Duluth Bethel (1888)

The 1888 Duluth Bethel, designed by Oliver Traphagen, at the northwest corner of Lake Avenue and Sutphin Street, demolished in 1948.
246 Lake Avenue South | Architect: Unknown | Built: 1888 | Lost: 1948

Most Duluthians are aware of the Duluth Bethel Building, the V-shaped structure just above Superior Street east of Mesaba Avenue. Since it was first built in 1910 that building has acted as the home to Duluth’s Bethel Society, which serves those recovering from addiction problems. Few Duluthians living today, however, know that the Bethel operated out of a tent near the base of Minnesota Point before becoming one of the Zenith City’s most important charitable organizations, all thanks to the tireless efforts of Dr. C. C. Salter.

The 1870 Pilgrim Congregation Church, which stood at Second Street and First Avenue East. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Reverend Doctor Charles Cotton Salter of New Haven, Connecticut (Yale, class of 1852), first came to Duluth by way of Minneapolis in 1871. He became the pastor of Minneapolis’s Plymouth Congregational Church in 1862 after serving time as a chaplain with the Union Army. In late 1870 Salter was recruited to Duluth by the founders of Duluth’s Pilgrim Congregational Church, led by Major Luman H. Tenney and his wife, who had organized the church that year. Salter came to Duluth in January, 1871, and later that year the parishioners of Pilgrim Congregational built a modest wooden house of worship at 2 East Second Street.

Salter served as minister until 1876, when poor health sent him abroad for a cure (he had been plagued by health issues since his time in the Civil War). After a stint with a congregational church in Denver, Salter returned to Duluth and Pilgrim Congregational on May 1, 1881, and was “greeted with a perfect ovation.” He was not here long, resigning on November 28, 1881, “under the imperative orders of his physician,” who sent him to Florida for his health. When he recovered and returned to Duluth, his work eventually turned to running the Duluth Bethel Society.

Duluth Bethel, originally a religious and social service organization for men without permanent homes, was organized and incorporated in 1873 by Duluth pioneers Luther Mendenhalll, Luke Marvin, Roger Munger, J. C. Hunter, and others, many of whom were also members of Pilgrim Congregational. The Bethel’s main purpose was to keep transients—for the most part miners, lumberjacks, and sailors—out of saloons, gambling houses, and brothels, plenty of which could be found at the time along Lake Avenue South near the base of Minnesota Point, the heart of today’s Canal Park Business District. In the 1870s a portion of the area was known as “No Man’s Land.”

By the mid 1880s it had become known as Finn Town for its large population of Finnish immigrants, and at that time the Duluth Bethel was hardly considered a success; it had no facilities to house or feed the men it was trying to help. Much of the organization’s early efforts involved little more than a Protestant minister preaching from atop an empty box at the corner of First Avenue East and Superior Street.

Reverend Charles Cotton Salter. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

When Salter was named the Bethel’s chaplain in 1887, he changed things. Bethel is Hebrew for “House of God,” and that’s what Salter intended to build: a house to shelter those in need and offer its inhabitants a steady diet of food and religion. Every man would be welcome at Salter’s building, for it was his strong belief that “no soul is too low to be received or ministered unto at the Bethel.” But before that house could serve anyone, he needed to finance its construction .

Salter’s fundraising drive to began almost as soon as he was appointed chaplain. To increase the visibility of the organization’s work, he rented a small store on Lake Avenue South adjacent to Sutphin’s Dock, where for a few months he conducted gospel meetings and a Sunday School. He later moved services into a tent. During this period he lobbied individuals and organizations for donations. Three of Duluth’s banks offered $500 each, over $12,000 today. He even convinced Duluth’s premier architect, Oliver Traphagen, to design the new building.

Traphagen had worked for Salter before, building a townhouse called Salter Terrace at 301 – 307 East Third Street in Duluth’s upscale Ashtabula Heights neighborhood. When first built, the townhouses were all occupied by Salter family members—he and his wife Maria had five children, all adults at the time. He and Maria would later move to the Glen Avon portion of Hunter’s Park, another neighborhood first settled by the wealthy. All this would indicate that Mr. Salter himself was well off, and he likely contributed financially to the building’s fund drive as well. But his greatest gift to the organization was himself: he refused to take a salary for his work with the Bethel.

Salter apparently considered the area near Sutphin’s dock an ideal location, so he purchased a lot on the northwest corner of Lake Avenue and Sutphin Street, named for the dock’s owner—and the 1886 mayor of the Village of Duluth—J. B. Sutphin. The building Traphagen designed for 246 Lake Avenue South, a simple two-story clapboard structure with a corner tower, was completed in 1888. It held reading rooms, a chapel, a cooking school, and a restaurant as well as furnished rooms for sailors, lumberjacks, and miners. Salter held a religious service each evening.

By 1893 the Lake Avenue Bethel was running out of room, so workers raised the building and added a third floor beneath the original structure; six years later a fourth floor was added to the top to again increase space for the growing demand of lodgers.

Many of the Bethel’s “clients” were coming from Duluth’s growing Bowery, at the time a collection of more than twenty-five saloons and a number of residential hotels that were home to the same kind of itinerant workers found along the industrialized portion of South Lake Avenue. So in 1894, to better serve the men of the Bowery, the Bethel opened a branch in a rented building along the 500 block of West Superior Street.

Salter’s health issues finally caught up with him on December 19, 1897. When he passed away, his funeral was reported to be the largest Duluth had ever seen. Apparently so: Despite his long ties to Pilgrim Congregational, services were held at First Methodist Church, considered the largest building in Duluth at the time. Once the church was filled, the line of mourners who did not get in stretched for two blocks. In a highly symbolic gesture, saloon keepers throughout the city closed their businesses during the funeral.

The Bethel, of course, continued without the man who first made it a success. By 1910 the Lake Avenue Bethel again needed more space—and a great deal of repairs. Instead, the organization raised funds for a larger building at 23 Mesaba Avenue: that V-Shaped building mentioned earlier. The Lake Avenue Bethel’s last service was held on April 29, 1911. The building became the People’s Hotel and Tavern until it closed and was demolished in 1948. Today the KDLH and KBJR television studios occupy the Bethel’s original site.

The 1911 Bethel Association Building, 23 Mesaba Avenue, designed by Vernon Price. (Image: Dennis O’Hara/Northern Images)

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From Dwight Woodbridge & John Pardee’s History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. TC. F. Cooper & Company. Chicago: 1910. Available at the Duluth Public Library.

The Duluth Bethel Society

Missionary labors among the sailors in Duluth were begun by Mr. Robert Smith in 1872, and with the assistance of Dr. Franklin, Captain Kitwood and the pastors and business men, the Duluth Bethel Association was incorporated in 1873. For a number of years the work of the association was kept up by union meetings in the churches, and the special means of reaching sailors, which at that time was the special design of the association, was through street preaching. Sailing vessels, manned by a type of sailors now extinct, carried most of the freight. Though the shipping would seem to modern eyes pitifully small, the sailors were in evidence as they never have been since. From the moment of their release from duty they swept through the streets like cowboys terrorizing a western town. On a dry goods box at the corner of Superior Street and First Avenue East, the Bethel preachers found their first platform, and in the lawless, roaring sailor horde they found their first audience. Owing to the personality of the speakers, the meetings were surprisingly effective.

Captain Kitwood had been a lake captain, and his knowledge of the sailor’s life and nature gave him a remarkable hold on men who, rough though they were, could be reached by the sympathetic appeal of the gospel.

With the opening of the great pine forests and the mines on the Mesaba and Vermilion iron ranges, Duluth soon became the center of migration for thousands of woodsmen, miners, railroad men and working men of all sorts and conditions, so the Bethel work became the sole missionary agency to this floating mass of homeless men and also to the families of many other working men who came to or passed through Duluth seeking employment. In 1886 Dr. C. C. Salter, then pastor of the Pilgrim Congregational Church, severed his connection with that church to become chaplain of the Bethel Association. In 1888 he erected and dedicated the Bethel at 246 Lake Avenue South. Since then the building has been enlarged by the addition of a basement and an additional story for lodging purposes. In 1892 Mr. Charles F. Roebel became business manager of the association.

He opened the restaurant, which served good food for a small price, but under his close business management it paid from the opening. At the death of Dr. Salter Mr. Roebel became general superintendent. In 1892 he opened the branch Bethel at 508 West Superior Street to carry on a work similar to the work at the Bethel. In September, 1892, the Bethel Rescue Home, for unfortunate and fallen girls, was opened, the object of which is to seek those who have gone astray and wish to forsake a life of sin, to save them by ministries of loving help and fit them to fill honorable places in the community. In June, 1903, Rev. J. T. Moody was called to the superintendency of the branch Bethel.

In October, 1904, he was elected chaplain, and on May 18, 1905, he became manager of the association, which, through a new form of incorporation, had been changed from the Bethel Association to the Bethel Society. Mr. Moody had, some years before, been saved from a life of drunkenness and dissipation, so he was peculiarly fitted to prosecute the evangelistic work among this class of men in a way that it had not been done before. He at once gave himself to the soul-winning work, and therefore that phase of the work took on new life. Consequently, the past five years have been, in a sense, more rare than ever before-years of marvelous miracles. Thousands of drunkards, criminals and social outcasts have been saved by the power of God to lives of sobriety, honesty and godliness. The Bethel work has always been preeminently a soul-saving work, for which much credit is due to Mr. H. H. Hanford and Mr. L. A. Marvin, who have been officially connected with the society for fifteen years.

Among the city rescue missions of the world the Duluth Bethel Society ranks second to none. It reaches the unfortunate and fallen girl through the Rescue Home; the unchurched masses through the nightly gospel meetings; the neglected and poor children through the Sunday schools, sewing clubs and boys’ clubs. It provides cheap accommodations and free reading rooms for homeless men; food, fuel, shelter, clothing and medical attention to needy and destitute families, through the untiring work of a missionary whose work among the poor is not along scientific but Christ-like and sympathetic lines. The present buildings of the Society are old and altogether inadequate for the ever growing work. Plans have been completed and a campaign is being organized to raise $150, 000 with which to erect a fireproof building as the headquarters of the Society, with sleeping, bathing, and cafe accommodations for 500 men, and large reading room and chapel to seat 600, all under one roof, and a separate fireproof building in another part of the city, with accommodations for seventy-five girls, for a Rescue Home.

The present officers of the Society are: W. D. Edson, president; E. C. Little, vice-president; James T. Hale, secretary; George Wilson, treasurer; Rev. J. T. Moody, chaplain and general superintendent. The properties owned by the Society are worth $25, 000. The Society is supported by voluntary contributions.

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From Walter Van Brunt’s Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922. Available at the Duluth Public Library.

Duluth Bethel Society

The Duluth Bethel Society had its inception in 1872, although the association was not formally incorporated until 1873. Mr. Robert Smith was apparently the first to think of the necessity of mission work among the sailors who were coming to Duluth in ever-increasing numbers, and one of Mr. Smith’s most useful associates in the work was Captain Kitwood. They, with Dr. Franklin, Dr. Salter, and others, developed an appreciated and appreciable mission work. It is said that the mission workers found their first platform “on a dry goods box on the corner of Superior Street and First Avenue East,” where they could best reach the “lawless roaring sailor horde” that passed by. Captain Kitwood, a lake captain, especially attracted the sailors, and the society was soon able to enlarge its scope of work, eventually undertaking mission work among the miners, lumbermen, and other sections of Duluth’s “floating” population; and under Dr. C. C. Salter (who resigned the pastorate of the Congregational Church, in order to become chaplain of Bethel), a good rescue work among wayward girls was instituted.
So, the society has gone forward in Christian helpfulness, ever increasing its sphere of usefulness.