Jim Heffernan’s mother Ruth at the keyboard of the organ at Bethany Lutheran Church. (Image: Jim Heffernan)

It’s likely clear to regular readers of Zenith City that I am the designated West End contributor. The neighborhood is now called Lincoln Park, but not when I lived there, or my parents, or my grandparents or practically everybody I was related to going back well over 100 years.

Still, if I am going to be the resident “expert” on things West End, it seems to me that I should establish my credentials in case any stray reader might wonder what my qualifications are.

So this month, I offer a little of my family history as it relates to that part of the Zenith City encompassing both sides of Piedmont Avenue on the east and the ore docks on the west, lying between the waterfront and Skyline Drive.

Both of my parents were born in the West End in the 1890s, very likely only a few blocks apart although they didn’t meet until they were adults.

According to family lore, my mother, Ruth Carlson, was born in 1899 in a home on Fourth Street between 20th and 21st avenues West. Her parents, Charles and Anna Carlson, were born in Sweden and emigrated to Duluth’s West End where they met and married earlier in that decade.

Ruth was their first-born; five more daughters would follow. For a few years when she was very young, Ruth’s parents moved to a farm in Ellsworth, Wisconsin, but moved back to Duluth’s West End—a small frame house on Piedmont Avenue between Third and Fourth streets—because her mother didn’t want her children to be farm-reared.

My grandparents, Charles and Anna, lived out their short lives on the West End’s “Goat Hill,” the rocky hillside just above Piedmont Avenue, bisected by west Third Street. It was called that because mountain goats would be comfortable there.

It was there that my maternal grandmother died at age 38 in 1917, and my grandfather a couple of years later in his mid-40s, leaving Ruth and her five sisters—three of them very young—to fend for themselves. Yet they managed to get by, the oldest sisters parenting the youngest, with a lot of help from the congregation of Bethany (Swedish) Lutheran Church, remaining today at 2302 West Third Street.

By then Ruth, still in her teens, was the church’s organist, having replaced a man killed in France serving in the U.S. Army in World War I.

These were hard times for most people—the war, the worldwide Spanish flu epidemic that hit Duluth hard, and the 1918 fire that killed hundreds in the area surrounding Duluth, extending to Cloquet and Moose Lake.

Her mother recently dead, Ruth later recalled an overnight vigil watching out the window of their small home on lower Piedmont Avenue with her father, her younger sisters having gone to sleep, ready to be evacuated to the waterfront should the need arise. The fire never made it that far down the hill, but devastated what is now Piedmont Heights, and, of course, a widespread area of Northeastern Minnesota.

That is the thinnest of thumbnail sketches of half of my West End roots. The other half, my father George Heffernan’s side, resided mostly farther west in what was then known as Slabtown where lumber harvested in the first great cutting of the northern Minnesota boreal forests was milled. The main U.S. Post Office and Western Lake Superior Sanitary District today are roughly where Slabtown was.

George was born on the south end of Goat Hill in 1894 and attended the former Adams School, 1721 West Superior Street, in the early grades before the family moved to Slabtown and later Chestnut Street in the shadow of the ore docks.

He was the fourth-born of James H. and Christine Heffernan’s five children. My Irish paternal grandfather had come to Duluth in the 1880s from Walkerton, Ontario, where he was born in 1855. He met and married Christine Hansen, a native of Germany, in Duluth. James H. was a bricklayer with a green thumb who, family lore has it, kept a huge vegetable garden on property just east of the ore docks off Carlton Street. Bricklayers needed canned vegetables to get them through the winter when construction work was scarce.

George Heffernan at work at the Duluth News-Tribune/Duluth Herald in the 1950s. (Image: Jim Heffernan)

In that neighborhood, my father attended the long-since razed Bryant School, 3102 West Third Street, through eighth grade, at which time he got on with his life, eventually becoming a journeyman photo engraver. Drafted into the Army in 1917, he was stationed in San Francisco in October 1918 when newspapers there reported that fire had destroyed all of Duluth. Until he could contact his family—three brothers and a sister—in those days of difficult communication, he feared that they all had been lost. All were safe, as was much, but not all, of Duluth.

George ended his work years at the Duluth newspapers in 1964, a few months after I started my career there as a journalist. In the final months of his work years, he made the engravings that produced the Duluth Herald newspaper photographs of the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963.

For most of their married life my parents lived on 23rd Avenue West between Fifth and Sixth streets in the home I was born into in 1939, six years after my brother, Rodney.  George died in 1971, and Ruth remained in the home until shortly before her death in 1983. She had retired as organist at Bethany Lutheran in 1976 after nearly 58 years.

Those are my—very truncated—West End credentials. So many thousands of Duluthians also have deep roots in the Zenith City’s various neighborhoods, some deeper than mine. This is just one brief, surface account of a few lives lived here in another time in a neighborhood that is still largely there, but vastly changed—even its name.

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6 Responses to West End confidential: Goat Hill to Slabtown

  1. Denny Erickson says:

    Jim, a great read. My sister Bev has responded. I just wanted to add how daring it was to slide down Elephant Rock and not hurt yourself.

  2. Lindy Fasteland Bone says:

    My family moved from Duluth to the Midwest. I had a memory of seeing a goat up there as a little child. Whenever we passed that rocky hillside during our yearly visit to Duluth, I’d thoroughly scan it expecting to see another. However, it never materialized and I finally decided I surely must have gotten that memory mixed up with something else. Silly girl, what would goats be doing up there anyway? However, I never forgot it.

    Now I know, I DID see that goat!!

  3. Jim Heffernan says:

    Thanks for the responses. The best part of writing these columns is hearing from folks who have similar memories. I’ve already responded to Bev via e-mail, recalling that I remember her aunt well. To Pat: In those “ancient” days of publishing newspapers, all photographs were transferred to zinc, later magnesium, plates for printing. That is what photo engravers did. After use, plates were broken up and recycled. So no plates exist. Some zinc plates, portraits of prominent people, were saved in the “morgue” and re-used when these people were repeatedly in the news. Finally, to Judy: If you are who I think you are, I remember you well when I worked at Lion Drug with your mother, Inga. If that is not you, never mind. Thanks again, all, for writing. — Jim

  4. Bev Houle says:

    My aunt Astrid Johnson was a pillar of Bethany and a Sunday school teacher. I remember your Mom playing the great organ when I went to Sunday school. I was raised on Exeter with brothers Dick and Denney. Great memories, thanks for sharing.

  5. Enjoyed the story of your family history, Jim, and the pictures of your parents are grand. What did the paper do with all the engravings? Do you have any of your dad’s? Regards, Pat

  6. Judith McDonald Oldenburg says:

    Brought back so many memories, Jim. We lived around 21st and 2nd Street so I started at Adams school also. Later moved to Vernon Street so I spent most of my elementary years at Bryant. (We had to walk to Lincoln one year while they remodeled). Wish I could remember the name of the street where my grandparents lived but it was up on one of those scary steep streets above Piedmont…Vox Ave? something like that?
    Enjoyed your piece very much!

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