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.
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.