Lost Landmark: Robert E. Jefferson House

The 1856 Jefferson House, the first frame building, residence, hotel, and boarding house in Duluth, also the home of the first St. Louis County District Court and Duluth’s first newspaper and the birthplace of the first person of European descent to be born in Duluth Township. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

Duluth pioneer Robert Emmet Jefferson didn’t spend much time in Duluth, but the house he built at what would become 430 Lake Avenue South would serve Duluth’s pioneers well beyond the memory of Jefferson himself before becoming a boarding house that was no stranger to prostitution.

Jefferson had left his parent’s farm in Roseville, Minnesota, in 1855 to, in the words of Judge John Carey, “get in on the ground floor” of the metropolis he was sure would rise at the Head of the Lakes. He was just 21 years old. Carey describes Jefferson as a “squatter” on Minnesota Point, but he was more than that. He help plat Duluth Township and sat on the fledgling community’s first board of trustees along with William Ord, William Nettleton (founder of Duluth), Joshua B. Culver (Duluth’s first mayor),  and Orrin W. Rice, who also founded the township of Rice’s Point.

In 1856 on a plot of land about 500 feet north of the site of today’s ship canal, Jefferson built what Carey claims is the first frame house in Duluth. (George Stuntz and William Nettleton had both built on Minnesota Point by 1853, but their efforts were mere shanties.) It was the largest building in Duluth Township, but not too fancy; the building’s most interesting feature was its entrance, with porthole windows and castellations on the entrance tower.

While Jefferson intended the building to serve as a hotel and boarding house, it mostly served as his residence. (Duluthians often referred to it as the town’s first hotel, although that honor technically belongs to the Bay View House or possibly the Pioneer House, research pending). Jefferson married in 1859 and a year later his wife Elizabeth  (maiden name unknown) gave birth to a daughter, Harriet, inside the home he had built. Harriet was the first child of European descent born in Duluth township.

Like most of those at the Head of the Lakes, the Panic of 1857 hit the Jeffersons hard. When the Civil War began in 1861, Jefferson decided to enlist along with his brothers, but first he had to get back to Roseville. Without money to travel by schooner nor hire a coach along the Military Road, the Jeffersons, with their infant daughter, took a 372-mile trip over what Carey calls the “Le Due” route (also known as the “Indian route”) described here by Carey: “[The Jeffersons went] back by way of the Grand Portage of the Fond du Lac, up the St. Louis and East Savanna Rivers, down the West Savanna and Prairie Rivers into Sandy Lake, and down the Mississippi to St. Anthony.”

When they arrived, Jefferson’s brothers were already off to war as part of the storied First Minnesota Regiment. Jefferson went to Fort Snelling where he enlisted and was sent off to join his siblings, but almost immediately he was taken sick and died without seeing action. Back home in Minnesota, his wife died shortly thereafter; their daughter was raised by his parents near St. Paul.

(A common misconception holds that Duluth’s Jefferson Street was named for Robert, but that honor actually goes to his brother Ernest, who opened a harness shop in Duluth in 1869. Ernest Jefferson fought in the Civil War, enlisting at age 18. He lost a leg at Gettysburg. While in Duluth he also worked as a lighthouse keeper and served on the Duluth City Council and St. Louis County Board of Commissioners.)

Meanwhile in Duluth, E. H. Rice and his wife tried their hand at running the Jefferson House as a hotel, but with the war there were seldom visitors to Duluth Township, and they abandoned the building. With its owner dead, the Jefferson House stood empty until 1865 when Judge Carey, who had been living in Oneota, found it “unoccupied, unlocked, and unclaimed” and moved in, needing “no key, no burglar tools to enter it.” Here’s how Woodbridge and Pardee describe Carey’s relocation to the Jefferson house:

“In 1865 Judge Carey for some reason decided to move from Oneota to Duluth. Change of climate, perhaps. It was a very simple matter. He picked out the house he liked best and moved in. It happened to be the Jefferson house, but they were all at his disposal. Every house in Duluth but two had stood open and unoccupied for three years. Only the Luce warehouse in Portland sheltered the public offices. This was a fearfully lonely place in a forgotten corner of the world, and both Duluth and Superior seemed deserted and godforsaken.”

Carey soon after became one of St. Louis County’s first judges, and the Jefferson House hosted the first session of the St. Louis County District Court.

After moving to Duluth in 1866 to edit and to resurrect his defunct St. Paul newspaper, The Minnesotian, Dr. Thomas Preston Foster took possession of the Jefferson House in 1869 and set up his newspaper’s headquarters there; he also made an addition to the structure. Foster famously gave an 1868 Independence Day speech on Minnesota Point during which he made bold predictions about the fledgling city’s future and first called Duluth “The Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.” Although Foster himself left Duluth by 1873, the Jefferson House was thereafter known as “Foster House.”

Not much is known of the structure’s use after Foster left, but by all indications the building’s later life was not nearly as significant as the role it played in Duluth’s infancy. By 1890 the building had become a boarding house run by R. J. Bratten. Later Mrs. B. Anderson  and Edna Haasen ran the house, followed by Tom McCann. In 1909, historians Woodward and Pardee said of the house that “It has fallen into rather low estate in later years.” Indeed, in 1909 McCann and tow young women were arrested at the house; McCann was charged with “Keeping a disorderly house,” the newspaper’s euphemism for operating a brothel. The building was demolished some time around 1920. Its site was part of a scrap iron yard for some time; it is now part of a parking lot across Lake Avenue from Grandma’s Sports Garden and Bellisio’s Restaurant.

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