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.