The northwest corner of Lake Superior wasn’t always the tourist-welcoming center of Duluth it is today, but was once a working harbor and certainly not the part of town you’d spend time skipping stones during a family vacation.
Development of the corner of the lake began in 1856, when Sidney Luce built the first warehouse at what was then the southeast corner of Portland Township, where East Third Street meets Lake Superior. Luce’s warehouse stood three-stories tall, with half its foundation carved into rock on one side and the other perched atop cribbing submerged in the lake on the other. The Luce family lived on the top floor. Until the late 1860s, it was one of only a few buildings in what would become Duluth.
The Financial Panic of 1857 restricted development until 1869, when Jay Cooke financed Duluth’s first grain elevator next to Luce’s warehouse. Cooke’s Union Improvement and Elevator Company purchased wood from Roger Munger’s sawmill on Lake Avenue to build Elevator A, a grain terminal that could hold 350,000 bushels of grain and came equipped with a steam-powered conveyance system. Cooke’s Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad then brought rail to the elevator by building large docks and constructing Duluth’s first railroad freight depot at 300 East Michigan Street, next to the grain elevator.
The railroad also added docks along a timber-and-stone breakwater that protected vessels from Lake Superior’s often turbulent waters. On May 30, 1871, the steamer St. Paul took Elevator A’s first load, 11,500 bushels of wheat, and became the first boat to carry a cargo of grain out of Duluth and down the lakes.
By June 1871 the outer breakwater had been extended to 950 feet and stood six feet above the waterline. A “great storm” on November 16, 1872, caused severe damage to the structure, leaving Elevator A, warehouses, and docks vulnerable. Workers had made repairs and added heavy stones to the breakwater’s exterior in an effort to fortify the structure.
After that, Duluth spent no more time or money attempting to keep it in place. The canal was in full operation, and with access to the safety of the bay, the breakwater became more a burden than an asset. Only one other grain elevator, 1878’s Elevator Q, was built on the lake itself.
By the summer of 1873, traffic on the canal was in full swing and nearly all shipping commerce in Duluth had moved to the bay inside of Minnesota Point, rendering repair to the breakwater much less important.
Early grain elevators were made of wood, and grain dust is highly combustible; elevators often went up in flames. Elevators A and Q burned on November 27, 1886, taking with them about 500,000 bushels of grain and the lives of elevator foreman Edward Lee and fireman Charles Moore. The loss was so substantial it actually led to a rise in value of the Chicago grain market. The fire also consumed a saloon, a carriage factory, houses, and warehouses on the 400 block of East Superior Street.
The following year wheat from both burned elevators remained on the site, rotting away—and creating an awful smell. It was loaded onto barges dumped in Lake Superior. In January 1892, founders of the Duluth Curling Club used Elevator A’s foundation to build the club’s first rink, which was destroyed in a blizzard in March of the same year.
With no grain elevator to serve, in 1890 the railroad leased its freight depot to Duluth Iron and Metal, a scrap iron business; the company continued to use the old depot until a fire on August 16, 1963, destroyed it. The lake eventually claimed what remained of the breakwater.
While Jay Cooke was investing in Duluth, Zenith City citizens stepped up as well. Duluth’s first mayor, J. B. Culver, financed the construction of Citizen’s Dock which reached into the lake from Morse Street, about two blocks south of the canal. Like the outer breakwater and docks along Elevator A, Citizen’s Dock was subjected to poundings by Lake Superior and was not a safe place for a vessel to tie up. Again, the digging of the canal rendered it unnecessary, and by 1880 it had been abandoned. The dock was reportedly destroyed in 1886, but was shown on insurance maps as late as 1902.
Meanwhile, almost as soon as the ship canal had been dug, work began on wooden piers that would frame the canal. The piers were in constant need of repair from the start. Some portions of the cribbing sunk to support the piers had gone in crooked and were never properly aligned, causing problems throughout the wooden piers’ entire existence. Each spring the same problems arose: damage from ice and log rafts had battered the piers. The canal’s engineers thought spending money on further repairs was far from practical, so only absolutely necessary work was done on the piers throughout the 1880s.
The wooden pier included two lights and a fog signal. In 1872 contractors hired by the Corps of Engineers built a wooden pyramid tower on the outer end of the south pier and capped it with an octagonal cast-iron lantern housing a fifth order Fresnel Lens (a lens developed specifically for navigational lights by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel). The light, which cast a red beacon visible 12.5 miles away, was lit for the first time on June 2, 1874. In 1877 the light was upgraded with a fixed red fourth order Fresnel lens. Lighthouse keepers reached the South Pier Light by walking over a trestle walkway, so the keeper could reach the light even when the pier was submerged by large waves.
Duluth had already gained a reputation for extremely thick fog. So in 1880 engineers installed an automated fog bell inside the tower of the South Pier Light, but it proved inadequate. Five years later it was replaced with tin steam-powered fog whistles housed in a small structure near the light. Duluth experienced one of the foggiest seasons on record in 1895, and the fog-signal whistle screamed for over 1,000 hours, gobbling forty-five tons of coal in the effort. The whistles not only sent a warning to mariners on the lake, they also bounced off Duluth’s rocky hillside, creating a cacophony Duluthians couldn’t bear. To remedy the problem, the signal’s horns were relocated to the roof and covered with a parabolic reflector. The reflector not only directed sound away from the city, it nearly doubled the signal’s reach.
While the South Pier Light helped mariners find the canal, another light was needed to provide a focal point by which to guide them through. In 1880 the Lighthouse Board recommended appropriating $2,000 for another light at the south pier’s western (or inner) end. The light would stand taller than the South Pier Light; when used together, the two lights helped navigators establish range, as lighthouse historian Terry Pepper explains: “By maintaining a line in which these two lights were constantly oriented one above the other, a direct course could be followed to the opening between the two piers.”
Placed atop a wooden pyramid, the South Breakwater Light shined for the first time in September 1889. The beacon boasted a red fourth order Fresnel lens, but instead of a continuous beam, it flashed a signal every six seconds. It wasn’t foolproof: just sixteen days after the light commenced flashing, the steamer India collided with the pier at the base of the light itself, damaging the foundation.
The canal hadn’t been sufficiently wide since 1881, when the locks at Sault Ste. Marie were enlarged. The iron ore industry arrived in the early 1890s by way of the newly opened Mesabi Iron Range, creating more shipping traffic through Duluth. The canal and harbor’s shallow depth prevented bigger ships from carrying more profitable loads. Between 1896 and 1902 the old wooden piers were removed, the canal was widened, and substantial concrete structures replaced the rickety, crooked wooden piers that once lined the canal.
Building the new concrete piers meant tearing down the shaky old wooden piers—and everything on top of them. A new lighthouse and Inner Light were built on the south pier (the North Pier Lighthouse was built in 1910).
On shore the old waterfront was no haven for stone skippers. For over 100 years beginning in the late 1860s, the eastern side of Minnesota Point above the canal—today’s Canal Park Business District—suffered as the least valuable chunk of real estate in Duluth. During this period the base of Minnesota Point to the canal was made up of two divisions called Cowell’s Addition and Industrial Addition, known collectively as Uptown—at least on the western or bay side of the Point. Poor immigrants set up shanty housing on the eastern or lake side along St. Croix Avenue (today’s Canal Park Drive) north of Buchanon Street; locals called the area“No Man’s Land.”
By 1895 No Man’s Land had become known as “Finn Town” as it was primarily populated by Finnish (and some Swedish) laborers and their families, many of whom were at work building the canal’s concrete piers, earning two dollars a day for their efforts. Locals began calling St. Croix Avenue “Finlander Avenue”; Finns called it Rottakatu or “Rat Street” due to the large number of rats living among the outhouses. Near their homes they built a Finnish church, a Finnish school, a large Finnish bathhouse, Finnish restaurants, and Finnish boarding houses. Finn Town later became home to other minority groups, and other boarding houses and cheap residential hotels hosted sailors and migrant workers.
Uptown could be a rough and rowdy place, and some of the city’s seedier citizens spent their free time in its many saloons and brothels. Children passing through the area to get to and from Park Point were warned by parents to “stay away from the pretty ladies dressed in kimonos.” From the the 1880s to the 1930s housing units occupied by prostitutes were labeled “female boarding houses” on insurance maps. All were clustered together in Duluth’s own red light district: either side of the St. Croix alley south of Railroad Street and north of Sutphin Street. The red light district was “cleaned up” in the late 1930s, and illegal activity shifted to the Bowery.
Fewer and fewer people chose to live in the Finn Town area over the years. More of it was industrialized, and much of it fell into decay. By the late 1960s wrecked cars, broken appliances, and other abandoned items lay strewn among the ruins of Finn Town.
Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum was not part of the outer waterfont until the winter of 1919, when “Uncle Harvey” Whitney built it as a hopper to unload sand and gravel. It was loaded from the scow Limit using steam-powered clam-shell cranes; a conveyer belt then carried the sand and gravel to shore where it was sent through a tunnel into trucks. The sand came from the Apostle Islands, the gravel from Grand Marais.
Harvey Whitney built his hopper as a gamble that the city of Duluth would revive efforts to build another outer harbor breakwater, and he hoped to provide some of the raw materials. Whitney may have been anticipating the construction of Lakeshore Park, known today as Leif Erikson Park, Lakeshore Park was originally designed to stretch from today’s Rose Garden to the corner of the lake, which would be partially filled in and developed with tennis courts and football and baseball fields.
The plans, obviously, were never completed. Since demand never materialized, Whitney’s operation shut down. The hopper was abandoned in 1922. Like the breakwater and Citizen’s Dock, it was allowed to sit in the lake. Unlike those other, wooden structures, it did not wash away.
Besides Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum, there are few reminders left today of Duluth’s once active outer harbor. Just off the Lakewalk at about Third Avenue East sits a large iron device painted to look like some sort of animal. It was originally a tool the Duluth Iron and Metal used to cut cable used to tie up scrap.
A few years ago a large piece of wooden cribbing washed up during a storm and beached itself in the corner of the lake. It is still there. Many have speculated where it may have came from: the old wooden ship canal piers, Citizen’s Dock, the outer breakwater, the docks of Elevator A, perhaps even the front half of Sydney Luce’s warehouse.
We’ll likely never know. But it does raise the idea that there may be much more of Duluth’s past submerged just below the waters in the corner of the lake. When your skipping stones eventually sink, they may be settling on a piece of Zenith City history.
Story by Tony Dierckins; originally posted on Zenith City Online August, 2012.