Joshua B. Culver

J. B. Culver. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Colonel Culver, who holds the place of honor as the first mayor, was an outstanding figure in the young city. He was a democrat and probably the only democrat who could have been elected at that time. Nevertheless, many Republicans voted for him, and he himself said that his election “came regardless of politics.” One reviewer points out, however, that:

Those who remember it say that it was probably the warmest election Duluth has ever held. One old resident says that a stove in Ed. Nash’s hardware store was responsible for the result of this election. Without Col. Culver’s knowledge, some of his friends, who had become very warmly engaged in the contest, secreted a bottle of liquid enthusiasm in the aforesaid stove, and during the day they might have been seen buttonholing voters and running them into the store and introducing them to the bottle. The result was all that could have been wished for, but if Colonel Culver’s election was due to that stove, he probably never knew of it.

Death of Colonel Culver

Colonel Culver was once again mayor of Duluth, thirteen years later, death coming while he was still in office. It was on July 17, 1883, that Colonel Culver, while in Buffalo, and apparently in good health, died so suddenly that his many friends in Duluth had no idea that he was even ailing. It was a day of sadness generally in Duluth when news of his death came. Mr. R. C. Mitchell, editor of the Tribune, and a “bitter political opponent of Colonel Culver,” was moved to write the following editorial that day:

Our Mayor is dead. A hush, a death of silence comes over the excited scenes that are passing, arousing our village to unwonted agitation, and upon the instant the uproar of contrition subsides into the stilled and breathless quiet of the death chamber. Our mayor is dead; dead in a strange city; dead while yet a traveler and sojourner among strangers. As if painful stillness came hard upon the furious roar of a thunder-burst, as if in battle the quiet of the catacombs followed the awful flash of the artillery’s line and the shrieking musketry’s fierce volley, or as when at word of command the upheaved sea silenced its fury and its tempestuous alarm sank into a softer cadence than a lullaby, so fell a painful silence upon our village yesterday upon the instant it was made known our mayor had fallen by a shaft of death in a far-off city, across and beyond the wide expanse of lakes. It is painful to record the words.

But there is no escape. Death has closed the door, and what is must be told.

Mayor Culver died suddenly at 2 o’clock, P. M., July 17, 1883, at Buffalo, New York. Death came unannounced, and while he was in apparent strength. The telegraph brought the sad notice soon after, and there was mourning, deep pervading and bitter, all up and down the town. All exciting differences and contentions, all idle talk and vaporous discussions, and running to and fro, quieted into subdued bewailing, and even business itself assumed a mournful refrain, and drooped as if in sorrow. The village joined in mourning with one accord. Flags were hung at half-mast in town and harbor, and symbols of bereavement were hung in many places. A good man was dead, a man whom the town had chosen to be its chief and executive. A worthy man, a man whom all could honor, and did. Mayor, citizen, neighbor, and friend was dead. Truly, it was an hour for mourning.

Worthy and honorable as the colonel’s service to Duluth was, his service to the nation during the period of extreme need, when man-power was the need of the Union, was equally so. He enlisted, as first lieutenant, on November 9, 1861, and was mustered out as colonel on July 25, 1865, having passed through the battles of Shiloh, Corinth, Perryville, Nashville, Gallatin, Stone River, Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, Mission Ridge and minor engagements unnumbered. He was a man of men.

Bishop H. P. Whipple wrote to the Duluth Daily Tribune soon afterwards, as follows:

I hardly know how to clothe in words my thoughts as I heard on my arrival of the death of Col. Culver. We older folks feel strangely lonely when such friends die; it is too near eventide for others. I am sure you will permit me to bring my tribute of love to lay on his new-made grave.

My knowledge of Col. Culver goes back well-nigh thirty years. He was the friend of my brother John, when we were pioneers, in the days when Buchanan, down the north shore, was yet a city, and long before Duluth supplanted Portland. How well do I remember my brother’s praises of one whose hospitable home was always open to the stranger and whose kind heart changed strangers into long-lived friends. I loved the man before we met, and for almost twenty years his place has been with the dearest in my heart.

How strangely memories chase each other. I remember the sweet services I held in his house, when the families of Luce, Marvin, Nettleton, Hayes, and Culver made up the population of Portland, the open-handed bountiful hospitality of a home which always had a welcome for the coming, and a Godspeed for the parting guest. The days when in storm and sunshine we have coasted the north shore, waded its streams together, lured the trout with tempting flies, talked by the merry campfire, and slept under the same blankets.

If there is any trace of selfishness, the wilderness will reveal it; but there was no place where our friend was not a Christian gentleman, always first to think of others; always last to care for himself. It was the key to the life of the man who, in thought, word and deed, was all that much abused name means, a gentleman. He was a true man everywhere.

Knowing more of the man, one need not longer wonder why the election of Colonel Culver as first mayor of Duluth was brought about “regardless of politics.”


  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.
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