Duluth, 1887–1920 Part 2

This perspective map of Duluth in 1893 was made by Henry Wellge. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Click here to read Part 1.

Duluth Changing
When the first reports came of the impending exploitation of the iron ore deposits of the Vermilion Range, it brought no psychological change of mind in Duluthians. Duluth’s future still seemed to rest almost wholly on the development of the Dakotas and beyond, and although the mining discoveries had some significance, the eyes of Duluth were focussed on grain rather than on ore. But after the Merritts and others had shown, or made known, what they had discovered on the Mesabi Range, Duluth’s viewpoint changed perceptibly. From 1890 to 1893 Duluth certainly might have been classed as a mining center. The Mesabi excitement showed itself in many ways. Duluth was the outfitting camp, as it were-the supply center. But it was more than that; it was the financial center and a large percentage of the people of Duluth took financial or physical interest in the various exploring expeditions. Therefore, it might well be surmised that when the collapse came in 1893, it was a blow severely felt by many Duluthians. It has been stated that more than two hundred companies were formed, most of them in Duluth and by Duluthians, during the first years of excited exploration and frenzied exploitation of the Mesabi Range. Hence, the change in Duluth in the early ’90s, when grain-in general interest at all events-took second place to ore.

It was an unhealthy condition, too sensational, radical and rapid to be stable; yet, looking back, as we now ‘can, upon the developments of the generation from that time, it will probably be generally acknowledged that it was not so unfortunate a change for Duluth, that from grain to ore, as it must have appeared to so many Duluthians a few years later, when the panic of 1893 “shattered the bubble.” It cleared the atmosphere, and while the average man instinctively sympathizes with the weaker side and does not like to see the advantage going to the strong, there can be no doubt that the strong hand of Rockefeller steadied Mesabi affairs in the most critical stage of its history, and kept mining, in general, on that range in a state of progress, even though for some years the outlook was uncertain and the development slow. And the director of destiny eventually caused a stronger hand even than Rockefeller’s, at least in iron and steel, to take the wheel, and the more determined course then set soon brought the once almost-submerged and water-logged enterprise into smoother waters and fairer weather, and ultimately guided it into its present zone of prosperity and national importance. All of which destined Mesabi happenings materially advanced the prosperity of Duluth, the supply center. Duluth has sensed the Mesabi growth in every direction; she reaps an advantage from all angles of the development.

She takes ships, receives, distributes, profiting by each phase of industrial effort created for it by the development of the Mesabi.

Duluth even uses what the Mesabi Range chiefly produces and has done so from the very infancy of mining exploration.

First Mesabi Ore Used in Duluth
The first Mesabi ore to’ be actually used in Duluth was “a straight charge” of ore from the Cincinnati mine, put into the West Duluth blast furnace on January 26, 1893. The experiment was “a pronounced success.” That was the beginning of Duluth’s use of ore from the Mesabi Range.

But what an enormous development there has since been; what vast 293quantities could be dumped into the many furnaces of Duluth’s present steel plant, “the largest individual plant in the Northwest,” at New Duluth.

Force of Circumstances
Duluth veered from grain to ore, in the early ’90s without reason, or at all events without logical reasoning; and she has been held to ore, as her main factor of prosperity and greatness, not so much because of her own efforts as by the sheer force and fortunate course of circumstances. Ore has made Duluth the first port in the world-in actual tonnage of imports and exports, and she has gained that proud position mainly because the greatest single corporation in the world has focussed its energies upon the development of a region tributary to Duluth, for the simple and impelling reason that that mighty company, the United States Steel Corporation, wanted what the region could supply. The commodity will be in demand as long as any remains, and what Duluth’s ultimate position will be by reason of its relation to mining in northern Minnesota cannot be estimated, for there is still much more highgrade ore on the Vermilion and Mesabi ranges than has up to now been won from them, and the recent exploitation of low-grade Mesabi ore, at Babbitt, promises to bring into marketable possibility, as Judge E. H. Gary, chairman of the United States Steel Corporation declared to an assemblage of citizens of Duluth, in 1918, “billions of tons of iron ore not now considered of any value whatever.” So that Duluth’s “obsession,” in the early ’90s, when she “saw only ore,” was not so unfortunate as it seemed to be a few years later, when money was scarce and Duluthians were still suffering from the depression of blighted hopes. Many lost money in Merritt companies; yet few blamed the Merritts for the collapse. Undoubtedly, many of the men were stoical pioneers, used to the vicissitudes of pioneering.

Real Estate Developments
Real estate activity or sluggishness is an almost certain indication of the state of affairs in general. Real estate in Duluth was particularly active from 1886 to almost the end of 1890. Then the Baring failure brought a tightening of money and in many cases awkward situations for even Duluth real estate operators.

Nevertheless, there were some important buildings erected in the early ’90s. The Normal School, the Duluth High School, the Federal Building, or Post Office, Presbyterian Church, and Duluth’s first “sky-scraper,” the Torrey Building. The two schools were erected in 1892, and the others in 1893. And there were several disastrous fires, the Fargusson Block in 1892, the Cathedral in 1892, the Bunnell Block and the St. Louis Hotel, in 1893, and the Board of Trade Building in 1894. Many important public works also were completed, including the Lake Avenue Viaduct, completed in 1892.

The schools and churches and the Board of Trade Building have been referred to elsewhere. The Fargusson fire occurred on December 23, 1892; the building was a four-story structure worth $125,000, and its destruction rendered many concerns officeless. The Chapin-Well Hardware Company, predecessor of the Marshall-Wells Company, the Duluth Missabe and Northern Railway Company, and many lawyers were among the tenants. It was also the headquarters of the Duluth Evening Herald, as,well as of Adam Bede’s little periodical, “The Little Citizen.”

St. Louis Hotel Fire
The St. Louis Hotel fire occurred on Friday morning, January 13, 1893. In an hour, from 10:45 a.m. the hotel “was a wreck,” but fortunately, no lives were lost, such as would 294undoubtedly have been the case had the fire, in that brick-veneered building, occurred during the night. The St. Louis Hotel was built in 1882 by Thomas Cullyford, who was the owner of the Clark House at the time that historic house was destroyed. The Brighton, now known as the New St. Louis Hotel, was built by the same man in 1887. At the time of the fire, the St. Louis Hotel was leased to Burchart and Michaud and Cullyford ran the Brighton, adjoining. With the passing of the Clark House and before the building of the Spaulding, the St. Louis was the premier hotel of Duluth. And for very many years thereafter, it was the favored hotel of many Duluthians. It has not even yet lost its charm for many, the associations of the old place being continued in the New St. Louis, which still is among the leading hotels of the city.

The Bunnell Block Fire
The Bunnell Block, which stood where the Metropole Hotel now is, was a frame structure built in 1882 by Miron Bunnell. It was “a genuine fire-trap,” and in the burning on June 21, 1893, five persons lost their lives.

Lake Avenue Viaduct
Lake Avenue Viaduct was “formally and legally completed” on December 10, 1892. The improvement “had been agitated for fifteen years” and when completed “the entire cost of the betterments” was $109,502.67. Fredin and Wilson “did the masonry and grading work,” and the Shefffer Bridge Company the steel. Work began June 3, 1892.

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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