1896 the hospital was so overcrowded treating typhoid patients that it built a new, larger structure at 404 East Third Street.
Enter Henry “Typhoid” Truelsen
As St. Mary’s began building its second facility, Duluth city officials were plotting ways to make the Zenith City’s drinking water safe to drink, and their efforts were led by newly elected mayor Casper Henry Truelsen.
Truelsen was born in Schleswig, Germany, in 1844. In 1866 he struck out for the United States, landing in Eagle River, Wisconsin, before arriving in Duluth in 1870. Here he worked as a plasterer and railroad laborer and dabbled in a merchandising before opening a fishery (later sold to Duluth’s premier fishing operation, the A. Booth Company).
In 1886 he entered the grocery business and became involved with politics. A Democrat, Truelsen served as city alderman, county sheriff, and president of Duluth’s Board of Public Works. In 1894, as alderman, Truelsen fought against mayor Ray Lewis’s plan to clean up Duluth’s drinking water by purchasing Duluth Water & Gas’s water existing system and overseeing its operations. Truelsen wasn’t entirely against the idea, but thought the price tag—$2 million (over $55 million today)—was too steep a price.
A referendum in November, 1894, carried the Lewis’s plan by just 300 votes, but Truelsen cried foul—and was proven right: the courts found over 2,000 fraudulent ballots in Lewis’s favor. Truelsen’s actions blocked the purchase and upset Duluth’s Republican power brokers, who were used to getting their way. Truelsen was elected mayor in 1896 as the “people’s candidate,” ensuring Duluth would have safe drinking water—without overpaying for it—and earning him the nickname “Typhoid Truelsen.”
The Lakewood Pump House
Once Truelsen was in office, work on a new system progressed. In fact, as early as 1895—before Truelsen was even sworn in—city officials passed a resolution to prepare plans and acquire a site for a massive system of pumps that would draw water from Lake Superior a safe distance from the population base, and away from waters possibly tainted by human waste. The most promising site was in Lakewood Township, just off the lakeshore three miles north of the Lester River on land owned by the Lakewood Land Company. In December the land company donated five acres of the property to the city.
When complete, water from the pump house would travel the three miles to the Lester River through a 42-inch wide main pipe. A system of pipes and reservoirs would then carry clean water to most of Duluth (those living in the far western portion of the city get their water from artesian wells). By January 30, 1896, work on the pump house had begun. (At the same time, the city also extended an intake pipe at 14th Avenue East, where a smaller pump house had been previously installed, to reach further into Lake Superior in the hopes that it would draw cleaner water.) By March 1, the new intake well at the Lakewood site was installed.
During construction, workers struck a vein of copper ore below eight feet of clay. City Engineer William Patton told newspapers he was enthusiastic over the prospects of another mining boom in St. Louis County. It never materialized.
The construction of the pump house also inadvertently led to the destruction of the Lester Park Hotel. In 1897 the hotel hosted teamsters hired by the city to transport steel pipe for construction of the nearby pumping station. On March 30, 1897, fire consumed the hotel. The fire started in a shed east of the building, where lamp oil was stored; it was a habit for the teamsters to fill their lanterns with oil after breakfast, as they began work well before sunrise. It was speculated that a dropped match or a spark from a lit pipe may have set off some spilled lamp oil that had soaked into the wood floor.
Construction of the housing for the pumping system began in 1897 and was completed the following year. Likely designed by the city’s engineering department, the Romanesque Revival building stands 2.5 stories tall, is faced with brick, and stands on a brownstone foundation. The building’s western front corner is marked by a round medieval tower with battlements and, originally, a conical top. The “tower” once housed the building’s general offices. Large arched windows and skylights helped illuminate the interior.
That interior contains just four rooms, including the largest, for the pumps. The 98 x 60-foot room holds the pumps that today—using electricity—supply Duluth with about 20 million gallons of water every day. The other rooms include a chlorine room, a garage, and the former boiler room—the pumps were originally steam powered.
A 1932 remodel added some stone detailing to the building’s front entrance, eliminated the sky lights, and removed the tower’s conical peak. The smokestack also came down—once electricity powered the system, the steam boilers were no longer needed. In 1941 the windows on the front façade were replaced by glass block.
After losing his 1900 bid for reelection, Henry “Typhoid” Truelsen moved to North Dakota and found success in the coal mining industry. He died at the home of his daughter in Los Angeles, where he had gone to improve his health, in 1931. After his death, one person eulogized him by saying Truelsen “first taught people of Duluth how to take control of their city government and administer it in their own interest.” More than 115 years after he was elected mayor, most of us in the Zenith City have Mr. Truelsen to thank for every fresh drop of clean Lake Superior water that comes out of our taps today.
Every month Zenith City Online publisher Tony Dierckins traces the history another of Duluth’s Grand Old Buildings. Catch up with previous installments here.