An Extremely Brief History of Duluth
From Zenith: A Postcard Perspective of Historic Duluth, copyright © 2005, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota
Boom, Bust, Boom
Two years before the Treaty of 1854, George Stuntz had pulled up stakes in Superior, made his way to Minnesota Point, and driven them back down, becoming Duluth’s unofficial first resident of European descent. He wasn’t alone for long. With the treaty in place, mining speculators hoping to make it rich pulling copper from the ground swarmed to the Minnesota side of the head of the lakes, and by 1859 had platted no less than eleven townships: Fond du Lac, Oneota (much of West Duluth or “Spirit Valley”), Rice’s Point, Fremont (near the present-day site of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center and Union Depot), Duluth (Minnesota Point and downtown), North Duluth (roughly Central Hillside), Portland (roughly East Hillside), Endion (roughly the eastern edge of East Hillside to the Congdon neighborhood), and Belville (Lakeside).
Legend muddies the truth behind the naming of Duluth Township, which then included Minnesota Point. Early settlers George and William Nettleton allegedly organized a picnic on Minnesota Point on a lovely summer’s day in 1856, inviting those Superiorites making claims on the newly platted township to propose a name for the fledgling city. After many names were suggested and rejected, the Reverend J. G. Wilson of Pittsburgh regaled the audience with the tale of Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut, and his listeners enthusiastically received the name “Duluth,” anointing the choice with the popping of champagne corks just as the sun set; the crowd toasted Duluth, surely to be the “Queen of the West.”
A wonderful tale, and indeed Wilson proposed the name, but the picnic itself probably never occurred (and the reverend may have hailed from Massachusetts or Logansport, Indiana). He had been promised a deed to two lots if he came up with a moniker for the town, and after researching books borrowed from George Nettleton, Wilson came up with a list, “Duluth” among the choices. He got his land.
Those first Duluthians—and residents of other fledgling townships—included mostly transplanted Superiorites such as the families of the Nettleton brothers, Colonel J. B. Culver, Orrin Rice, Reverend Ely, and Sidney Luce as well as the Lewis Merritt family of Oneota and others whose names remain prominent in Duluth. Still more came from throughout the country to stake their claims on what they hoped would become, as General George B. Sargent had predicted, the “center of trade of twenty American states yet unborn, and the British trade of the Red River settlements, and of Hudson’s Bay.” The local population grew to about 1,500. As in Superior, many speculated that Duluth would surpass Chicago as a center of trade and a destination for immigrants, and that its population would grow to 300,000 by the end of the century.
The Panic of 1857 put an end to such thoughts, triggering an exodus of fortune seekers away from Lake Superior’s shores. By 1860 just 353 persons populated the three largest townships of Fond du Lac, Oneota, and Duluth. According to early resident and amateur historian Jerome Eugene Cooley, those who stayed on would become known as the “Ancient and Honorable Order of the Fish Eaters,” for when times were tough they had little to eat but “fish or snowballs.” The Civil War also took a toll on the local population, as the unemployed left the region to find work fighting for the Union. Those who toughed it out scrabbled to find ways to make a living, including four young men—one with brewing skills—who opened a brewery along a waterway they named Brewery Creek, about two blocks from the site where the Fitger’s Brewery would later stand.
The coming of the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad from St. Paul to Duluth, backed by a dandy from Philadelphia, would change all that. Financier Jay Cooke arrived in Duluth in 1866, sporting a silk hat and handing out coins to Ojibwe on Minnesota Point (they called him “Great White Father”). Anticipation that Cooke’s rail line would put easy money in the pockets of landowners spawned another land rush in 1869, and the population soared. James J. Egan, a state representative, would say that “the lifeless corpse of Duluth…touched by the wand of Jay Cooke, sprang fullarmed from the tomb.” Soon they were calling Duluth “Jay Cooke’s Town” and “Philadelphia’s western suburb.”
Rumors of gold also brought a crush of speculators to the townships on the Minnesota side of the St. Louis. An 1865 geological survey claimed the shores of Lake Vermilion, north of Duluth, were rife with gold deposits. Prospectors swarmed to the region and even built a rough road, staked out by George Stuntz, along an old trail used for centuries by Dakota and Ojibwe (it ran roughly along what is today Seventh Avenue East in Duluth, County Road 4, and State Highway 135). Mining began in earnest in 1866, but prospectors uncovered very little gold. When Lewis Merritt visited the region, blacksmith
North Albert Posey showed him something he had found that would prove much more valuable: a chunk of iron ore, evidence of a vast deposit that would later change the face of the entire Arrowhead region.
Despite the lack of gold in the Lake Vermilion area, the summer of 1866 found Duluthians feeling pretty confident about the region’s future. At an Independence Day picnic on Minnesota Point, newspaper publisher Dr. Thomas Foster (who produced Duluth’s first paper, the Minnesotian) gave a grand oration, during which he called Duluth the “Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.” It was a speech filled with optimism; by January 1869 just fourteen families lived at the base of Minnesota Point.
Duluthians elected their first mayor, J. B. Culver, the next year. If you believe Jerome Eugene Cooley, some Ojibwe men contributed to the voting roles. They had come to town, they thought, to attend a great celebration. Instead some unethical townspeople plied their “guests” with drink then forced them to put on borrowed pants and cast votes under the name “Joe LePorte” in exchange for another drink. Election officials counted 448 ballots that day, “without troubling to get out the woman vote,” as Cooley says. By the middle of 1870, the population of Duluth had grown to 3,130 people—a mix of “Fish Eaters,” “Sixty-Niners” (who had arrived the year before for the land and gold rush), and the European immigrants who would build Jay Cooke’s railroad and log the hillsides for timber that would be milled and become Duluth’s first houses. The once-dying township was becoming a thriving city.
Again with the Booming and the Busting and the Booming
While Duluth floundered to find its feet, life in the late 1850s and throughout the 1860s had been more stable across the bay in Superior, Wisconsin, then considered the only town of note in the entire region. But the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad’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 dropthe 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. Loggers felled virgin timber throughout the region, and lumber mills sprung up on Rice’s Point and along Lake Avenue, where Roger Munger set up his mill. Cooke became the mills’ biggest customer, as they provided timber for his railroads and Union Improvement and Elevator Company, which built the huge grain terminal Elevator A along the shore on the outer harbor. The railroads built docks to reach Elevator A, connecting the waterfront to the railway. Elevator Q went up along the shore and more were built on Rice’s Point; a breakwater rose to protect ships anchored at Duluth outside the bay. The shipbuilding industry blossomed, and commercial fishing thrived. The Northern Pacific began working its way to Duluth as well. When the first telegraph reached the region, it would connect St. Paul to Duluth, not Superior. On March 6, 1870, the Minnesota State Legislature officially declared Duluth a city.
The fledgling city got off to a shaky start. Superior Street was little more than a trail of mud, boulders, and stumps. Camille Poirer, who would start Duluth Tent & Awning and create the Duluth Pack, hired a man to act as the city’s water department, transporting unfiltered Lake Superior water in “a large hogshead put on a cart.” As the fire department attempted to respond to its first call—a fire on Minnesota Point—the steam engine itself caught fire; flames spread to the fire hall, destroying it. On April 21 the city appointed Robert Bruce police chief, whose duties included lighting lamps on moonless nights; by June he had disappeared—along with the breakwater construction crew’s payroll, with which he had been entrusted. Despite these early setbacks, the city continued to move forward.
On the other side of the St. Louis Bay, snubbed Superior still had one great advantage over Duluth: the Superior entry. This natural divide between Minnesota Point and Wisconsin Point allowed ships to easily sail into the harbor where the St. Louis River feeds into Lake Superior. This kept a great deal of industry on the Wisconsin side of the bay, and the towns became rivals. In 1869 Duluth leaders had revived an idea first discussed in 1857, the building of a ship canal through Minnesota Point. Instead the Army Corps of Engineers had built piers at Superior’s natural entry and dredged seven miles of channels from Superior Bay to Duluth. Still, Minnesota lobbied hard for its own ship canal—Lake Superior had turned the breakwater built on the lakeside of the point to rubble, and docking ships outside of the harbor would never be safe. In March 1870 the Minnesota Legislature created the Minnesota Canal and Harbor Improvement Commission, contracting with W. W. Williams & Co. to dig a canal. In autumn of that year, the steam dredge Ishpeming took its first bite out of Minnesota Point.
Superior businessmen viewed the canal as a great threat to their city’s future and filed suit in federal courts to stop the dredging. This legal action and a particularly tough winter put a stop to the digging, but when the spring thaw came, nothing had been resolved. So the Ishpeming went back to work. In June, Superior got the answer it wanted, and the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Minnesotans in Duluth to “absolutely desist and abstain from digging, excavating and constructing…said canal.”
Unfortunately for those on the Wisconsin side, a telegram tipped off Duluthians of the pending order three days before it would officially arrive. By the time the courier, none other than surveyor George Stuntz, arrived in Duluth—well, let’s have the legend first.
As author Dora May McDonald tells the story, many claim that as the Ishpeming went to work on a Saturday morning in April 1871, it struck frozen gravel. Soon after this, word came that Stuntz had left St. Paul bound for Duluth with the injunction in hand, destined to arrive Monday morning. Resilient Duluthians sent out a call for every able-bodied man, woman, and child in Duluth “who could handle a spade or shovel, or beg, borrow, or steal a bucket or a bushel basket.” Citizens rushed to the work site and “dug, scratched, and burrowed till it was finished.” They toiled throughout the day Saturday and long into the night, the women tending fires and providing food and coffee, then all day Sunday and Sunday night. Sunday also brought rowboats filled with angry Superiorites who watched and heckled the efforts of the Duluthians. At the break of dawn on Monday morning, they had cleared the canal.
Truth be told, the Ishpeming did all the work. It starting digging in September, 1870, stopped for the winter, and started again April 24, 1871. Less than a week later it had finished its initial cut of the canal, and the injunction didn’t arrive in Duluth until weeks later. Though it would take until 1877, the courts eventually allowed Duluth to keep its canal.
Unfortunately for some, more than just watercraft began passing through the canal. Early settlers had platted the township of Fremont between Minnesota Point and Rice’s Point, a marshy area that included many floating islands experts speculate were “probably caused by driftwood and accumulating vegetable matter.” New currents caused by dredging the ship canal swept a great many of these floating islands against the shore of Minnesota Point or through the canal and out to the big lake; in either case, the islands broke up, and Fremont essentially floated way, along with the hopes of those who originally settled the town site.
Fremont residents weren’t the only ones damaged by the canal’s creation. Superiorites were up in arms—literally. One firm advertised a sale of surplus muskets leftover from the Civil War to arm Superiorites against those cliff dwellers across the bay, but no real threat ever developed. In order to pacify their angry neighbors, Duluth issued $100,000 in bonds to build a dike from Rice’s Point to Superior to separate shipping traffic between the two towns, but currents of the St. Louis River destroyed it. An 1872 effort by the Northern Pacific Railroad created a mile-long dike to again divide Superior Bay, but the following winter’s ice and wind helped currents destroy that as well. Nature wouldn’t allow man to divide the harbor, so the towns had to learn to share it.
The Northern Pacific Railroad helped complete the canal in 1872. Dredgers had cut the canal sixteen feet deep, and piers made of 24-foot rockfilled timber cribs stood on both sides of the canal’s entire
2,470-foot length. The canal opened Duluth to another population burst. By 1873 more than five thousand souls called Duluth home. Schools and churches popped up all over town; logging, rail, shipping (chiefly grain), and fishing industries flourished; and retail shops began selling not only necessities, but luxury goods as well. Michael Fink had bought the fledgling brewery that the Fish Eaters had started during the lean years of the 1850s and would in turn sell it to brewmaster August Fitger and his partner Percy Anneke just a year later, creating Fitger’s Brewery. The Duluth Iron and Steel Company fired up a blast furnace on Rice’s Point. It all looked pretty promising, but the old timers had seen it boom—and bust—before.
And they would see it bust again: in September 1873, Jay Cooke ran out of money. This not only impacted Duluth particularly hard, it also sent the national economy spiraling first into panic and then into depression. Duluth businesses had gambled their future on Duluth becoming the railroad’s easternmost supply point, but work on the Northern Pacific halted. Within two months nearly half of Duluth’s business owners closed up shop, many of them going bankrupt along the way. Duluth’s population sank to below 1,500 people. In 1877 state officials allowed Duluth’s charter to expire, reducing it to village status. But the very depression that shut down Duluth would in the end redeem it. The faltering economy caused many to take their chances farming the great plains, and the fruits of their labor were shipped back east—through Duluth’s and Superior’s docks. Grain elevators rose on Rice’s Point and Conner’s Point across the bay. By 1881 so much grain made its way through the Twin Ports that officials formed the Duluth Board of Trade; five years later elevators dotting the harbor docks held twenty-two million bushels.
The first half of the 1880s saw a renewed interest in industry. As the decade began, the Northern Pacific found competition in the St. Paul & Duluth, which had replaced Jay Cooke’s failed Lake Superior & Mississippi; by 1889 sixteen thousand miles of track served ten railroads that carried goods to and from
Duluth’s docks and warehouses. During this same time Charlemagne Tower, Jr. and his capitalist friends from the east began investing in the iron fields near Lake Vermilion, opening the Vermilion Iron Range and forming the Minnesota Iron Company and the Duluth & Iron Range Railway. But Duluth missed out at first, as Tower directed his railroad to Agate Bay (now Two Harbors) and erected massive ore docks on its shores. The first shipment of iron ore from the town of Tower headed for Agate Bay on July 3, 1884, where it was loaded onto the steamer Hecla destined for Philadelphia. The Arrowhead Region’s iron mining industry had begun in earnest. The lumber industry had also picked up steam. Many of the sawmills that failed with Jay Cooke fired up again, more were built, and by the midpoint of the decade they dotted the St. Louis Bay from Rice’s Point to Oneota, annually cutting about ten million board feet of lumber.
As industry grew in the 1880s, so did the town’s population. Neighborhoods sprang up in all directions from downtown. By 1887 streetcars operated by the Duluth Street Railway Company, organized in 1881, ran fifty-five blocks, from Twentythird Avenue West to Twenty-second Avenue East. Public and parochial schools rose along with more churches and St. Luke’s and St. Mary’s hospitals. The 1885 state census placed the city’s population at 18,036. The village continued to pay off the defunct city’s debts, clearing the books in early 1887, which allowed the state legislature to sanction the incorporation of the city. Nearly 33,000 people lived in the Zenith City that year, and they elected village president John B. Sulphin mayor in March. The township was once again a city.
The Zenith City Prospers
As the decade came to an end, the view from the Zenith City was framed in promise. Duluth stretched eastward from roughly Fortieth Avenue West to the outskirts of Endion and included many of the townships that once hoped to become grand cities all their own: Endion, Portland, North Duluth, and
Rice’s Point (Fremont, of course, had floated away with the birth of the canal). It did not include Minnesota Point, which had incorporated itself as the village of Park Point after Duluth failed in 1877. The village refused to rejoin the newly sanctioned city until a bridge was built connecting the point to the rest of the city—the digging of the ship canal had cut off its residents in 1871. Duluth promised a bridge, and Park Point became part of Duluth in 1889.
The expansion continued into the 1890s. In 1891 Duluth acquired Duluth Heights, Glen Avon, Hunter’s Park, Kenwood, Morley Heights, Piedmont Heights, and Woodland. Two years later saw the eastward annexation of Belville, Lakeside Village, New London, and Lester Park. Duluth still did not include anything from Fond du Lac to Oneota, but it was only a matter of time. West Duluth, including Oneota as a neighborhood, had incorporated in 1888. Its founders widely believed it deserved to become the “new Pittsburgh” after gaining a blast furnace and tolling mill from the Duluth Iron and Steel Company—but that vision didn’t materialize, and it became a part of Duluth in 1894, along with Bay View Heights andshipping enterprises donated generously to the construction of grand churches their families attended. The laborers who built those buildings—European immigrants, for the most part—took up residence in homes and row houses along the hillside and further uphill, in the Heights. The Incline Railway went up in 1891 to bring workers from their homes in the Heights to work downtown and along the waterfront. A pump house went up in Lakewood, east of Lester Park to bring fresh water to a growing population and a sewer system went underground to carry wastewater away.
The new growth created new demand: the increasing population needed to eat. This spurred the rebirth of the commercial fishing industry, which had shut down fifty years earlier with the demise of the American Fur Company. Firms such as the Lake Superior Fish Company and A. Booth and Sons employed thousands from Duluth to Isle Royale and Superior to Ashland on the Wisconsin side, their harvest of lake trout, siskiwit, herring, and pike feeding populations throughout the entire Midwest.
During the winter fishing companies shipped fresh fish (“frozen with the wiggle in its tail,” as one Duluth firm advertised) as far away as Montana.
At Sault Ste. Marie on the other end of the big lake, the federal government expanded the locks between Lake Huron and Lake Superior, allowing much larger ships with greater cargo capacity to make their way to and from the Zenith City. Back in Duluth, Captain Alexander McDougall saw this development as an opportunity to get into the shipbuilding business, another industry that would intermittently fuel Duluth’s and Superior’s economies. McDougall came up with a radical design: a barge like ship with a flat bottom, a rounded top, and a spoon-shaped bow. He called the ships “whalebacks.” Others called them “pig boats” because their blunted bows looked like a hog’s snout. McDougall found immediate success: his boats made great ore carriers, and with the financial backing of John D. Rockefeller, he started the American Steel Barge Company. Unfortunately for Duluth, some local businessmen made a stink about the noise a shipbuilding operation would create, and so McDougall moved his operations across the bay to West Superior.
Investing in McDougall’s funny-looking boats wouldn’t be Rockefeller’s last interest in the region; the industrialist later became part of iron mining lore as well. When Lewis Merritt first returned from Lake Vermilion in 1866, he had told his seven sons that the Arrowhead country would one day be covered with mines “worth more than all the gold in California.” So the Merritt boys had gone looking, and eventually, on the western end of a region the Ojibwe called “Mesaba,” found ore rich enough in iron to bring to market. In 1890 the Merritt brothers drilled a mine at a site they called Mountain Iron. The next year they built the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railway to transport the ore to Duluth, giving birth to the Mesabi Iron Range. The Merritts had performed all this work on speculation, and before they could generate profit to pay for it, their creditors came calling, demanding payment. That’s when Rockefeller stepped in, trading the cash the Merritts needed for a significant interest in their mining and railroad operations. By 1894 the mines still failed to produce a profit, and stock values fell, forcing the brothers to sell their shares to Rockefeller. They later tried to sue the industrialist for fraud, but only managed to get back just under a million dollars—barely enough to pay off their debt. After toiling ceaselessly for five years, the Merrits had created and lost a fortune. Their efforts did little for them, but they had created the Mesabi Range, which, along with Charlemagne Tower’s Vermilion Range and, eventually, the Cuyuna Range, made up the Minnesota Iron Range in the heart of Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region. The Range would be a major contributor to the region’s economy for nearly one hundred years to follow.
As the century ended, commercial fishing and lumber industries reached their peak, the Army Corps of Engineers completed improvements on the ship canal, and Duluth’s population had reached nearly fifty-three thousand. Attorney and real estate investor Samuel Frisbee Snively had begun a labor of love, a roadway that would wind from his farm near Hawk Ridge to the Lake Superior shore near the mouth of the Lester River, crossing the western arm of the Lester and Amity Creek over several stone bridges along the way. (It would later be known as Seven Bridges Road.) Duluth’s other great parkway continued to grow and change, and in 1899 the Park Board renamed Terrace Parkway—now extended by an additional mile—“Rogers Boulevard” in honor of the man who had first envisioned it.
In 1905 Duluth would enjoy a banner year. The Great Northern Power Company constructed the Thomson Dam, bringing electricity to town. That same year Duluth fulfilled a promise to Park Point residents made sixteen years earlier as the Aerial Transfer Bridge rose up and reached over the canal.
Shipping, iron, and lumber magnates had been building stately homes in Duluth’s eastern environs and along London Road, and that year construction reached its symbolic peak when work began on Duluth’s most famous mansion, Glensheen, the Congdon Estate. Lakeside blossomed with grand Victorian homes built by lawyers, merchants, and other professionals as well as the more modest houses of the servant class who had found employment tending to the estates and families of the rich. That same year city fathers would first make the oft-repeated claim that Duluth had “more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the U.S.” Just two years later the 1907 shipping season saw Duluth overcome New York in tonnage that moved through the harbor—Duluth, in the middle of the continent, had become the biggest port in the U.S. By 1910 more than seventy-eight thousand people lived within its borders.
The same year Duluth surpassed New York, the United States Steel Corporation announced plans to build a “monster” plant in Duluth as part of a compromise between the Steel Trust and political leaders throughout the state to kill a bill that would have essentially doubled taxes for steel producers and ore exporters alike. But it would take eight years to get the plant up and running—it didn’t produce steel until 1915. By then U.S. Steel had invested twenty million dollars into the project and had built an entire town along the way. Named for U.S. Steel founder J. P. Morgan, Morgan Park sprang up on the banks of the St. Louis between Gary and Riverside. The company town (only U.S. Steel employees and their families could live there) was built with concrete manufactured on site at the Universal Portland Cement Company, a U.S. Steel subsidiary: the homes, buildings, and churches (one each for Catholics and Protestants) were made of poured concrete and cinder block. Civic and business leaders optimistically thought that the U.S. Steel plant would be one of many that would dot the shoreline “from Fond du Lac to Two Harbors” and that the population would reach 300,000 by 1920, but that promise never materialized.
Between the Wars
In 1915 Duluth appeared to be firing on all cylinders. Commercial fishing on Lake Superior hit its all-time high; Duluth fishing interests alone hauled in ten thousand tons of fish. Other industries profited from the first world war: U.S. Steel, itself fed by ore from the Iron Range, cranked out steel to feed the war machine. The Mesabi Range alone produced twenty million tons of ore during the war years. Alexander McDougall, who had closed his shipbuilding operation in New Superior as the century turned, opened a new operation at Riverside along with some new partners—Chester Congdon, Marshall Alworth, and Julius Barnes—and began making freighters eight at a time for the allied nations. McDougall- Duluth employed so many people that the company essentially turned Riverside into a company town much like Morgan Park. During the war and through to 1921, the McDougall- Duluth Company and other shipbuilders in Duluth built 103 vessels.
Prohibition, ratified in 1919, hit one of Duluth’s first industries hard. The brewery operation that started with four men during the lean years of the Fish Eaters had grown into Fitger’s Brewery, which by 1918 cranked out 150,000 barrels a year. Two other breweries, Duluth Brewing and Malting and People’s Brewing, kept many a family fed in Duluth as well. During Prohibition all three had to shut down their kettles and bottling lines. In order to keep their employees working, they turned to a variety of non-alcoholic drinks and other products—including soft drinks, candy, and even cigars—but they did not operate at full capacity again until 1933, when Prohibition ended. The lumber industry also suffered. It was thought all but dead in Duluth by 1920 when the Alger-Smith mill closed, but many had already considered lumber pretty much done in 1912, when Canadian investors dismantled the Howard Mill and hauled it north, across the border.
Despite Prohibition and the demise of lumber, the Twenties were good to Duluth. In 1920 the city held 98,917 residents who enjoyed the use of fifty city parks, and over 17,000 students filled its forty-one public schools. Grain elevators and coal and ore docks operated at maximum capacity, and as went the docks, so went the shipping industry. In 1921 Duluthians elected Sam Snively to the first of four consecutive terms as mayor. A longtime fan of Duluth’s park system and a road-builder in his own right, Snively made William Rogers’ dream of connecting the parks by a parkway his pet project. By 1929 Rogers Boulevard stretched westward all the way to Jay Cooke Park and the town renamed it “Skyline Parkway.” The Twin Ports continued to prosper throughout the decade, and Duluth’s population hit an all-time high of 112,000 residents in 1928.
But then in 1929 it hit the same wall that every other city in the nation would run smack into: the Great Depression. It affected every industry, and by 1930 one-third of all Duluthians had lost their jobs. Still, Duluth somehow managed to progress. The Williamson-Johnson Municipal Airport, Duluth’s first foray into air travel, opened in 1930, the same year workers finished transforming the Aerial Bridge from a transfer bridge to a lift bridge. Throughout the Depression not a single Duluth bank failed, and the city took advantage of Franklin Roosevelt’s W.P.A. program, with 450 area projects—from park improvements to storm sewers under downtown streets—keeping locals working.
But while most of Duluth weathered the Great Depression fairly well, the fishing industry again floundered. Already on the decline, it soon went the way of logging: its yield by the mid-1930s had dropped to less than four thousand tons and would soon fall to less than one thousand tons. World War II would briefly revive the shipbuilding industry and boost the demand for iron ore, but even that stalwart industry would slow to a crawl. While the Mesabi Range continued to produce impressive tonnage (and still does), the Vermilion shut down in 1963, and the Cuyuna, which never attained the level of the others, closed in the mid-1970s. Shipping would remain strong, but Duluth, Superior, and the smaller towns that dotted Lake Superior’s north and south shores would have to look at new ways to bolster the local economy.
As the 1930s came to a close, one landmark went up as another came down: Enger Tower, a gift from local businessman Bert Enger, rose above the town in June, but the Incline Railway carried its last passengers on Labor Day. Sam Snively, though voted out of office in 1937, had completed his vision of William Rogers’ plan; laborers had finally finished work on Skyline Parkway, which ran twenty-eight miles from Jay Cooke Park in the west to connect with Snively’s Seven Bridges Road in the east, nearly the entire length of Duluth.