The Tunnels of Duluth, Part I

The great cities of Europe are often known for what goes on below their streets as above—the London Underground, the vaults of Edinburgh, the catacombs of Paris. Duluth has its own subterranean features, though they are much less on the minds of its people. Many of Duluth’s downtown buildings are connected below street level, and a series of tunnels bring I-35 through Duluth to its final destination at 26th Avenue East. Duluth has planned and built tunnels for various projects dating back almost to its inception, and the first one was expected to make its owners, and the blooming city around it, rich beyond their dreams.

Duluth’s Failed Silver Mine

Clinton Markell. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

After gold prospectors accidentally stumbled across traces of silver in the stones of the Point of Rocks in 1870, local industrialists dreamed of finding riches below the Zenith City. On December 10th, 1883, seven men—including former Duluth Mayor Clinton Markell and Michael Fink, owner of the Lake Superior Brewery—launched a plan to do just that when they organized the Duluth Silver and Copper Mining Company. They began their dirty work just 10 days later.

By March of 1884 their work had extended below Piedmont Avenue (Mesaba Avenue today; Duluth once had two Piedmont Avenues), about 150 feet from where they had begun, thanks to their steam-powered drill and five fortune-hungry laborers.

“Striking it rich” in the Zenith City was not as far-fetched in the 19th century as it may sound to modern Duluthians. It was a time when many such pioneers found new ores—and fortunes along with them. The mine at the Point of Rocks mine had already delivered quality samples of silver, copper and gold. According to some experts who had seen the tests, Duluth could be sitting atop a giant silver deposit.

Just west of downtown, drilling and blasting continued to push downward toward where the hypothetical silver vein had been located. There, after pushing 200 feet horizontally, workers began sinking the shaft downward to intercept the ore.

By the middle of 1884 the vertical shaft, the part of a mine which serves as the main access point to the various mine levels below, was about twenty feet deep. New samples indicated the ore there to be worth a healthy $50 per pound (nearly $1,200 today) and improving. The men were so confident that in October 1884 they proudly showed samples of their Duluth silver to local fairgoers.

The dot inside the red circle show the entrance to the 1884 silver mine. (Image: Google Maps | Click to Enlarge)

Small scale extraction like this would not be legal in most municipalities, but Duluth had passed an ordinance in 1874 giving every property owner in the city the right to sink a mine shaft into his or her own property.

Ten years later, the right to sink a shaft anywhere in village limits was extended, in whole, to the Duluth Silver & Copper Mining Company. Understandably, the miners would first have to obtain the permission from landowners before beginning operations. Other regulations included the requirement that shafts must be sunk at least twenty feet below street level and that the mine must defer to the Street Commissioner in terms of any new industrial traffic.

This legislation, which allowed a specific company to sink a mine anywhere within Duluth, was understandably controversial, but planning multiple access points to an extensive underground mine is widely observed. Most 19th-century mines had five or more shafts extending to their lower levels. If Duluth was indeed atop a giant silver nugget, then it would not be unlikely for there to be a shaft every few blocks if the mine was fully developed. Imagine a mine tower on the Point of Rocks, then another near the downtown Duluth Public Library, and then a third near the Temple Opera Block: this was the vision for Duluth of its miners.

Duluth’s Bridgeman-Russell Creamery was built atop the site of the Zenith City’s 1880s silver mine. (Image: Zenith City)

For better or worse, the Duluth Silver & Copper Mining Company never located a profitable vein west of downtown. By June of 1885, all mining operations had ceased below the Zenith City. What was left above ground of the mine was pushed into the mouth of the 200-foot hole and abandoned. A few years later, the city built the first mule corals for the Duluth Street Railway Company on the site of the mine. Later, the Bridgeman-Russell Creamery was located on the spot.

Today, the mouth of the silver mine is almost exactly below the street sign on West Superior Street that indicates the Superior Street/Mesaba Avenue split, looking eastbound. Construction of I-35 has left a considerable mound of dirt against the lower section of the Point of Rocks where Duluthians of the past sought silver, but the mine shaft no doubt still exists in some form, just out of sight.

This sketch of the Chester Creek Drain under construction appeared in the Duluth Daily News October 15, 1887. (Image: Zenith City | Click to enlarge)

Secret Streams

Duluthians have seen it before, even if they have never noticed it. Every map of Duluth shows a plethora of streams and creeks flowing down the hill when, suddenly, each disappears into a street name: the sign of the culvert. The Zenith City contains more than twenty creeks determined to find their way to Lake Superior, and each passes through a specialized tunnel somewhere along its path. As the city expanded, so did the need for land; packaging the streams in concrete and stone and burying them was one simple way to create more developable property and in most cases eliminated the need for bridges. The subterranean diversion of tree creeks in particular, Chester, Brewery and Clark House, has made a dramatic impact on Duluth’s development.

The grotto outfall of the Chester Creek Drain below I-35 near the Lakewalk trail. (Image: substreet.org | click to enlarge)

Chester Creek Drain
The little river that is the highlight and namesake of Chester Creek Park is as powerful as it is beautiful, and it spends much of its time south of the park underground, below streets, homes, and the historic 1915 Duluth National Guard Armory. [Click here to see a map of Chester Creek’s underground path]

In fact, nowadays the creek is probably best known for the day when floodwaters caused the roof of the tunnel to rupture, exposing the basement of the long-vacant landmark. After that point, for more than a year, the basement of the Armory was visible from the canal below it, and both could be seen from London Road, through the hole varied by the flooded creek.

The entry to where Where the Chester Creek dips below Superior, not to emerge until the lower side of I-35. (Image: substreet.org)

Duluth was still young when city planners realized the need to contain Chester’s power. In late 1887, when the city had only constructed a few humble drains between 7th Avenue West and 2nd Avenue East, a project between 13th and 14th Avenues East became a major undertaking. That year, the city contracted local stonemasonry firm Fredin & Wilson to contain Chester creek through a series of retaining walls and a culvert beginning at 4th Street.

The masonry retaining walls were planned to be 40 feet high and restrict the creek bed’s width to about 18 feet. Though strictly functional, it was hailed as one of the most beautiful pieces of masonry in the city when it was completed in late November. The culvert at the end of the retaining walls stretched 150 feet and sat about 45 feet below the surface at its deepest point. All of the work was done in stone.

Below Duluth’s Rose Garden is a large yellow brick vault where Chester Creek once poured out into the rail yard. Today, it is carried further, under I-35, to Lake Superior. (Image: substreet.org | Click to enlarge)

Lower sections followed. A tunnel crossing at 1st Street was added in 1917 to replace a dilapidated bridge the News Tribune described as “an old and troublesome problem of the city of Duluth.” A few years prior, in 1910, a culvert was constructed below Superior Street to act as the final leg for the runoff to flow into Lake Superior, but the construction of the Duluth Armory in 1915 necessitated the extension of that tunnel below London Road.

Today these visions and revisions are evident in the tunnel’s many changes in shape, direction, and building materials. At the mouth below Superior Street, the tunnel is that of a stone bridge built over the creek in 1919, which gives way to red brick and concrete, then to yellow brick. Each of the layers in what is now a 700-foot long tunnel tells a story of expansion above ground, if you know how to read them.

Chester Creek Drain empties into a little-known grotto, just north of the Rose Garden. To find it, simply take the Lakewalk below the Rose Garden and find the former railroad bridge which the trail crosses now. There is a path to go through the arch below.

Brewery Creek Drain
Although this stream runs near Chester Creek, it has a different personality, and a different path, down the hill. It begins in Duluth Heights and, along with Buckingham Creek, it drains a former wetlands and shallow lake in what is now the retail development above Arlington Avenue along Central Entrance. [Click here to see a map of Brewery Creek’s underground path]

Brewery Creek begins its winding descent around 3rd Street, where it is joined by a runoff sewer. (Image: substreet.org | Click to Enlarge)

Brewery Creek has been forced underground behind the Marshall School and travels first through concrete, then through brick and stone, to Lake Superior. Brewery Creek is so named because it flowed to—and supplied the water for—the 1857 Luce Brewery above 1st Street near 7th Avenue East, predecessor to Fink’s Lake Superior Brewery, which eventually became Fitger’s Brewery.

Unlike early Chester Creek, the upper portions of Brewery Creek were very close to residences. Duluthians began to enclose this creek in 1893 with a 300-foot tunnel between 1st and Superior Streets at 6th Avenue East. However, as the area above the crossing became more populated, the stream became a veritable open sewer for the East Hillside. Lament over its abuse became the regular subject of editorials.

One upper section of the Brewery Creek Drain features a short waterfall from a concrete culvert to a brick-and-stone room, seen here lit with candles and LED lights. (Image: substreet.org | Click to Enlarge)

To discourage the practice, and to stimulate development in that area, the city decided to enclose Brewery Creek within a stone tunnel between East 6th Street and 7th Street in late 1904. Nobody would want to think of drinking beer made from that stream, but they needn’t have worried; the brewery moved to Superior Street and began drawing its water from Lake Superior in the early 1880s.

In 1905 the project was turned from a culvert strictly used for freshwater into a one combined with sewage. The city found that if it did so, it could transfer some of the cost of the underground construction and the dynamite blasting entailed with it to the property owners. Even today, generally, property owners pay for their own sewer connections and cities pay for culverts for creeks and storm runoff.

Most homeowners could not pay for specialists to dynamite holes for their sanitary piping like the city could. In fact, to build many of its sewers, Duluth hired actual iron miners from the Mesabi Range to deploy explosive charges for tunnel construction.

The Zenith City’s rapid expansion through the 1920s demanded the enclosure of more of the creek. In 1913, the area between East 6th and East 8th Streets were revisited, adding another block of tunnels and enlarging the 1904 project. The lower portions of the drain were built largely out of brick in the early 1920s, part of which may be viewed today in the alley between East 4th and 3rd Streets, in the parking lot for the Whole Foods Co-Op.

Looking out of the Brewery Creek outfall at Lake Superior at night. (Image: substreet.org | Click to Enlarge)

Duluthians may recall seeing Brewery Creek a little too closely in 1972, when three inches of rain fell in about two hours, causing massive flooding across Duluth. That day, the invisible became visible when the culvert, which crosses 6th Avenue East around Tenth Street, exploded from the pressure of the water. Before long, the force of the water began to wash out the streets, houses, and businesses along Sixth Avenue. President Nixon declared the flood a federal disaster as Duluthians counted damages exceeding $22 million.

Brewery Creek also made a mess of things during the 2012 flood, when clogged culverts forced the creek to the surface in several location, damaging businesses and homes and, during the storm, pouring over the wall of I-35 above the Fitger’s complex like a waterfall onto the highway below.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….

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