During pioneer days there had been ambitions to make Duluth an iron manufacturing center. In 1872 a blast furnace was built at Rice’s Point, the enterprise being fathered by Joshua B. Culver, Luther Mendenhall, James D. Ray, John C. Hunter, W. W. Spalding and George K. Schoenberger, but impracticability of the enterprise at that period, combined with the panic of 1873, caused the pioneer enterprise to fail. During the boom days of West Duluth Roger S. Munger and associates, most of whom were men interested in the West Duluth Land Company, organized the West Duluth Blast Furnace Company, the plant being designed by the late John Birkenbine, a noted engineer and iron authority of Philadelphia.
Minnesota ores then were available, but coke had to be freighted up from Lake Erie ports. One million dollars were put into the enterprise and some pig iron was produced but it was an uphill pull and in 1893, when the big panic smote Duluth industries, the furnace went cold. It remained 923so until the advent in this field of Captain A. B. Wolvin. Captain Wolvin was neither a miner nor a furnace man, but was a vessel man of marked ability, whose active mind had noted that it took only 30 cents a ton to bring coal from Lake Erie ports to Duluth, but that it tooks 80 cents a ton to send Minnesota iron ore from Duluth to Lake Erie. Why not, then, he reasoned, bring the coal to the ore at Duluth? Other favorable conditions were noted, and despite the firmly-rooted belief at Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh that Duluth was a graveyard for ironmaking Captain Wolvin and his associates determined on giving it a trial.
In 1902 the Zenith Furnace Company was incorporated with a capitalization of $1,000,000, which has been increased since to $1,500,000, and the old West Duluth blast furnace was purchased, modernized and blown in some time in 1902. Coke was brought up from the lower lakes with indifferent results, and therefore, in 1904, a coke plant was established at the plant.
On July 1, 1904, Mr. Fred Harris came to this plant in the capacity of foreman, and in October, 1905, was advanced to the superintendency. In the latter capacity one of his first actions was to make slight changes in the dimensions of the furnace, which caused a surprising increase in the daily production of pig iron. In 1906 Mr. Harris was made general superintendent of the plant, and as such has complete control of the operating department. The Zenith Furnace Company maintains what is termed a three-unit plant-wholesale coal trade, production of pig iron and conservation of by-products. This company has not only proved conclusively that pig iron can be produced profitably at the Head of the Lakes, but that it is being produced more cheaply per ton than by any other furnace in America turning out a similar grade of iron. Not only is the Zenith blast furnace producing about 60 per cent more pig iron, week in and week out, than its rated capacity, but it is making a higher production in tons per day than any furnace of similar capacity in the entire country.
The site of the Zenith Furnace Company covers about eighty acres of land on Saint Louis Bay and is but several blocks from the street car line. The coal dock is 250×211 feet in area, 300 feet having been added in 1916, and has a capacity of 700,000 tons. Three grades of coal are handled and anthracite recently has been added for the commercial trade.
The coking coal comes from lower lake ports in large freight boats at a rate of 30 cents a ton. A cargo of 10,000 tons can be unloaded in about fifteen hours, and the unloading and stock-piling rigs are of modern design. Screened coal goes to the trade and the fine stuff to the coke ovens, of which there are sixty-five, fifty old ones with a capacity of five tons each and fifteen new ones of six tons each, the coking plant having an annual capacity of about 150,000 tons. The coking ovens are of the Otto Hoffman type, so built as to form a solid structure, 36×250 feet in area and 40 feet high. The process practically is continuous, a movable ram punching the contents of a retort out onto a loader, after which the seething mass is quenched by a copious drenching of water. The cooled coke then is shot over a screen into cars which will take it to the furnace Coal gas, ammonia and coal tar are by-products.
From Walter Van Brunt’s Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.