Remembering Bessie, Duluth’s Elephant

This month's memory from Jim Heffernan

Originally published March 2014
Before Bessie came along in 1937, the only elephants ever seen in Duluth belonged to circuses, like these tromping down Superior Street at Point of Rocks on their way from Union Depot to the fairgrounds at today’s Wheeler Field in 1908. (Image: Zenith City • Click to enlarge)

To begin with, there was an elephant. Just one. It had its own house at the Duluth Zoo, and an elephant is hard to ignore when it’s in a room. I saw it many times as a child and youth visiting the zoo starting in the 1940s.

Bessie was the elephant’s name—I was reminded when I read Nancy Nelson’s monograph of our zoo here on Zenith City. What I have to add are mainly personal impressions and recollections of the city’s approximately 90-year-old zoo, which has greatly evolved through the years of my consciousness and patronage of it.

For one thing, it is now called the Lake Superior Zoo. For another, it has no elephant. Hasn’t had one for a long time. I suppose there are records somewhere showing when this pachyderm arrived in such an unlikely place—northern North America—or where she came from.*

There are references to Bessie in newspaper articles from the late 1930s, and she was around for many, many years after that. I always felt a little sorry for this lone elephant when I stood in her presence. She was billed as “the dancing elephant” for reasons I can understand.
Most of the elephants I’d seen were in movies or circuses. When Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey set up its big top in the Wade Stadium parking lot in about 1950, they brought 35 elaborately costumed elephants in to lead their opening parade around the three rings. Then there were the elephants in Tarzan movies, always coming to the rescue at Tarzan’s beck and (very distinctive) call.

Bessie emerging from her house in 1962. (Image: Lake Superior Zoo • Click to enlarge)

And then there was Bessie, standing in her custom-built house (high ceilings) at the Duluth Zoo, shackled in her wing, rocking constantly back and forth as though she were nervous about something. She probably was: She had no companions of her species. She had to be lonesome, if I may apply a human emotion to a pachyderm.

Also, she seemed to grow long hair on her back, which surprised me. Other elephants didn’t have any hair. Bessie wasn’t covered with it by any means but there it was. I assumed, probably incorrectly, that she grew it in reaction to our cold climate, whereas African and Asian elephants in their native habitat didn’t need it. Bessie was Asian, by the way. You could tell by her ears.

But enough for now about the zoo’s only elephant, whose demise and disposition I will get into later.

First, some general impressions of the old zoo, and a little history. Unlike today (I visited the zoo again last fall with a few of my grandchildren), back when I visited the zoo as a youth, the main building stank to high heaven. I’m sure they did their best to clean up after the lions, tigers (but no bears there) and monkeys, but it was not welcoming. That has been eliminated today.

Unlike so many people, I have never cared for monkeys or primates in general. Maybe it’s because they remind me of me. It seemed to me that the lions were always sleeping when I viewed them. The tigers paced their cages, just as they always do when in a confined area. There are much better accommodations for them today.

Bears were kept in their impressive open-air dens with numerous caves where they could hide from people trying to view them, especially me. Nearby frantic wolves in room-size cages eyed a small herd of whitetail deer not far away, kept behind a tall fence in a wooded area. As a newspaper reporter much later, I can recall doing a story about an intrepid deer hunter, apparently frustrated in the woods, assaulting one of the zoo deer with a knife and spiriting the remains away. You want venison, you want venison.

Bessie entertains a crowd at the zoo in the 1950s .(Image: Lake Superior Zoo • Click to enlarge)

Oh, there are so many zoo stories (not to be confused with Edward Albee’s absurdist play, The Zoo Story, which has little to do with zoos). For many years, well into the 1960s, a black bear with a large white V on its chest was a popular attraction—perhaps to some the V signified America’s victory in World War II. A zoo director with whom I had become acquainted accidentally caused the V bear’s death, and lost his job because of it. That was one beloved bear. The director, who always wore snake-proof boots, not so much.

Let’s not forget the Richard Griggs menagerie of stuffed African beasts he had shot on his many safaris. Griggs, a Duluth tycoon and philanthropist (Griggs Field and Griggs Hall at UMD are named for him, as he donated much of the land on which the college is built), had many of his kills stuffed as trophies—and donated $25,000 to the zoo to build  a wing on the zoo’s main building to house them. There was some disgruntlement at the time by those who believed zoos were for displaying live animals and not dead ones, but money talks and the addition, now the Griggs education center with just a few of his stuffed animals, was built.

Finally, let’s get back to Bessie, the lonely elephant. She eventually died right there at the zoo circa the 1970s. Google says Asian elephants in captivity live an average of 80 years, and Bessie had to be pushing it.

A color postcard of Bessie made some time after 1945. (Image: Lake Superior Zoo • Click to enlarge)

What do you do with a dead elephant in Duluth—or anywhere for that matter? I don’t know about other places, but in Duluth she was loaded onto a large truck and laid to rest in the Rice Lake landfill with the wretched refuse of decades of the city’s garbage. An ignominious ending for a lonely elephant a long, long way from her nativity—who knows where or when.

Her disposal does give rise to wondering. What if, sometime in the next millennium or two, archeologists sifting through the northern tundra to determine what life was like way back in the 20th century came across the Rice Lake landfill? Discovering the remains of an elephant this far north might forever change theories about the distribution of animals on this planet.

That’d be Bessie.

*Editor’s Note: We found he following information about Bessie on the Lake Superior Zoo’s website: “Bessie, the elephant, was an all time favorite animal. She came to the zoo in 1937 when the elephant house opened. She was 12 years old at the time. The local community knew her well. Before perimeter fencing was installed around the zoo, Bessie would often wander off the zoo grounds and go ‘visiting.’ Bessie lived at the zoo until she passed away in 1974 at the age of 49.” Catch up with all of Jim’s recollections of growing up in Duluth here.

This month's memory from Jim Heffernan

14 Responses to Remembering Bessie, Duluth’s Elephant

  1. Jim, can u elaborate a bit more on the Himalayan Black Bear, I cannot remember much about it. How long was it at the zoo, what happened to it, etc. Thanks.

  2. Hi Heather, thanks for writing! And thanks also for the nice compliment on my writing. You might want to re-read my post here though to note that the more negative aspects I wrote about had to do with the very old zoo that was in existence way before you were born. The zoo of today is a great place and, as I mentioned, I enjoy going there and have accompanied my grandchildren at zoo visits often. We all love it and glad you do too.

  3. This is for Jim – You are a bit negative, the zoo wasn’t and isn’t nearly as bad as you described.
    But, all the same, I think you did a great job describing the good things! But what
    do I know, I’m a 6th grade girl and I only read this because I’m doing a project on this zoo. Great Writing!

  4. This is for Jim – You are a bit negative, the zoo wasn’t and isn’t nearly as bad as you described.
    But, all the same, I think you did a great job describing the good things! But what
    do I know, I’m a 6th grade girl and I only read this because I’m doing a project on this zoo.

  5. To the recent LSZoo employee: Glad to know that WPA building withstood the flood. Thanks for the update!

  6. Today the elephant house is/was the polar shores building. It is/was the holding area for the polar bears, seals, and otters. The exhibits themselves were compromised by the 2012 flood but the building is standing strong. The elephant house is only being used for some storage at this point but it being a WPA project, i can see it being on zoo grounds for years to come.

  7. Hey, all who responded to the Bessie column, thanks for writing. Not sure what’s in the elephant house now, or even if it’s still there. Took some of my grandchildren there last summer and forgot to look. I’ll look when I go back. Thanks again for writing and reading. — Jim

  8. I also understand that Bessie had a difficult temperment. She like squishing handlers up against the wall of her enclosure to the point where there were only one or perhaps two handlers who she would tolerate.

    Can’t say as I blame her.

  9. I had heard a different story about how Bessie’s body was disposed. I had been told by zoo officials many years later that they had excavated the hill behind the elephant house and put her body there.

    I suppose either way, it must have been a monumental task.

  10. It had to be 45 or more years ago when my brother-in-law from Racine and I (from Maine) took our daughters to the zoo. Perched outside in the parking lot was a mini-roller coaster which, of course, our about 6-year-old daughters immediately were drawn to. As they jumped up and down, screaming for us to take them on the ride, Jim and I looked at each other, then shrugged our shoulders in a “what-the-heck” gesture. It was a tiny roller coaster, after all. What could happen to these big, strong, late 20-somethings. You could fall out, that’s what could happen. Jim and I did our best to keep a stiff upper lip for our daughters, white-knuckeled hanging on for dear life, but it wasn’t working. The girls were having a great ride. I was never so glad to get off a ride in my life. Now, when we go to the zoo, of which we are sporadic but long-time members, I always check out the parking lot to make absolutely sure that torture machine is still gone.

  11. Bessie leaves a vivid memory of my early childhood visit to the zoo. I do not recall my age at the me of this incident but I am sure under 5. I had popcorn when visiting the zoo and put some down on a railing or something for Bessie to eat. Bessie did not come quickly enough to eat it so I grabbed a little handful and put it in my mouth to eat. My Scandinavian mother quickly came to me with her handkerchief to clean out my mouth. Way too many germs for my mother to handle.

  12. An excellent article that brought back memories of the old zoo. Our spring class trip in elementary was to go to the zoo.

  13. I was right back at the zoo as I read Jim’s recollections. This little kid always felt sorry for the captives and continually hatched ideas on how to free them. Bessie’s size and gentleness always lured me to the elephant house where she would reach her nose between the bars and plead for me to save her.

    And yes, those smells in the big house…. I learned early on to close off my nose and breathe through my mouth, spending as much time as possible watching the monkeys. The desire for my own prehensile tail came from all those childhood hours watching the monkeys swing by theirs!

    Let’s not forget the carrousel, the little train and the pony rides, all things wonderful to a girl with a great imagination.

    Thanks for the memories.

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