Charles Edwin Carlson

Duluthian Charles Carlson (August 16, 1874-July 11, 1954) was profiled in the March 28, 1940, edition of “Dale Carnegie Says:,” the syndicated daily newspaper column by the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People. The embodiment of the American Dream, Carlson was a poor immigrant with a grade-school education who became president of a prosperous railroad. Carnegie wrote, “(He) did something almost any young man can do. He learned to be a stenographer, took advantage of the opportunity to find out all he could about the business, and advanced himself.”

Charles Carlson was born in Orebro, Sweden, on August 16, 1874, and moved to Duluth with his parents in 1880. On April 9, 1883, he was the first newsboy to deliver copies of the Duluth Herald on its initial day of publication.  After learning shorthand, he was hired as a stenographer by the St. Paul & Duluth railroad in 1897 and took a similar position for the Duluth, Missabe & Northern railroad in 1900. In 44 years of service, he advanced through the ranks, holding successive positions as chief clerk (1903), traveling auditor and secretary to the first vice president (1906), secretary to the president (1909), secretary of the firm (1912), and first vice president (1920). The DM&N became a part of the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range railroad in 1928. He was elected president of the DM&IR in 1930 upon the death of William A. McGonagle, and held the post until his retirement in 1944.

According to the Duluth News Tribune, “Promotion of safety, particularly on public highways and in industrial plants, (was) Carlson’s chief interest in civic life. He devoted many years to the work, both as a member and as the director of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce safety bureau and as a member of the Minnesota Safety council.” He was awarded the Arthur Williams Memorial medal for “outstanding contribution to the saving of life in the railway industry” in a ceremony in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York in 1944.

The News Tribune went on to say, “In other civic work, he was a director of the YMCA and was active in the Community Chest and the American Red Cross, for which he directed World War II fund drives.

“He was an honorary life member, director and member of the executive committee of the Minnesota Arrowhead association, a trustee of Pilgrim Congregational church and held memberships in the Kitchi Gammi club, Northland Country club, Palestine Masonic lodge, Royal Arch Masons Knights Templar, Aad temple of the Shrine and the Loyal Order of Moose.”

Carlson and his wife Niva had one daughter, Ora, born in 1902. He resided at 829 Woodland Ave. prior to living at 2001 Waverly Ave., where he died on July 11, 1954. He is interred at Forest Hill Cemetery.

Missabe Athletic Park, a baseball stadium in Proctor with a covered wooden grandstand with a seating capacity of over 1,000, was renamed Charles E. Carlson Memorial Park by the DM&IR Employees Association in 1955. The park was renovated for football and rechristened Terry Egerdahl Memorial Field in 1981.
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He “Grew Up” with the DM&IR

by John A. Magill, staff writer, Duluth News Tribune, May 28, 1944

From newspaper boy, to broker’s messenger, to stenographer, to railroad president–that briefly summarizes the business and railroad career of Charles Edwin Carlson, 69-year-old president of the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range railroad, who announced last week he will retire from the position June 1.

The announcement was headline news to railroad executives throughout the United States, to whom the name “Charlie Carlson of Duluth” is a familiar one. As president of the world’s largest ore hauling railroad, he occupies a unique place in their councils. He has been president of the DM&IR for 14 years, and an employee or officer for 44 years in all.

It was big news, likewise, for scores of old-timers of the DM&IR system throughout the Mesaba and Vermilion iron ranges. To them the “Old Man” was the last link in the executive office between today’s rapid, efficient, smooth-running railroad operation, and yesterday’s pioneer tribulations in ore transportation–when you were just as likely to lose a car in a swamp or on a sharp curve or fall over in a ditch when a rail tore loose, or sail down grade with your shirt tails flying while you madly worked the hand brakes, as you were to get home safe to supper.

For Charlie Carlson virtually “grew up” with the DM&IR. He was 25 years old when he first went to work for the road, Feb. 1, 1900, as stenographer and general clerk, and the road was even younger. The D&IR branch of today’s system had carried its first trainload of iron ore to Two Harbors only 16 years before. The DM&N branch had hauled its first trainload to the Duluth-Superior bayfront only eight years before.

It was under Mr. Carlson’s tenure as vice president from 1920 to 1930, and president from 1930 until now that the two railroad lines, originally built to serve the Mesaba and Vermilion iron ranges, came to operate as one system.

Brought together in 1928 under the name Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range railroad, were the former Duluth & Iron Range, linking the Vermilion territory with the Two Harbors ore docks, and the former Duluth, Missabe & Northern, joining the Mesaba range with the Duluth waterfront. Executive offices are situated in the Wolvin building in Duluth. Principal shop centers are in Proctor and Two Harbors.

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The story of Charlie Carlson’s career is another typically American success story of a young man starting out with no money or educational advantages and winding up at the top in his field. It is the story of a Swedish immigrant winning for himself the confidence and respect of his superiors to the point where they put in his hands the trust and responsibility of a vast and valuable enterprise–an enterprise which today is one of the big cogs in the machinery of America’s victory drive in World War II.

Mr. Carlson came to Duluth 64 years ago as a 5-year-old lad, a little on the short side when it came to height–which he admits he hasn’t made up yet–but willing to learn and “take all the stuff the American kids dished out. They taught me plenty.”

He came across the ocean with his mother and father, the latter a carpenter, when the old folks decided to leave their home near Orebro, Sweden, where young Charles was born Aug. 16, 1874. They resided here at Seventh avenue east and First street, and young Charlie learned the language readily, and the customs, and the games, and the devilment which kids of those days got into.

He received a grade school education, but, when it came to entering high school, selling newspapers for the Duluth Herald entered in competition with studies. The newspaper job won out. The exigencies of family income along about the time demanded less attention to Latin, algebra and geometry, and a whale of a lot more to selling newspapers on the horsecars and plying a newspaper route over the hillside, plus running errands for a book store and a stock broker’s office.

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Then came a change in his thinking as he noticed young men working in offices, particularly those young men who could take shorthand dictation from the boss. He didn’t have enough money to take a business college course. But after inquiring around he heard of a woman who knew shorthand and might be willing to teach him. She agreed. He mastered the subject. Then came his first full-time job.

That first job was as stenographer in a real estate office. But the railroad business attracted him, and through the intercession of a newspaper reporter friend he got a job as stenographer and clerk in the office of the late Col. C. M. Vance, general agent in Duluth for the old St. Paul & Duluth Railway Co. The reporter was James (Jimmy) Goss, widely known in the Duluth newspaper field of that time.

Then, in 1900, Mr. Carlson transferred to the employ of the DM&N as stenographer and general clerk. Successively he became chief clerk in 1903, traveling auditor and secretary to the first vice president in 1909, secretary of the firm in 1912, first vice president in 1920 and president in 1930.

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, wrote in one of his daily newspaper columns recently about Mr. Carlson:

“Finally he became manager. And he was the one who was dictating the letters. Then he was elected president of the road–the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range. It hauls the rich iron ore from the mines north and west of Duluth, and is one of the most prosperous railroads in the country.

“Charles E. Carlson did something almost any young man can do,” Carnegie continued. “He learned to be a stenographer, took advantage of the opportunity to find out all he could about the business, and advanced himself. Don’t look at letter dictation as dull routine, but find a way to learn about the business. That simple idea made one stenographer the president of a railroad.”

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Unique among its kind in American railroad enterprise, the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range makes colorful reading in the histories already written about it. More will be written in time. Just as the ore bodies were rich in wealth to contribute to American economy, so will their stories be about them and their railroads in contribution to American literature.

Concerning the origin of the Duluth & Iron Range railroad, former Governor Theodore Christianson’s “History of Minnesota,” published in 1935, relates that Charlemagne Tower late in 1882 caused the Minnesota Iron Co. to be incorporated. It goes on:

“He acquired control of a mythical railroad, the Duluth & Iron Range, which Stone (George C. Stone) had organized in 1874, apparently for the purpose of securing from the state a generous grant of swamp land–which might or might not contain iron.

“A boom town, appropriately named Tower, sprang up on the shores of Lake Vermilion. Strong-backed men came in to saw lumber, build shacks, blast rock, accumulate a stock pile, and to convert the Duluth & Iron Range from a pencil line drawn across a map into an ore-carrying railroad.

“The route was changed and the road made to run from Soudan, the site of mining operations, to Agate bay on Lake Superior. Thus it was from Two Harbors, and not Duluth, that a lake steamer carried the first shipments of Minnesota ore in August, 1884. By the close of navigation that year, 62,124 tons of ore had moved down the lakes. In 1892, the year the Mesaba range came into production, the shipments of Vermilion ore aggregated 1,100,000 tons.

“The mining activity which was centered at Soudan soon extended eastward to the Ely district where the Chandler and Pioneer mines became famous producers. The settlement of Ely, established in 1887, a year later became an incorporated village and the terminus of the Duluth & Iron Range railroad.”

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The Duluth, Missabe & Northern railroad came into being as the result of explorations conducted by the Merritt brothers on the Mesaba range, lying west of the Vermilion discoveries.

“The scientific geologists of the time scorned the idea that there was any ore of merchantable quality to be found as far west as the Mesaba hills. Only dreamers like Leonidas Merritt believed that,” wrote Historian Christianson.

Later in the Merritt saga, he relates: “But there was one thing that did worry the Merritts–they had no means of getting ore to the Head of the Lakes. They tried to induce the Northern Pacific and the St. Paul & Duluth to build a road to the Mesaba range, but failed to convince the officers and directors that there was any money to be made in hauling ore.

“There was nothing for the Merritts to do but to start a railroad of their own. Early in 1891 they organized the Duluth, Missabe & Northern and proceeded to lay 45 miles of track from Mountain Iron to Stony Brook. At the latter point they effected a junction with the Duluth & Winnipeg. They extended a 16-mile branch to Biwabik. Over this railroad the first shipment of Mesaba ore moved to the docks at Superior in October, 1892.

“The Duluth & Winnipeg did not live up to its agreement to provide enough ore cars to carry the increasing output to the lake, and accordingly it seemed necessary for the Merritts to extend the Duluth, Missabe & Northern to Duluth, and to build ore docks there.”

The road ultimately passed into John D. Rockefeller ownership, and became a subsidiary of the U. S. Steel Corp. in 1901. In 1910, mines of the Mesaba range were yielding 60 per cent of the iron ore produced in the United States.

Sources:

  • Ouse, David. Forgotten Duluthians. X-Presso Books, Duluth, Minnesota: 2010.
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