Tempered by Temperance

A History of Liquor Laws in the Zenith City

Clinton Markell. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)
Clinton Markell. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

On July 24, 1870, “Professor” F. E. McBain, owner of the Zenith Bowling Saloon on Superior Streetwrote a letter to the Duluth Minnesotian complaining about a new Duluth law that forbade holders of liquor licenses from selling liquor on Sundays: “After granting said license for one year, they then pass an ordinance forbidding us to sell any liquor on 52 days of said year.” Duluth was just 16 months old, and McBain had launched the first volley in the city’s continuous battle to control when and where liquor could be sold.

McBain must have had support, for Duluth’s liquor dealers were selling on Sunday again by April 1872 when outgoing Duluth Mayor Clinton Markell ordered them stopped, as this item in April 6, 1872, Minnesotian explains:

“On Sunday last quite a number of individuals appeared on our streets in a state of intoxication, with indecent exposure in one instance. Upon this, Mayor Markell immediately determined that liquor selling on Sunday must be stopped, and his proclamation or order in reference thereto in our advertising columns will be strictly enforced tomorrow.”

Four years later liquor dealers petitioned the city council for “the privilege of selling liquor on Sunday.” The city attorney must not have been paying attention to state law: Minnesota first outlawed Sunday liquor sales in 1858. From Markell to our current body of city councilors, the Zenith City has created and rescinded dozens of regulations governing the sale and consumption of alcohol—and its citizens questioned, pushed for, or fought against them every step of the way. During Duluth’s first 50 years, efforts to control alcohol sales and consumption were heavily influenced by the temperance movement.

The Temperance Movement in Duluth

While young Duluth was struggling with the idea of Sunday liquor sales, the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU), formed in Ohio in 1873 with the goal of creating a “sober and pure world,” began to influence the city as well. The movement was spurred by several causes, including joblessness, vagrancy, spousal and child abuse, and family neglect by problem drinkers, but also in part by national anti-immigrant sentiment. According to historian Eric Foner, many Americans “blame[d] immigrants for urban crime, political corruption, and a fondness for intoxicating liquor.” In particular, Irish and European Catholics were considered particularly intemperate, and German brewers added to the problem—and Irish and Germans Catholics made up the vast majority of the 4 million immigrants that had come to the U.S. between 1840 and 1860.

A pro-Temperance poster from the 1870s. (Image: Public Domain)
A pro-Temperance poster from the 1870s. (Image: Public Domain)

An entry from Net Industries’ online law library explains, “The Temperance movement was marked by an undercurrent of ethnic and religious hostility. Some of the first advocates were people of Anglo-Saxon heritage who associated alcohol with the growing number of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and the European continent. Supposedly, the Catholics were loud and boisterous as a result of too much drinking.”

It was a reflection of the U.S. social hierarchy of the 19th century, where wealthy Protestants—primarily Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians—of British or German descent stood at the top and Catholics, particularly Irish and Southern Italians, near the bottom. [Read a more detailed explanation of immigrant sentiment in the 19th century here.]

Reverend Edmund F. Ely. (Image: Duluth Public Library)
Reverend Edmund F. Ely. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

According to Duluth historian Heidi Bakk-Hansen, “From its earliest inception the WCTU enjoyed a following amongst the wives of Duluth’s richest men.” [Read Bakk-Hansen’s history of Temperance and Prohibition in Duluth here.] In 1881 the Duluth citizens incorporated the Duluth Temperance Society, which was “devoted to opposition to the liquor traffic,” and had $20,000 in capital stock, worth about $485,000 today. The money financed lectures and other public awareness efforts within the city’s immigrant neighborhoods. From 1870 to 1919, when Prohibition became law, Duluth newspapers printed over 6,000 articles and announcements regarding the Temperance movement.

Temperance was not new to Duluth when its temperance Society formed. Liquor could not be sold in Oneota Township—now part of West Duluth—until long after it became part of the city of Duluth, but not because there was a law prohibiting it. Oneota was founded in 1856 by the Wheeler, Ely, and Merritt families, all staunch Methodists; Edmund Ely and fellow Oneota pioneer James Peete were Methodist ministers, and young Lucian Merritt would become one. In his memoirs of those early years, Duluth pioneer Robert Carey explained that the Oneota families would not allow liquor to be stocked in the local trading post, which they owned. “The Oneota Townsite Company would not handle liquor at their store. Elys, Merritts, Wheelers, and others did not use it, only for medical purposes.”

William Sargent. (Image: Duluth Public Library)
William Sargent. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

The influence of the Temperance movement in Duluth is perhaps best reflected in the community of Lakeside, including Lester Park, which developed out of the former township of New London in the mid-1880s. The community was founded by William Sargent, whose father, Duluth pioneer (and Jay Cooke’s agent in Duluth) George Sargent founded and financed the construction of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Duluth’s first church. William Sargent had inherited his father’s property, which included all of New London, after his father’s death in 1875. When he and other wealthy Protestants of Methodist, Episcopalian and Presbyterian faiths established the Village of Lakeside in 1889, they forbade the sale or manufacture of liquor within its borders.

In 1891 state legislation turned the Village of Lakeside into the City of Lakeside. [Read the entire state law incorporating Lakeside as a city here: 1891_Lakeside_Annexation.] That same legislation anticipated Lakeside’s 1893 annexation by Duluth and contained a provision that reflected its Protestant values:

“The common council of the city of Duluth is hereby prohibited from ever granting any license to sell or dispose of any wines, spirituous or malt liquors within the limits of the territory hereby constituted as the city of Lakeside, after the same shall have been annexed to the said city of Duluth in accordance with the provisions of this act.”

Despite their obvious belief in temperance, there is no evidence that the pioneer citizens of Lakeside were any more anti-immigrant or anti-Catholic than Duluth’s other wealthy Protestants. In fact, other than the 1891 legislation, there are no surviving documents that address the community’s liquor ban. And while its initial citizens may or may not have included Catholics (or Lutherans, for that matter), we will never know for certain: the 1890 U.S. Census, which would have cataloged Lakeside Township’s population by ethnicity and religion, was destroyed by fire in 1921.

While we have no census data, the religious background of Lakeside and Lester Park’s pioneers is reflected in the development of the community’s churches. Lakeside Presbyterian and Lester Park United Methodist churches were established in 1890; St. John’s Episcopal in 1894. Not enough Catholics lived in Lakeside to establish a congregation until 1914, when St. Michael’s Catholic Church was established. Early Lakeside was also low on Lutherans; Lakeside Lutheran Church formed in 1915.

From Mayor Markell’s 1872 declaration about Sunday liquor sales through the formation of St. Michael’s, Duluth faced the same alcohol issues as the rest of the nation—primarily Sunday alcohol sales, the prohibition of women in saloons, control of dancing and other entertainment within drinking establishments, and shutting down unlicensed drinking establishments or “blind pigs.” And like other cities, Duluth had its pockets of vice. The two most notorious were the St. Croix District and the Bowery.

Duluth's "Tenderloin" or "Red Light District," highlighted in red on this detail form the 1909 Sanborn fire insurance maps of Duluth. The map's legend shows that the letters "FB" on a structure stood for "Female Boarding House," a euphemism for bordello. (Image: Zenith City)
Duluth’s “Tenderloin” or “Red Light District,” highlighted in red on this detail form the 1909 Sanborn fire insurance maps of Duluth. The map’s legend shows that the letters “FB” on a structure stood for “Female Boarding House,” a euphemism for bordello. (Click to enlarge | Image: Zenith City)

The St. Croix District was also known as the Tenderloin, the nickname given the San Francisco neighborhood that was once home to the city’s prostitutes. It was essentially made up of boarding houses along the 200 block of St. Croix Avenue (today’s Canal Park Drive) and its alley, essentially between Sutphin and Railroad Streets in what is today the Canal Park Business District. Saloons and cheap residential hotels—often temporary homes of sailors—surrounded the brothels. Duluth’s Bethel, a Protestant-run facility established in 1873 that ministered to the homeless and those suffering the ravages of drink, built its first permanent facility adjacent to the tenderloin in 1888.

In 1914 the city, lead by Public Safety Commissioner John Hicken and Police Chief Chauncy Troyer, tried to move prostitution out of the area and clean up the area’s image. Previous efforts had been made, including in 1908 when the city council vowed to rid the district of its “scarlet women.” One strategy was to rename St. Croix Avenue South First Avenue East. Despite that effort, and others during Prohibition and again in the late 1930s, prostitutes operated in the area as recently as the 1970s.

A map of Duluth's Bowery outlining the buildings that would be demolished as part of the Gateway Renewal Program. (Duluth Public Library)
A map of Duluth’s Bowery outlining the buildings that would be demolished as part of the Gateway Renewal Program. (Click to enlarge | Duluth Public Library)

Duluth’s Bowery, like others throughout the U.S., was named for Manhattan’s most-blighted neighborhood—then a den of vice populated primarily by alcoholics, criminals, and prostitutes. It developed between Fourth Avenue West and Mesaba Avenue along Michigan and Superior Streets in the 1890s, where cheap hotels and no less than 25 saloons sat among Duluth’s fanciest hostelries and the elegant Lyceum Theatre, a conflicting message to those arriving in Duluth by train: the Bowery greeted poor immigrants and wealthy industrialists alike as they emerged from Duluth’s Union Depot and, later, the Soo Line Passenger Depot. By 1894 the Bowery had so many down-and-out residents the Bethel opened a second facility in a rented building along the 500 block of West Superior Street. It would take over 60 years and the literal demolition of the entire Bowery to eliminate Duluth’s largest pocket of vice.

Duluth Rip-Saw editor John Morrison, a "rabid teetoteller," was a strong if not-always rational voice for Prohibition in Duluth. (Image: Duluth Public Library)
Duluth Rip-Saw editor John Morrison, a “rabid teetoteller,” was a strong if not-always rational voice for Prohibition in Duluth. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Prohibition in Duluth

By 1910 the Temperance movement had developed into a push for national prohibition of alcohol manufacture and sales. While representing Duluth in the state legislator, Chester Congdon—like his wife, the child of a Methodist Minister—voted to keep Minnesota “wet.” In 1914 Minnesota avoided the repeated question of state-wide prohibition by passing a “local option” law, which according to Bakk-Hansen, “left townships, villages and cities the power to vote themselves wet or dry.”

In 1916, Duluthians—led by voters in districts representing Protestant strongholds Hunter’s Park, the East End, and Lakeside—elected to go dry. The law took effect July 1, 1917. Three months earlier rabid-Prohibitionist John L. Morrison launched his notorious Rip-saw newspaper, which would attack intemperance at every opportunity. In September, the Duluth chapter of the WCTU celebrated its victory over booze with a banquet at Duluth’s First Presbyterian Church. Nationwide Prohibition—also known as the Volstead Act for its author, Minnesota 7th District Congressman Andrew Volstead—passed in 1919 and became law on January 16, 1920.

Duluth Police Chief John Murphy. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Prohibition is often credited for creating organized crime in America, and it also created many criminals in Duluth. Bakk-Hansen reports that, “[b]y Christmastime of 1919, burglaries on the East End were reportedly at epidemic levels, with thieves…making off with…the liquor hoards everyone knew was there.” In July 1920 Duluth Police Chief John Murphy and ten others were indicted in a whiskey-smuggling conspiracy. That year over 300 stills were discovered operating within city limits, and in December the “biggest still yet uncovered” was found at 4331 London Road in Lakeside. It held 300 gallons of mash; 27 gallons of moonshine were also discovered on the premises. The owner claimed it was for “personal use.” “Newspapers,” Bakk-Hansen goes on, “frequently reported the busts of ‘housewives’ who operated blind pigs in the kitchens of neighborhoods from Woodland to Gary.”

And that was just Prohibition’s first full year as law. For the next dozen years the local newspapers were filled with endless accounts of smuggling, moonshine operations, and deaths caused by grain alcohol poisoning. [For a more complete history of how Duluth navigated Prohibition, read Heidi Bakk-Hansen’s history of Prohibition in Duluth here.]

In 1933 the 21st amendment repealed Prohibition. Low-alcohol beer and wine went on sale April 7, 1933; the complete repeal took affect December 5, 1933. But Duluth was still technically dry under its own 1917 liquor ordinance. After two months of wrangling, the city council passed new regulations on February 3, 1934. They went into effect immediately.

Next: Post-Prohibition Duluth

A History of Liquor Laws in the Zenith City

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