Lost Landmark: the 1888 Duluth Bethel

Most Duluthians are aware of the Duluth Bethel Building, the V-shaped structure just above Superior Street east of Mesaba Avenue. Since it was first built in 1910 that building has acted as the home to Duluth’s Bethel Society, which serves those recovering from addiction problems. Few Duluthians living today, however, know that the Bethel operated out of a tent near the base of Minnesota Point before becoming one of the Zenith City’s most important charitable organizations, all thanks to the tireless efforts of Dr. C. C. Salter.

The 1870 Pilgrim Congregation Church, which stood at Second Street and First Avenue East. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Reverend Doctor Charles Cotton Salter of New Haven, Connecticut (Yale, class of 1852), first came to Duluth by way of Minneapolis in 1871. He became the pastor of Minneapolis’s Plymouth Congregational Church in 1862 after serving time as a chaplain with the Union Army. In late 1870 Salter was recruited to Duluth by the founders of Duluth’s Pilgrim Congregational Church, led by Major Luman H. Tenney and his wife, who had organized the church that year. Salter came to Duluth in January, 1871, and later that year the parishioners of Pilgrim Congregational built a modest wooden house of worship at 2 East Second Street.

Salter served as minister until 1876, when poor health sent him abroad for a cure (he had been plagued by health issues since his time in the Civil War). After a stint with a congregational church in Denver, Salter returned to Duluth and Pilgrim Congregational on May 1, 1881, and was “greeted with a perfect ovation.” He was not here long, resigning on November 28, 1881, “under the imperative orders of his physician,” who sent him to Florida for his health. When he recovered and returned to Duluth, his work eventually turned to running the Duluth Bethel Society.

Duluth Bethel, originally a religious and social service organization for men without permanent homes, was organized and incorporated in 1873 by Duluth pioneers Luther Mendenhalll, Luke Marvin, Roger Munger, J. C. Hunter, and others, many of whom were also members of Pilgrim Congregational. The Bethel’s main purpose was to keep transients—for the most part miners, lumberjacks, and sailors—out of saloons, gambling houses, and brothels, plenty of which could be found at the time along Lake Avenue South near the base of Minnesota Point, the heart of today’s Canal Park Business District. In the 1870s a portion of the area was known as “No Man’s Land.”

By the mid 1880s it had become known as Finn Town for its large population of Finnish immigrants, and at that time the Duluth Bethel was hardly considered a success; it had no facilities to house or feed the men it was trying to help. Much of the organization’s early efforts involved little more than a Protestant minister preaching from atop an empty box at the corner of First Avenue East and Superior Street.

Reverend Charles Cotton Salter. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

When Salter was named the Bethel’s chaplain in 1887, he changed things. Bethel is Hebrew for “House of God,” and that’s what Salter intended to build: a house to shelter those in need and offer its inhabitants a steady diet of food and religion. Every man would be welcome at Salter’s building, for it was his strong belief that “no soul is too low to be received or ministered unto at the Bethel.” But before that house could serve anyone, he needed to finance its construction .

Salter’s fundraising drive to began almost as soon as he was appointed chaplain. To increase the visibility of the organization’s work, he rented a small store on Lake Avenue South adjacent to Sutphin’s Dock, where for a few months he conducted gospel meetings and a Sunday School. He later moved services into a tent. During this period he lobbied individuals and organizations for donations. Three of Duluth’s banks offered $500 each, over $12,000 today. He even convinced Duluth’s premier architect, Oliver Traphagen, to design the new building.

Traphagen had worked for Salter before, building a townhouse called Salter Terrace at 301 – 307 East Third Street in Duluth’s upscale Ashtabula Heights neighborhood. When first built, the townhouses were all occupied by Salter family members—he and his wife Maria had five children, all adults at the time. He and Maria would later move to the Glen Avon portion of Hunter’s Park, another neighborhood first settled by the wealthy. All this would indicate that Mr. Salter himself was well off, and he likely contributed financially to the building’s fund drive as well. But his greatest gift to the organization was himself: he refused to take a salary for his work with the Bethel.

The 1888 Duluth Bethel, designed by Oliver Traphagen, at the northwest corner of Lake Avenue and Sutphin Street, demolished in 1948.

Salter apparently considered the area near Sutphin’s dock an ideal location, so he purchased a lot on the northwest corner of Lake Avenue and Sutphin Street, named for the dock’s owner—and the 1886 mayor of the Village of Duluth—J. B. Sutphin. The building Traphagen designed for 246 Lake Avenue South, a simple two-story clapboard structure with a corner tower, was completed in 1888. It held reading rooms, a chapel, a cooking school, and a restaurant as well as furnished rooms for sailors, lumberjacks, and miners. Salter held a religious service each evening.

By 1893 the Lake Avenue Bethel was running out of room, so workers raised the building and added a third floor beneath the original structure; six years later a fourth floor was added to the top to again increase space for the growing demand of lodgers.

Many of the Bethel’s “clients” were coming from Duluth’s growing Bowery, at the time a collection of more than twenty-five saloons and a number of residential hotels that were home to the same kind of itinerant workers found along the industrialized portion of South Lake Avenue. So in 1894, to better serve the men of the Bowery, the Bethel opened a branch in a rented building along the 500 block of West Superior Street.

Salter’s health issues finally caught up with him on December 19, 1897. When he passed away, his funeral was reported to be the largest Duluth had ever seen. Apparently so: Despite his long ties to Pilgrim Congregational, services were held at First Methodist Church, considered the largest building in Duluth at the time. Once the church was filled, the line of mourners who did not get in stretched for two blocks. In a highly symbolic gesture, saloon keepers throughout the city closed their businesses during the funeral.

The Bethel, of course, continued without the man who first made it a success. By 1910 the Lake Avenue Bethel again needed more space—and a great deal of repairs. Instead, the organization raised funds for a larger building at 23 Mesaba Avenue: that V-Shaped building mentioned earlier. The Lake Avenue Bethel’s last service was held on April 29, 1911. The building became the People’s Hotel and Tavern until it closed and was demolished in 1948. Today the KDLH and KBJR television studios occupy the Bethel’s original site.

The 1911 Bethel Association Building, 23 Mesaba Avenue, designed by Vernon Price. (Image: Dennis O’Hara/Northern Images)

8 Responses to Lost Landmark: the 1888 Duluth Bethel

  1. Glenn, I do not have that address. But the Duluth Public Library has city directories that you can look up names, addresses whether you just know the name or you just know the address. Second floor, North Shore room.

  2. Do you happen to know the Salter address when he moved into the Glen Avon district?
    Thanks for bringing us all this great Duluth history.

  3. The image used for the church at 1AveE 2nd, is either the wrong description or else it is a reversed image. The congregational church was one the NE corner of the intersection (approx 101 E 2nd)

  4. Mary, thanks for reminding us of the Bethel Rescue Home which we should have included in the story of the Bethel. The Bethel Rescue Home was founded in 1902 for unmarried girls and women and their babies as a home where the mothers could learn to do general housework, to care for their babies, to have instruction in typing, shorthand, piano, art and reading. After a few years girls who were considered delinquent were also sheltered here. The original building was at 432 6th Ave East, but by 1917 the home, then called the Bethel Home for Women, was at 1230 E 9th Street. Your great aunt must have lived at the first home on 6th Avenue. A 1929 article on the Bethel Home tells of former residents who “date life’s real beginning to the helpful influence exerted over them” while they lived at the Bethel Home.

  5. I don’t know anything about the Rescue House, but i will suggest it to Maryanne Norton for her “Ask the Historian” column. Thanks, Mary!

  6. Very interesting article. Do you have any information about a Bethel Rescue House. The only mention I have found is in the History of Duluth published in 1910 where it’s described as a home for unfortunate and fallen girls. I think it was located near 6th Ave and 5th St. My great-aunt was one of the “girls” and I’m trying to get a better picture of her life.

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