Duluth, 1887–1920 Part 1

This perspective map of Duluth in 1887 was made by Henry Wellge. (Image: Zenith City Press)

With the reinstatement of the city, in 1887, Duluth had come into its own again; it had redeemed the greater part of the debts of the first city, and could confidently look forward to rapid growth.

One courageous optimist predicted that within five years the population would reach 250,000; and, while there was not much basis, other than optimism, to justify such a prediction, it did seem within reason to expect that Duluth within ten years would pass the 100,000 mark in population. The activity of 1886 was so extraordinary, the general outlook so encouraging, that if residents were likely to err in estimating the extent of its development within a stated period, there was not the least risk in asserting that Duluth was destined to become a very important city. What deterring effect the money stringency of 1893 had upon Duluth it is not possible to gauge; that it had a detrimental effect is certain; and maybe, had it not been for the deadening of enterprise that followed the financial embarrassments, and tragic failure of that period, Duluth might have passed well beyond the 100,000 mark in population before the dawn of the twentieth century. However, nothing could, for long, check the onward march of the City of Duluth. And nothing will, probably. Her place among the great cities of the world is assured. Equally sure is she that she will advance in place, for whereas some of the great cities are finding that age needs constant stimulation to strengthen the action of the flagging heart, Duluth has yet all the enthusiasm, energy, and recuperative power of healthy youth. And the boundless energy of the productive young giant almost at her elbow-the great and rapidly-growing Northwest-must spur her on, to the limit of her strength, to efforts made lighter by the certainty of success. Captain Smallwood stated, in the “Duluth Sunday Morning Sun” of an April, 1887, issue: A glance at the map, a knowledge of productive statistics and a study of the history of the great cities of the world, must convince any person of ordinary sagacity that if nature ever designated any place as a great commercial metropolis, that place is Duluth, Minnesota.

And it may be confidently asserted that Captain Smallwood was not the only Duluthian at that time cognizant of Duluth’s favorable geographical position. The captain, who was undoubtedly an enthusiast, went on to state that: Already Duluth is a city of thirty thousand people, a people possessed of the best blood, brain and muscle that a free country can produce; a people of restless activity, enterprising spirit and dauntless purpose; a people through whose wisdom and forethought the foundations of a great city have been laid here, broad and deep.

That opinion probably reflected the general feeling of Duluthians at that time when Duluth was about to don her richer civic dress, to mark her passing from village to city class.

First Meeting of City Council
The first city election, after the restoration of city charter to Duluth, was held on March 15, 1887, 266though it does not appear that Mr. Sutphin, last mayor of the village and first mayor of the city, was a candidate at that election. It appears that “under the special law granting the charter the mayor held until February, 1888.” The first meeting of the new City Council was held “in the Hosmer Block, on March 22d, 1887.” A Board of Public Works was constituted, consisting of Maj. Guy Wells, C. E., president; B. F. Edwards, clerk; Philip Westaway, street commissioner, and James Fowler, city engineer.

Free from Debt
A month later, on April 11, 1887, it appears, Judge O. P. Stearns, as trustee for the bondholders, “delivered up the last of the old city bonds and coupons, and the old disgrace to the city was finally wiped out.” Once again Duluth could hold her head high, though, as a matter of fact, there was in reality no time at which she might not have done so, for the liabilities she had incurred in her infancy had been mainly because of her determination to fight resolutely for her most vital interests against the state and federal forces arrayed against her, to circumvent and defeat her rightful plans for development, so that Superior might benefit. Duluth won, notwithstanding that the wealth of Wisconsin, and insidious under-currents at Washington, sought her downfall, so that Superior might rise. It was a hard fight, but Duluth won and what is more, paid her debts.

So that, in 1887, the Head of the Lakes, in a business sense, meant Duluth.

Criterion of Duluth’s Good Standing
An indication of how Duluth then stood in national financial circles came during that year. The city had been enjoined from issuing bonds for the building of court-house and city hall, but upon appeal to the Supreme Court of the State of Minnesota, sanction was given the city to issue permanent improvement bonds for city hall. The city awarded the issue of $100,000 general fund bonds and a like amount of permanent improvement bonds to N. W. Harris & Co., of Chicago, and received from that firm $202,550, so that Duluth’s credit then stood above “par.”

Public Improvements of 1887
Cedar block pavements were laid on Superior Street in 1887, the condition of that roadway having become “something terrible,” horses being “mired right in the business section of the city.” Contract was let to Wolff and Truax. A fire-alarm system was established, and on June 13th, “the first of the fire-halls of the city was ordered built at the northeast corner of First Avenue East and Third Street.” The “Board of Public Works was ordered to survey a driveway along the face of the hill,” which work eventually developed the famous Boulevard driveway.

Harbor Improvements
It is recorded that in 1887 “the title to the ship canal was given to the Federal Government, and Congress was petitioned to repay the city for the cost of digging the canal and for the money that the city had expended in building the dike across the harbor by order of the Government, and then taking it out again by order of the Supreme Court of the United States.” About that time also, “M. H. Alworth, of Duluth, as agent for William Boeing, of Duluth, laid claim to the canal, alleging that Boeing had been the real owner of the land through which it was cut.

In the summer of 1888, Alworth passed a string across the canal to be broken by the first vessel that entered the harbor, so as to lay a foundation for a lawsuit, but nothing came of it. Mr. Boeing died soon after this and the matter dropped.”

Building of Spaulding Hotel
Regarding the Spaulding Hotel, which project had its inception in 1887, W. W. Spaulding wrote: Ground was broken April 9, 1887, for the building of the Spaulding Hotel, Meining and Yager, contractors, and it was completed and opened for business June 10, 1889. The building is seven stories high, built of brown stone, brick, and iron, covering three lots, 50×115 feet each, and cost in its construction $350,000.00. Its commencement was the beginning, or forerunner, of the great boom in real estate of 1887 and 1888, and raised and maintained the values for several blocks in its vicinity from 100 to 500 per cent. I was the first … president of the company. The architect of the hotel was James J. Egan, of Chicago, and the contractor for the building was Hennesey Brothers and Agnew, of St. Paul.

Roger S. Munger was “one of the group of public-spirited men who formed the $200,000 company which erected the structure, then one of the most magnificent in the country.” The company having built the hotel had to see that it was occupied, and used for the purpose intended; they found it a somewhat difficult problem. It appears that: Several men were brought from the East, to furnish, equip and run it.

One after another, they shook their heads and turned back. At a meeting, the last prospective tenant said that he would like to tackle it, but that the expense was more than he could stand.

“What would it cost?” asked Mr. Munger.

“At least $60,000,” was the answer.

“I’ll lend you the money, and you can pay me back as you get along,” was the declaration with which Mr. Munger came to the rescue. “Here’s my cheque for $30,000, and I’ll instruct my bank to honor your drafts for the balance.” Mr. Munger was one of the worthy pioneers of Duluth. It is believed that his confidence in the lessee of the Spaulding Hotel would not have been misplaced, had the city not fallen upon hard times following the panic of 1893. He was a very wealthy man, but he lost heavily, in Duluth and St. Paul investments, during the panic of 1893, and the lessee of the Spaulding Hotel became bankrupt.

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


  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.
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