The Duluth Ship Canal from 1870 to 1902

Detail of a photograph of the Duluth Ship Canal, Duluth, Minnesota, by W.H. Jackson, 1899. The concrete piers were constructed between 1896 and 1902; note that while the light poles are in place, their diffusion globed have yet to be installed. (Image: National Park Service)

In the spring of 1870, fearing the railroad’s docks on Rice’s Point and at Fourth Avenue East would not be adequate to handle future commerce, Duluth built the Citizen’s Dock, which reached six hundred feet from Minnesota Point into the lake just north of Morse Street in what is today considered Canal Park. J. B. Culver, Duluth’s first mayor, paid for the dock’s construction. Elevator A and about four hundred feet of the breakwater were completed over the summer, and the first trains of the LS&M rolled into Duluth on August 1 that same year.

While Duluth had floundered to find its feet, life in the late 1850s and throughout the 1860s had been more stable across the bay in Superior, Wisconsin, which was considered the only town of note in the entire region. But the LS&M’s terminus in Duluth threatened Superior’s position as the region’s premier city. Superiorites had campaigned aggressively to get the railroad to come to their city—even suggesting that Cooke drop the word “Lake” from the railroad’s name—and felt Cooke had snubbed them.

So Cooke’s railroad and his other projects brought prosperity to Duluth rather than to Superior. But slighted Superior still had one great advantage over Duluth: the Superior Entry kept the majority of fledgling industry on the Wisconsin side of the bay. A canal in Duluth would change all of that. And Superior would do all it could to stop any digging.

While Cooke’s company pushed to expand the breakwater, Duluthians were convinced it would never hold up, and that the only safe harbor must be located in the natural bay. In the fall of 1870, the Duluth City Council exercised the power of its charter and decided the canal should finally be dug. Its members determined the canal would be 150 feet wide and 16 feet deep and protected by piers on each side stretching 18 feet into the lake. To finance this and other harbor improvements, the city accepted a $50,000 loan from Cooke’s LS&M in the form of one hundred $500 bonds bearing 7 percent interest, final payment due on September 1, 1890.

Cutting the Canal

On September 5, 1870, the steam-powered dredging tug Ishpeming (pictured) took its first bite out of Minnesota Point at what was plotted as Portage Street—the path that for hundreds of years had been the Ojibwe and French fur traders’ Onigamiinsing or “Little Portage” that provided passage over Minnesota Point without having to paddle through what had become the Superior Entry. When winter froze the gravel, Major John Upham of W. W. Williams & Co.—the dredge’s owner—stopped digging for the season.

The Ishpeming went back to work on April 24, 1871, and dug continuously during daylight hours until Saturday, April 29. She had cut a swath thirty feet wide and eight feet deep to within a few feet of the lake-side beach when, according to the Minnesotian, Duluth’s first newspaper, she struck a vein of gravel frozen so hard it stopped her. Immediately a group of men went to work with “shovels and picks and drills and powder (two kegs).” They scooped, smashed, bored, and blasted through the rocklike frozen chunk of sand bar, allowing the Ishpeming to go on dredging. At 1 p.m. that day the waters of Lake Superior joined with those of Superior Bay or, as Dr. Thomas Foster wrote in the Minnesotian, “the union of the waters became forthwith an accomplished fact.” Duluth’s first publisher, Foster often came across as part poet and part contract attorney, and he fancied himself a grand orator. At a speech given during an Independence Day picnic on the Point in 1856, he coined Duluth’s first nickname: “The Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.”

Foster’s paper reported that the waters of the Bay, a few inches higher and a few degrees warmer than the lake’s waters, cut and thawed through the dredged channel. The next morning, Sunday, April 30, a channel five feet deep and twenty wide flowed with a six mile an hour current into the lake. That afternoon the small steamer ferry-tug Frank C. Fero, piloted by Captain George W. Sherwood, navigated the canal. The Ishpeming returned to work the next day, and kept cutting throughout the summer, making the canal deeper and wider.

Foster didn’t get the news out until May 6. Seth Wilbur Payne’s Morning Call scooped him as the first newspaper to report the completion of the canal, at the same time bemoaning the lack of pomp and circumstance surrounding the event:

An event occurred yesterday of greater importance than would have been the commencement of the [Northern Pacific] docks. We refer to the opening of the canal across Minnesota Point. Why did not our capitalists and real estate criers not show their love for Duluth by some appropriate public demonstration?”

Bolstering the Canal

Throughout the years of litigation, efforts to improve the canal had continued. Almost as soon as the Ishpeming finished its initial cut, work began on wooden piers that would frame the canal along the dig site and expand its length on the lakeward side. It was 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. Further, the same November 1872 storm that destroyed the breakwater also severely damaged the piers, requiring $25,000 worth of work in 1873. The federal government helped pay for the repairs, and that same year the piers were completed.

In 1874 the federal government unofficially took control of the canal. When the 1875 shipping season opened a large section of the north pier had tilted and many feared it would fall into the canal. It took over three hundred cords of stone riprap to bolster the pier once it had been put back in place. As Duluth prospered from its railroads and ship canal, the canal’s piers needed frequent attention. In 1879 ice damage forced engineers to replace 250 feet of cribbing; in 1880, 325 feet of the north pier were completely rebuilt, along with 190 feet of the south pier. In 1882 workers finally placed decking on the piers. The natural flow of water through the canal also undermined the piers—literally. Originally dredged to a depth of fourteen feet at the time the workers laid the piers’ cribbing, by 1882 portions of the canal near the piers had been naturally scoured to a depth of eighteen feet. With its feet washed out from under it, the north pier again listed toward the canal. Workers pulled the pier back and bolstered it again, this time with large iron rods fastened to the face of the cribbing.

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. In 1881 Congress had passed the River and Harbor Act, which authorized plans for the Corps of Engineers to improve the Superior Entry and the Canal. Five years later the Corps established a district office in Duluth, and engineers focused on designing a better canal and pier system, one that would stay in place and could handle an increase in ship trafficking and larger, heavier boats that required deeper waters. Work on this “new” canal would not begin until the 1890s.

1890s Canal Improvements

While Duluth had been stymied in its efforts to bridge the canal and financially prohibited from tunneling beneath it, plans were made for great improvements to the canal and harbor: the old fourteen-foot channel wasn’t up to par, not since the locks at Sault Ste. Marie (or “The Soo”) on the other end of the lake were enlarged back in 1881. And the iron ore industry had finally arrived in Duluth by way of mines on the Merritt brothers’ newly opened Mesaba Iron Range (ore from Charlemagne Towers’ Vermilion Range mines was sent to Two Harbors to be loaded and shipped), creating more shipping traffic through Duluth. But the canal’s and the harbor’s shallow depth prevented bigger ships from carrying larger, more profitable loads.

So in 1893 Captain McDougall set about forming the Duluth-Superior Harbor Improvement Committee, whose first task would be to petition Congress for funds. In 1896 Congress “appropriated $3 million…to make Duluth-Superior harbor the most modern in America.” The project called for twenty foot channels throughout the bay, a connecting channel between the Duluth Bay and the Superior Bay, and an “immense anchorage basin” behind Park Point. Both the Superior Entry and the Duluth Ship Canal would receive new concrete piers. The appropriation also brought Duluth and Superior together: On June 3, 1896, the same act of Congress that appropriated the funds declared that “the harbors of Duluth and Superior [are] unified.” The two separate towns—once bitter rivals—had come together to form the Twin Ports.

Plans drawn up in 1896 called for a major renovation of the canal. It would be widened to 300 feet and stretched 400 feet to a total length of 1,600 feet. Substantial concrete structures would replace the rickety, crooked wooden piers that lined the canal. The work would take almost a thousand men and
seven years to complete.

The steam dredge Old Hickory set to work making the canal deeper and wider: it had to cut another 100 foot swath out of Minnesota Point, dig a trench twenty-four feet deep where cribbing would be set atop wooden pilings to support the new piers, and clear the rest of the canal to a depth of twenty feet. To widen the canal, dredging would take place south of the south pier; the old wooden pier would remain in place until the new one was completed. While engaged in this digging, Old Hickory hit a submerged obstacle: the wreck of the two-hundred-foot, three-masted sailing schooner Guido Pfister, which had stranded on the point adjacent to the canal some years before, then been abandoned and sunk. Engineers used dynamite to extract the wreckage.

As the Old Hickory dredged the canal deeper and wider, contractors began driving more than 5,100 wooden pilings, made of fifty-foot Norway pines, into the lake bottom every four feet; these pilings were later cut to a uniform level at twenty-four feet below the waterline.

Workers then set cribbing on top of the pilings. Each crib, assembled at various places around the harbor, measured twenty four feet wide, one hundred feet long, and twenty-two feet tall. Constructed of twelve-inch square pine beams and reinforced internally by more of the same, each crib featured a one-inch band of iron across the top to prevent ice from damaging the wood. Contractors assembled sixteen such cribs for each of the canal’s piers. Each was towed into place, aligned, and sunk onto the pilings with the weight of stones. Once properly aligned, the pier had a solid foundation one foot below the waterline. Engineers then sank nine thousand tons of riprap stone along the base of the new piers to prevent erosion from undermining the structures.

Steam derricks placed concrete footing blocks atop the cribbing. After the footings were aligned, huge monolith blocks—which would form the canal’s deck and parapet walls—were set atop them. Unlike the footings, these blocks, which measured ten by eighteen feet and weighed 14,000 pounds each, were molded and cast on site by “large gangs of men working around the clock.” These men, mostly Swedish and Finnish immigrants, received $2 a day for their efforts. Thousands of tons of concrete were used to make the 334 monoliths used in the piers, 1,200 barrels of Portland cement for the South Pier alone. A center channel along the bottom of each monolith was left with a half-circle opening. When set in place, this opening formed a tunnel. A pulley-and-cable driven rail system was installed so that lighthouse keepers could reach their posts during treacherous conditions that would make walking atop the piers highly dangerous. Unfortunately, during storms the tunnel itself became half filled with water; it was little used for decades and later filled in as a safety measure. With the old wooden pier, 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.

Work began on the South Pier in 1898 and was completed in 1900. New South Breakwater and Rear Range Lights sat atop the South Pier by September of 1901. At the request of Major D. D. Gaillard, chief of the Corps of Engineers in Duluth, engineers included a water-level indicator made from a mosaic of ceramic tiles (and festooned with an American Bald Eagle to symbolize the  government’s ownership of the canal) and installed it on the very end of the wall of the South Pier, just below the South Pier Light and its foghorn station, where the pier comes to a point. It wasn’t an aid for navigation; Gaillard was researching wave motion, and the work he did at Duluth would later become a book titled simply Wave Action. The book is still considered a classic on the subject. (When the pier was renovated in 1986, the tiles were removed and stored by the Corps of Engineers.)

In 1902 workers finished the North Pier. Not once did the reconstruction of the canal interrupt shipping. The new century was still young, and Duluth had a brand new canal that would serve it far into the foreseeable future. But on the other side, Park Pointers still had no safe, reliable means of crossing the canal.