Duluth’s Lumber Industry (Through 1910)

This photo labelled “Howard’s Mill” was taken during the winter of 1892–1893. While it is likely the mill that once stood at the end of Howard Mill Road, it may have been one of the other mills John Howard established in Duluth and Superior. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

The lumber cut of the Duluth district for 1909 amounted to 367,146,000 feet. running in value into many millions of dollars.

These figures are impressive and constitute Duluth as the greatest lumber market in the world, a position which the city will retain for many years to come, but the industry is a declining one, as can be seen from the fact that the lumber cut of the same district in 1900 was 567,482,000 feet. Practically all the white pine timber remaining in the United States is in the territory tributary to Duluth. The fearful inroads made upon the forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan during the last generation have practically exhausted the supply of white pine in those states with the exception of northern Minnesota, which will continue to manufacture this valuable product for a number of years to come. The consumption of this important variety of timber, however, by no means marks the end of the lumber industry in either of the states mentioned, as there remain in each of them vast forests of hardwood and other timber which will continue to be a source of revenue for at least another generation.

With the increasing scarcity and advancing prices of lumber there has been for some years past a pronounced tendency to conserve the remaining forests and to abandon the wasteful methods which marked the earlier lumbering operations. It is estimated that during the last half century in the three states referred to more timber has been destroyed by forest fires than has been converted into lumber, while timber that would now be worth many millions of dollars has been allowed to rot upon the ground. But this age of prodigality is past as far as the lumber interests of the Duluth district are concerned. Owing to the rapid curtailment of the large timber tracts and the interposition of settlers’ clearings, combined with the increased vigilance of lumber companies and fire wardens, extensive fires are of rare occurrence in recent years; the lands which have been cleared, either by the loggers or by forest fires, are soon covered with a vigorous second growth, and, while much of this ground is being opened up for agricultural purposes, enough will be left in growing timber to supply the home demand for ages to come.

For the past twenty-five years Duluth has been the most important center of lumber production in the Northwest, and while the output reached its greatest proportions in 1903, when the grand total was nearly 1,000,000,000 feet, the annual production continues to be enormous.

The lumber manufacturing industry has been a constant source of increasing industrial and commercial value to the head of the lakes for the past thirty years-which may be broadly said to embrace the era of greatest lumbering activity. During this period it has been estimated that a total of 12,000,000,000 feet of lumber has been sawed at Duluth and its immediate vicinity. The history of the industry goes back to the very beginning of things at Duluth. Even before there was any Duluth there was a lumber mill at the head of the lakes. The first commerce at the head of Lake Superior, after the passing of the fur trade, was in lumber. The first vessels to penetrate to the head of the lakes seeking employment found their cargoes in the product of the sawmills. There was a mill at Fond du Lac in the ’40s. The Merritts had a rather pretentious mill at Oneota in 1860, and even prior to that there was a mill at Rice’s point.

In the record of the shipping it is shown that supplies were had from down the lakes because the vesselmen found more profit in coming to Duluth for the product of the mills. Following the natural selection the lumbermen clung very close to the locations selected for the first mills. Rice’s point has always been a desirable base for a sawmill, and so has Connor’s point on the other side of the bay, these two projections into the bay naturally intercepting the logs coming down the river. Even now, when a great volume of the logs brought in for sawing come by rail, Rice’s point continues to be a center of lumber activity.

The sawmills brought in their train many other enterprises. They are largely accountable for the local development in machine manufacturing and the trade of Duluth has always depended to a very large extent on the patronage of the lumbermen.

The big men in the business have made their headquarters at 561  Duluth for years, and as other fields have been worked outnotably northern Wisconsin-Duluth has succeeded to the business.

How important this is now, not only to the lumbermen, but to the other industrial and commercial interests, is indicated in the fact that one concern-the Alger-Smith Company-has brought into Duluth in one year over its own road and the Duluth & Iron Range 125, 000, 000 feet of logs. The other big lumber concerns, the Scott-Graff, the Red Cliff Lumber Company and the Duluth Log Company, have contributed enormously to the railroad and lake traffic. In the thirty years that have elapsed since lumbering at the head of the lakes assumed proportions of consequence, the business of turning the forests into merchantable commodities has changed in almost every aspect. From the method of cutting down the trees to the final handling of the finished product changes have taken place which have immensely increased the output in proportion to the labor. The lumberman has not been slow to improve his methods and thereby increase his output. Timber that was regarded as having no market value a few years ago has been brought to fill new requirements.

Old cuttings have been gone over a second and a third time. The demand for certain kinds of wood for paper pulp has given a stable value to timber that was regarded as of no account a very few years ago. The great increase in the demand for poles-telegraph and telephone and other poles-has resulted in the establishment of specialized concerns, such as the Duluth Log Company, which supplies immense numbers of these mighty sticks.

It would not be easy to say how much Duluth capital is engaged in the vast and varied enterprises of the lumbermen in the Duluth district. The sawmills at the head of the lakes represent many millions of dollars in investment, and the mill and yard payroll will run into millions annually. And these form but a moiety of the investment in the forests that are owned by Duluth men and institutions, the list of which would disclose many millionaires who owe nothing at all to the mines-that most prolific source of the wealth of Duluth. And these millionaires, in the course of their operations. have opened thousands of square miles to agriculture, have built railroads that are now of commercial importance, and have generally contributed in a larger degree to the development of the country than any other one class of men, except the farmers.

When the amount of lumber shipped by the lakes-frequently in cargoes of more than a million feet-is compared with the amount of local output, and to this is added the great quantity of manufactured material that is shipped by rail for inland consumption, it will be observed that the manufacture is but a part of the great lumber traffic which leaves its impress on industry and commerce at the head of the lakes. More than two-thirds of the entire lumber cut of the district finds its way to Duluth for manufacture or distribution. The output of the Duluth mills varies to some extent with the years and the location of the heavy cut. When conditions require that the sawing be done at some point that is not readily accessible by rail or water for the carriage of the logs to Duluth, the local output is diminished. The local production reached the climax in the past in 1902, when the mills cut 442, 000, 000 feet. Since 1881 an accurate record has been kept and the output has climbed from 84, 000, 000 feet. It was above 400, 000, 000 feet in 1900, 1901 and 1902.

The mills located around the bay are the Alger-Smith Company’s two mills, the Red Cliff Lumber Company’s mill, the mills of the Scott-Graff Company, Virginia and Rainy Lake; William O’Brien, Merrill & Ring, Murray & Jones, Heath & Morley, J. C. Mullery, Rice’s Point mill, and Murray Lumber Company. In addition to the mill yards, there are very extensive yards for the local and shipping trade, and the bay front aspect of Duluth is very largely lumber when it is not ore, coal or wheat. The lumber industry provides employment for several thousands of men in the city of Duluth, to say nothing of the thousands of men who are employed in lumbering and logging operations throughout the vast territory contiguous to the city. Besides the thousands.of horses which are utilized in this work, there are hundreds of miles of railroad used exclusively for the transportation of logs, the building and operation of which employs hundreds of additional men. Besides the numerous mills engaged in converting logs into sawed lumber, there are a number of establishments in Duluth devoted exclusively to the manufacture of sash, doors and mouldings, and the utilization of the product of the sawmills in the manufacture of furniture, packing boxes and many other articles. The indirect benefits which come to the city on account of its being the center of an immense lumbering region it would be impossible to calculate with any degree of accuracy, but would amount to an enormous figure if fully computed.

Despite the many substitutes which have taken the place of timber for many purposes in the building business, the consumption of lumber is steadily increasing in recent years. The extended use of structural iron and of stone, brick, tile, cement, felt and other articles have already superseded the use of lumber for many purposes for which it was used exclusively in the early (lays of the present generation, but these substitutes do not seem to keep pace with the increasing demand due to a growing population and the universal prosperity which has prevailed throughout the country during recent years. There are still great forests in the extreme West and Northwest, as well as in the South, but Duluth district practically includes all the available supply of pine in the middle North. It is obvious that coming generations will find it necessary to use other materials for building to a far greater extent than has been the case in the past. The cultivation of timber, to which careful attention is given by the government in Germany and some other European countries, has been neglected almost altogether in this country, but is beginning to receive some attention in the prairie states, and there is a gradual awakening to the necessity of conserving the forests where they already exist. There are many varieties of excellent and durable timber which make a rapid growth if given an opportunity, and it is only necessary to apply the same intelligence and systematic care which is bestowed upon the cultivation of other products of the soil to restore much of the denuded forest area of the country within a reasonable period of years.

In many places more valuable hardwoods would take the place of the slaughtered pine if given half a chance.

Fifteen years ago it was estimated by competent authorities that the standing pine in the territory tributary to Duluth amounted to 40, 000, 000, 000 feet. Today it is estimated that the amount still standing is between 25, 000, 000, 000 and 30, 000, 000, 000 feet, which at the present rate of consumption will last a good many years.

In the statistics of the commerce of the port for 1909 there is an item that “4, 350, 000 feet board measure of logs were towed in.” This item only serves to direct attention to the great change in lumbering methods that has taken place since the early days of the industry. Then all the logs, except those that came down the river, were towed in, simply because there was no other way of getting them to Duluth. In those early days, also, the trees were chopped down; now they are sawed down, an operation that is much more expeditious as well as much more economical, as choppers, as they were called, were expert workmen and commanded high wages, while almost any kind of laborers can work with the saws. After cutting the logs were hauled to the nearest point on the lake shore and put on the ice, booms were put around them before the ice broke up in the spring, and they were secured to the shore. In the spring when the ice went out and the logs were wanted at the mill, men were taken up and the logs, secured together in big rafts, were poled to the mill, for there were no steam tugs then. As the forests were cut away and the lumbering operations became farther and farther away from the shore, new methods became necessary.

Now the big lumber firms have their own railroad lines traversing the northern part of St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties, where the great lumbering operations are going on today, and the lumber roads carry the logs to the Duluth & Iron Range railroad, which brings them to Duluth. The result is that this road has a lucrative traffic during the winter months when there is no ore traffic; the lumbermen are enabled to ship their logs with regularity and without the hazard of loss, which was not the case when they had to transport them in the shape of rafts, which were frequently broken up and scattered all around the lake by storms. The contingencies of loss do not have to be reckoned now, and the effect of the improved means of transportation has been to put the industry on a more certain and stable basis.

There have been many changes in the lumber industry of Duluth in the past sixteen years. The “Mississippi Valley Lumberman” gave the following as the cut of the district for 1894: Mitchell & McClure, Duluth ………………….. 43, 00,000 Merrill & Ring Lumber Company, Duluth……….. 40,000,000 Duncan, Brewer & Co., Duluth………………… 26,000,000 J. B. Stevens, Duluth……………………….. 25,000,000 Peytott, Kimball & Barber, Duluth …………….. 16,000,000 C. B. Murry & Co., Duluth …………………… 14,000,000 B. B. Richards Lumber Company, Duluth ……….. 12,000,000 Hubbard & Vincent, Duluth ………………….. 9, 00,000 W . P. Heimbach, Duluth …………………….. 3,000,000, Scott & Holston Lumber Company, Duluth………. 5, 26,000 Howard Lumber Company, Duluth …………….. 2,500,000 M. Carroll, Duluth ………………………….. 2,000,000 Herman, Becklinger & Herman, New Duluth ……… 1,500,000 C. N. Nelson Lumber Company, Cloquet …………. 37, 00,000 Cloquet Lumber Company, Cloquet …………….. 35,000,000 Howe Lumber Company, Tower……………….. 14,175,000 Knox Lumber Company, Ely ………………….. 12,500,000 Paine & Co., Carlton ………………………… 9,000,000 C. M. Hill, Biwabik …………………………. 2,300,000 A. J. Davis, Davis ………………………… .. 600,000 Berg & Christianson, Lake Nebegemain, Wis…….. 4,000,000 Aminicon Lumber Company, Thomas, Wis ………. 3,000,000 D. II. Moon, Virginia ………………………… 8,000,000 Mills & LeClaire Lumber Company, W. Superior, Wis. 3,000,000 West Superior Lumber Company, West Superior….. 14, 05,000 Total …………………. …………. 342,806,000 In addition to the above lumber output, the same firms produced during the year 61,529, 000 shingles and 67,911,000 lath.

Many of these firms have since gone out of existence, while other firms have come in to take their places. Today the great lumber firms of the city are the Alger-Smith Company, which is probably the largest in Duluth; the Virginia & Rainy Lake Company; the Scott-Graff Lumber Company, which also conducts a great business in sash, doors and mouldings in addition to its lumber trade; the Duluth Lumber Company; the Duluth Log Company, which handles annually about 1, 000, 000 railroad ties, a like quantity of fence and shed posts, and half that amount of telegraph and telephone poles, besides vast quantities of shingles, lath, lumber and logs; the Ouellette & Baxter Company, which deals in all kinds of millwork and interior finish woods, besides sash, doors and mouldings; the Radford Company, which does a similar business, and the Red Cliff Lumber Company.


  • Woodbridge, Dwight and John Pardee, eds. History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.
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