January 28: 1889: Fire destroys Duluth’s Grand Opera House

On this day in Duluth in 1889, the Grand Opera House was destroyed by fire. At 1:45 a.m. Thomas Lannigan was passing the landmark 1883 building—four stories of light-colored brick and sandstone with terra cotta trim and a roof executed in four shades of purple the Duluth Daily News called “Duluth’s “Pride and Joy”—when he saw smoke coming from Gasser’s Grocery on the main floor. He ran to the St. Louis Hotel, where night clerk Gus Bush pulled the fire alarm. The first fire crews arrived in just five minutes, but the building was completely destroyed. The paper blamed “a brisk northwesterly wind with the mercury at zero, the usual lack of water at the start, some bungling apparently about laying hose and some confusion when moments were precious.” The loss was estimated at $200,000, about $5 million today. Among the losses were a great many of Duluth’s literary treasures: the libraries of the Ladies Literary Society (predecessor of the Duluth Public Library) and the Kitchi Gammi Club—tenants of the building—were completely lost. Twelve people were sleeping in boarding rooms inside the massive facility, including “handsome” senator A. J. Whiteman, who was thought to be in St. Paul at the time. He managed to climb out a third-story window and down a ladder—the last person to escape. No one died during the fire, but the next day the building’s east wall collapsed, killing Elmer Chamberlain who was rescuing material from his bookstore in the building east the opera house. Read the history of Duluth’s Grand Opera House here.

Duluth’s Grand Opera House photographed in 1887. (Image: Duluth Public Library)