The 1890 Duluth Police Headquarters & Jail

A Grand Old Building with a Tarnished History

[Editor’s Note: Zenith City Online’s Tony Dierckins is taking the month of from his regular “Grand Old Buildings” column while he is promoting Historic Glensheen 1905-1930, the newest book from Zenith City Press. So we are re-running one of the more popular Grand Old Building stories previously published on Zenith City Online: Duluth’s 1890 Police Headquarters & Jail, which played a major role in the 1920 Duluth Lynchings, the subject of this month’s fascinating feature story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.


J. B. Culver, Duluth’s first mayor. The man he appointed as Duluth’s first chief of police didn’t work out so well. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

When Duluth became a city in 1870, one of the first things Mayor J. B. Culver did was appoint Robert S. D. Bruce as the Zenith City’s first chief of police on April 21. Bruce, a building contractor, had no law enforcement experience—but he was a “big burly Scotch-Canadian who could handle himself in any fray,” according to the Duluth Police Department’s 1920 self-published history of the force. On June 3 Culver entrusted him with the payroll for a group of men working on a construction project. Instead Bruce absconded with the cash, never to be seen again. It didn’t get much better that first year: After a brief interim stint by George Berkelman Major J. L. Smith took over as chief. Duluthians considered Smith a “pompous individual who delighted in exhibiting his authority on any and every occasion.” They were done with him by December 14, when Berkelman took over again. It was December of 1870, and Duluth—just nine months old—was on its fourth chief of police.

Berkelman left before the Panic of 1873 reduced the population from over 3,500 to less than 300. By then Samuel Thompson was in town, but he didn’t have much to do: everyone was broke. It was the same for George Huse, who took over in 1879, two years after Duluth was reduced to village status due to its finances. Huse, whose main duties were corralling loose animals, said that real police work was scarce because “no man had had enough money to get drunk.”

Oliver Traphagen’s drawing of the Superior Street façade of the 1890 Duluth Police Headquarters and Jail. Click to enlarge image. (Image: Architectural Resources)

Ten years and four chiefs later, there was plenty of money—and crime—in Duluth. Thanks to the grain and lumber trades, Duluth pulled itself out of debt, and in 1887 became a city again. At this time the city also decided to build itself some decent facilities. At the time, the municipal court and city hall operated out of the second floor of the Hosmer block at 13–15 East Superior Street. The police department had a couple of timber-frame jails downtown and on Rice’s Point, and a simple headquarters adjacent to the County Courthouse and County Sheriff’s Home and Jail at Sixth Avenue East and Second Street. The growing department needed a larger home.

Time for a Proper Police Station
In 1889 the city began construction of a new City Hall at 128 East Superior Street, a Richardsonian Romanesque building designed by Oliver Traphagen. Next door at 126 East Superior Street sat one of Duluth’s primitive jails, built there in 1886. That building was torn down to make room for the new police headquarters and jail, another Romanesque masterpiece by Traphagen and his new partner, Francis Fitzpatrick. The police department used rooms on the first floor of City Hall from 1889 until the headquarters was complete in January 1891 for a total cost of $38,000 or $950,000 in today’s dollars.

The Duluth Police Headquarters and jail, photographed some time between 1890 and 1919. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Traphagen and Fitzpatrick’s plans for the new police headquarters complemented the City Hall next door without duplicating the design. While both buildings are in the Romanesque style, the police headquarters is topped with a rounded Flemish gable, which gives the building a softer, more playful look than its very formal neighbor, and the face of the entire building is carved with geometric patterns of a Byzantine motif. Like its counterpart, the police headquarters and jail was faced with brownstone quarried at Flag River, Wisconsin. Together the buildings, according to historian Edith Dunn, were “fashionable city monuments worthy of an emerging metropolis” which “represented the ambitions of Duluthians.”

The front façade of the police headquarters is divided into three sections. The center section was originally a three-sided bay extending from the building’s base to the top of the building, two full stories—the bays have since been removed so that more modern, efficient windows could be installed. The main entrance, in the furthest-right section, was originally accessed through raised-panel double doors. These have been replaced for more efficient and secure doors, but the originals are still stored within the building. Above the entry’s transom windows—glazed with beveled glass—a carved sandstone lintel displays the word “Police.” Two dome caps—originally gilded and crowned by “long, needle-like metal spires”—once topped each corner of the building’s Superior Street façade, but the cap of the northeastern corner of the building is  gone, as is the gold paint on its counterpart. An ornamental iron grate that once crowned the building’s gabled parapet now rests in the building’s Michigan Street level, awaiting restoration.

This wrought iron railing once graced the Flemish gable pediment at the top of the Police Headquarters. It awaits restoration in the building’s basement. (Image: Zenith City)

The building’s first floor—the Superior Street level—saw most of its activity. The front half of the building held the police chief’s office and private room, a captain’s office, a sergeant’s office, and the female cell department, which included three 7 x 7-foot cells, each with a toilet and sink. The rear half of the first floor was itself split into two levels just 7 feet high. Each level housed  16 roughly 7 x 4.5-foot cells—32 in all—located in two columns in the center of the building, so that no cell was backed against an interior wall. Still, the exterior windows—inaccessible to prisoners in their cells—were covered with iron bars. Bathrooms for prisoners and police officers were located off the central corridor, which included a stairwell leading down to the basement and up to the second floor. The second floor was dedicated to the training and well-being of police officers. The front was a large drill hall for training, and the back was a dormitory where officers could spend the night. (Scroll to the end of the story to see floor plans for all four levels.)

The 1890 Police Headquarter’ Michigan Street level was home to the Patrol Department. This photograph shows what is though to be the Duluth’s first patrol wagon—after it regained its city status in 1887. Note the massive doors that lead to the stables inside. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

The Michigan Street level is also considered the building’s basement. Built in the days before automobiles, its main use was for the headquarters of the patrol unit, which utilized horses. It featured two sets of tall, heavy raised-panel, four-leaf doors set within massive Romanesque arches: this level originally served as the department’s stables and needed to be wide and tall enough for the horses and wagons that were housed inside. It included four stables (one was a spare) a driver’s room, and a grain room for feed. Beyond the stables was the patrolmen’s quarters and a battery room with electrical stores—Traphagen’s design anticipated the day when Duluth would be fully powered. Adjacent to the battery room and the patrol quarters was the vault, used to store evidence and other confiscated items.

These bars remain in the building’s basement, but those for the cells and windows of the jail have been gone since the 1940s, when they were removed and scrapped as part of the war effort. (Image: Zenith City)

The basement had one more unique element, located between the stables and grain room: a manure chute. The building includes a partial subbasement, which essentially covers just the back half of the building. When first built, this room contained the coal bins and boilers that originally heated the building as well as a manure pit. Horse waste was thrown down the manure chute into the pit. When the pit was full the manure—and likely coal ash from the boilers—was loaded onto a wheeled cart, which then traversed a short rail system to the southwest corner of the building, where a hydraulic lift waited. The manure was then brought to the Michigan Street level and carted away.

Police Chiefs during the building’s first 20 years

Samuel McQuade took over as chief of police in 1890, appointed by new mayor Marcus J. Davis, becoming the first chief to serve in the new building beginning in January, 1891. In 1887, when it regained its city charter, Duluth had adopted a “Ward & Boss” system of government, which gave the mayor most of the power. Each mayor—elected every two years—could appoint his own officials: city engineer, city attorney, etc., including chief of police. These men did not necessarily have a background in law enforcement, but McQuade did. A true pioneer—and co-founder of Endion Township—McQuade was first elected St. Louis County sheriff in 1877 and served as such until 1887. McQuade was the first chief of police to develop a conduct code and submit annual reports about the department’s activities.

Despite advancements made by McQuade, politics ruled the day. McQuade was replaced in 1892 by Daniel Horgan, who was replaced in 1894 by Harry R. Armstrong, who was replaced in 1896 by Iwan Hansen, who was replaced in 1900 by Cyrus T. Crandall, who was replaced in 1902 by Chauncy Troyer. Troyer turned out to be the exception to the “two-year appointee” rule, serving 13 years under five different mayors. Troyer had joined the Duluth Police Department as a patrolman in 1891. In 1896 he was promoted to detective. In 1900 Mayor Trevanion Hugo appointed him chief, and Hugo’s successors found no reason to replace Troyer.

Duluth’s Motor Patrol in 1919. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

During Troyer’s tenure a new building was constructed to the west of the jail at 124 East Superior Street (today’s Shel/Don Reproduction Center). Its second floor was leased by the city and used as the Duluth Municipal Court from 1909 to 1929. Door openings were made and a short enclosed bridge was built to connect the two buildings at the second floor level; this way, prisoners held in the jail could be transported to the courtrooms quickly and safely. This may have been Duluth’s first “skywalk.” Other say that honor belongs to a structure extending from the police headquarters’ east wall to the 1889 city hall, also at the second floor level. It would make sense: city hall was also home to its municipal court from 1889 until 1909, and that bridge would have made sense for prisoner transfers. But historians suggest that this structure was not added until some time in the 1920s.

Duluth changed its system of government while Troyer was chief. The mayor no longer had the power to appoint a police chief, but the commissioner of public safety did. Troyer retired in 1915 to become chief of police in Fargo, North Dakota. He served there for two years and returned to Duluth. He died on November 13, 1920.

Robert D. McKercher served as chief from Troyer’s resignation until 1919, when he too resigned. While McKercher ran the show, the department began the process of phasing out horses for automobiles, and the stables were converted to a garage for the first motor patrol. Gustav Lahti became acting chief until John Murphy was appointed. Murphy’s tenure as chief would be brief, but it would also be the most memorable—and tragic—period in the history of Duluth law enforcement.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….

A Grand Old Building with a Tarnished History

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