Lost Landmark: Ashtabula Heights

A sketch showing the Bell (left) and Forbes homes along Second Street in Duluth’s Ashtabula House in the late 1880s. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

Before the 1880s, Duluth had very few houses that offered more than basic shelter. Roger Munger had built a large Italianate house and carriage house at 405 Mesaba Avenue in 1870 and two years later George Sargent built a Second Empire home at what would become 4500 London Road (the property was not even part of a township  at the time). The promise of  prosperity died in 1873 when Jay Cooke’s fortune dissolved, sending the entire nation—and Duluth in particular—into an economic depression known as the Panic of 1873. The city’s population dropped, and no one in town had the resources to build an opulent dwelling.

But Cooke’s investments in Duluth finally paid off when grain from the Red River valley started to flow into Duluth on the railroad Cooke built. That grain continued its journey east on ships loaded in the safety of Duluth’s inner harbor and left the Zenith City through the ship canal Cooke funded in 1870. Duluth became a center for the grain trade, forming its own Board of Trade in 1881.

At this point many of Duluth’s pioneers saw their years of patience finally pay off. Their ships had come in, and a number of Duluthians started to build substantial homes. A number of Duluth’s pioneers came to the Zenith City from Ashtabula, Ohio, and during the 1880s many of them built homes in the same area of town, roughly from Second Avenue East to Sixth Avenue East and from First Street to Fourth Street in much of what was originally Portland Township.  They called the new district “Ashtabula Heights.”

The neighborhood quickly became the center of Duluth’s social and political elite. Residents included Josiah and Rose Ensign (504 East 2nd Street), who came to Duluth from Ashtabula before the canal was dug. Ensign was elected mayor in 1880 and again in 1884, served as the St. Louis County Attorney, and spent  thirty-two years as a district court judge. James Ray (403 East 2nd Street) and his son Robert (226 North 4th Avenue East) both built houses in the tony neighborhood in 1887. The Elder Ray, a native of Massachusetts, lived in Ashtabula before moving to Duluth in 1855. A founder of Portland Township, Ray was instrumental in the digging of the ship canal—which Ensign fought for in the courts during a seven-year legal battle with Wisconsin.

Melvin Forbes (530 East 2nd Street) also built a home in Ashtabula Heights that, like many surrounding it, was designed by Oliver Traphagen. Forbes, along with George Spencer and Clinton Markell, organized Duluth’s Board of Trade. Markell—another former resident of Ashtabula—was also a founder of Portland Township and served as Duluth’s second mayor. He waited until 1890 to build his home in Ashtabula Heights at 530 East 2nd Street.

In 1907 lumber baron Robert Whiteside and his wife Sophia purchased the Markell house. It was a sign of the times. In the early 1890s, development began east of Twentieth Avenue East, where Duluthians who made their fortunes in the 1890s began to build the stately mansions of Duluth’s East End and Hunter’s Park. Developers lured many of Asthabula Heights’ high-profile residents to make their new neighborhoods more attractive to buyers. They even went as far as to offer Duluth’s elite free land or to pay for building materials to prompt them to move.

By the 1920s most original residents of Ashtabula Heights had either died, moved back East, or relocated either to Hunter’s Park or the East End. Downtown living and opulent townhouses such as Ashtabula Flats had gone out of fashion as well. Many of the old homes, too expensive for upkeep by individual families, were subdivided into boarding houses. Maintenance was neglected  or compromised due to costs. Over the years they lost their architectural integrity and and many became all but inhabitable.

As St. Mary’s and Miller Memorial hospitals developed and grew, more of theses homes were destroyed to make room for the expanding health care campuses. Few Ashtabula Heights homes survive today. The Bell House, once the jewel of Ashtabula Heights, is hardly recognizable today in its current incarnation as the Dougherty Funeral Home, but Salter Terrace at 301–307 East Third Street retains its 19th century charm. Most of what was once Ashtabula Heights is now covered by the footprint of the Essentia Health System.

Top: The 1887 Bell House at 600 E. Superior Street photographed c. 1940 when it was the Grady-Hughes Funeral Home. (Image: Duluth Public Library) Bottom: The Dougherty Funeral Home at 600 E. Superior St. photographed in 2015. (Image: Zenith City Press)
Top: The 1887 Bell House at 600 E. Superior Street photographed c. 1940 when it was the Grady-Hughes Funeral Home. (Image: Duluth Public Library) Bottom: The Dougherty Funeral Home at 600 E. Superior St. photographed in 2015. (Image: Zenith City Press)

 

6 Responses to Lost Landmark: Ashtabula Heights

  1. Thanks so much for these stories on Ashtabula Heights. My father bought one of these houses (not quite as grand as some pictured here)on East 4th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue East after he came home from WWII in the 40s. They were beautiful homes. I still remember the pocket doors, marble fireplaces, high ceilings, etc. Too bad so many have been lost or “remodeled”.

    Keep these articles coming.

  2. It’s nice to see some of this history still exists. My Great Great Aunt was Ida (Raymond) Forbes. My Grandfather Edward Raymond inherited the property in 1934-35 and converted it to apartments. My father (Greg Sr.)still tells many stories about “530” when he was growing up there. Sounded like a beautiful house with a carriage house, duck pond and a small 2 hole golf course above the rocks on 1st st. At 82 my father still remembers the house like the back of his hand and always has new stories to tell.

  3. Nope, Tim, that’s just a mis-identified caption. I’d say by the looks of it, 1930s? Can any car experts out there help us pinpoint a date on the car?

  4. I love the old photos of Duluth so often a part of the stories on your site. I am curious however, if the photo of the Bell house of the 1890’s is ment to show how it looked during that time as the automobile parked outside looks to be from later than the 1890’s?

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