Duluth Heights

by John Fritzen

About the Author:
The author, John Fritzen, is one of the pioneer residents of Duluth Heights, having arrived in 1901 at the age of four, and has lived much of his life in the community. He served in the Headquarters Detachment of the 76th Division in World War I. He has spent thirty-nine years as a forester in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and four of those years as superintendent of Jay Cooke State Park. A life member of the St. Louis County Historical Society and the Minnesota State Horticultural Society, he became interested in the history of Northeastern Minnesota and has authored six booklets and manuscripts. He married Miss Ruth Gafvert in 1926 and they presently reside at the Highland Chateau. Mr. Fritzen wrote this history after 1979 and prior to 1991.

The Duluth Heights Community Club (Image: Duluth Public Library)

When 1991 rolls around Duluth Heights will be one hundred years old and when the Centennial is celebrated, it will be interesting to look back and reflect on the many happenings that took place in the long period of time.

Before Development

Old timers described the level section of the Heights as a small grassy lake, back in the wilderness days and prior to development. It had two outlets with Brewery Creek flowing eastward, paralleling the present Central Entrance and emptying into Lake Superior near Sixth Avenue East. In the late l850s a small one-horse brewery was built on the bank of the creek on First Street. This accounts for the name. Buckingham Creek flows in a southerly direction, through the stone quarry, into the Twin Ponds on the Skyline Parkway and then down the West Hillside to the St. Louis Bay.

There is plenty of evidence of the old lake bed. Bobby Parkins, an elderly Scotchman. who came to the Head of the Lakes in the early days, often told of catching pickerel in the lake where the Heights is now. When my father built his store at the corner of Highland Avenue and the Central Entrance, it was necessary to drive piling in the peat and  muck in order to obtain footings. There are numerous places nearby where the same condition existed. Since peat and muck are indicators of a dried up lake it is obvious that the location was, at one time, under water. One of the early residents claimed that Brewery Creek was a good trout stream before drainage and other improvements lowered the water levels.

There were some scattered stands of large white pine between the Heights and the Hilltop. These trees ended up as boards and planks at the Taylor Sawmill, on the Bayfront at Fifth Avenue West. For many years the old stumps served as fuel for bonfires, much to the annoyance of our special policeman, Mr. Butler. On the slope between the stone quarry and the top of Orange Street, there were many sugar maple trees which put on a beautiful display of color every fall. An early resident told of a stand of large maple near what is now Sunnyside Acres, where the Indians came to make sugar and syrup every spring.

Commercial logging took place here in the l870s and early l880s and old woodsmen often told of the difficulties involved in hauling loads of logs down the hillsides of Duluth to the sawmills. It was a matter of wrapping chains around the sled runners and using generous amounts of sand in the ruts.

Highland Improvement Company

In 1891 the place was a beehive of activity with surveys being made and improvements started. On June 27, 1891 the first plat of the Heights was filed with the St. Louis County Register of Deeds by the Highland Improvement Company. Its officers were J. A. Willard, President; Charles P. Craig, Vice President; C. M. Gray, Secretary; and E. P. Alexander, General Manager. Streets and avenues were graded, plank sidewalks laid, street lighting installed and the street car line built.

On September 28, 1892 a full page advertisement appeared, in the Duluth Daily Tribune announcing the completion of the street car line and the sale of lots. The Highland Company offered free lunches and music and listed the price of lots at $150.00 to $300.00. Prospective buyers were instructed to take the Incline to the top of the hill and then ride out on 1-4 the new car line.

Duluth Heights enjoyed a short boom. Many houses were built along with the Lowell School, the Highland Presbyterian Church, three stores, a town hall and a rustic dance pavilion. A small sawmill was started on Pig Farm Hill by the Highland Lumber Company. It operated until the nearby timber was gone.

Everything looked rosy until the effects of the Panic of 1893 began to be felt and the young community was dealt a serious blow. There was much unemployment, people moved out, and vacant houses appeared everywhere. Bob Metcalf told of having been offered any house on Lemon Street, at that time for $75.00, except the one he decided on which was $80.00. Another early resident told as to how he was offered free rent if he would continue to live in the house and protect the two adjoining properties.

We came to the Heights in 1901 during a prolonged period of rainy weather. There was mud and standing water all over. When we walked on the plank sidewalks water squirted up through the cracks. Things were beginning to brighten by then and the community was coming out of a long sleep. Vacant houses were being bought up and occupied and there was a cautious feeling of optimism.

McEwan’s Store

George McEwen had a grocery store at the corner of Palmetto Street (Central Entrance) and Highland Avenue, the only business of any importance at the time. It burned about 1907. A block west was a small store building, originally meant to be the neighborhood saloon. People objected so the city did not grant a license. For many years the building was occupied by an elderly couple named Adams. who ran a small grocery store. A two-story building had been erected on Palm Street but was not used as such except for a short period as a feed store. When George McEwen’s store was destroyed by fire, the building was moved to take its place. At that location it served for many years as a grocery store.

Lowell School

The Lowell School was built in 1894. It consisted of four classrooms and an office and served eight grades. In 1911 it was doubled in size and in later years enlarged again. At first the attendance was limited to Heights children but with the coming of school bus transportation it served the outlying territory as well. The first bus was a horse-drawn affair. About 1921 the service was motorized.

School children of the early period would remember Max Allexhausser. Supervisor of Physical Education, who came around once a month or so. He was very much the German drillmaster, who always gave us a good workout and generally concluded the class by telling a story. There was also the music supervisor who came to the school frequently and, since the Civil War and the Spanish-American War were not very far in the past, quite a little of the music was war songs. Our principal for a few years was Mr. House, a foe of tobacco in every form. It was not uncommon for him to round up a few of the older boys, who came to school smelling of tobacco, and deliver them a stiff lecture on the evils of “that vile weed” as he termed it. There were various activities that brightened the school year such as parties, programs, plays, the annual class picnic, graduation exercises, and the alumni dinner for the former pupils.

Highland Presbyterian Church

The Highland Presbyterian Church was built in 1893. Its original location was on the lower side of Hugo Street, just north of Myrtle Street. Later on the building was moved to Palmetto Street and a stone foundation added. It served until 1974 when there was a merger with the First Presbyterian Church. The property was then sold to the Duluth Board of Education and the building torn down. The stained glass portrait of Christ and the Tucker Memorial were removed and placed 1n the First Presbyterian Church.

The question was sometimes asked as to why a Presbyterian Church in a community that leaned heavily to Scandinavians. The explanation is that in the early days many of the residents were English, Scotch, or Canadians and this was a logical denomination at the time. During the eighty or so years of its life the church provided spiritual guidance for the community. It had a large Sunday School with so many children at times that extra classes were held in the fire hall. There was an active Christian Endeavor. The church also played a part in the social and recreational life of the Heights.

The Fire Hall

The fire hall was built about 1897 or 1898 and carried the title of “Engine House Number 9. The original cost was $200.00 for the land and $1326.00 for the building. It was a two-story frame structure, originally planned to provide housing for a team downstairs and living quarters for a fireman on the upper floor. Since the man was paid on a by the run basis, the arrangement did not work.

The first alarm system consisted of a short pole on which was hung a triangular iron similar to the gut hammers of the lumber camps. When an alarm was to be sounded someone would pound on it with an iron bar. Unfortunately it had too short a hearing range to be effective. For many years the leaning pole could be seen near McEwen’s Store. Eventually it was replaced with a loud gong on the outside wall of the fire hall.

With the acquisition of the chemical unit, arrangements were made with local teamsters to haul it and the pay was $5.00 + a run. If no team was handy the men dragged it to the fire the best they could. When the tank was empty it was hauled back to the fire hall for a refill. Since there were ·no water mains or hydrants on the Heights, the next best was open cisterns at a few locations where water was available for pumps or bucket brigades.

The young community did not have the best fire protection but it was about all the city could provide at the time. The nearest other fire equipment was at a downtown fire hall, over two miles away and with an uphill climb for horses. In order:to cope with the problem the people organized the Duluth Heights Volunteer Fire Department. There are no records as to when it came into existence but an old book in the possession of Otto Hogan shows the dates of October 29, 1901 to March of 1916. It includes the names of almost every well known male resident, upwards of 55 members. The dues were ten cents a month, regular meetings were held, and dances and parties were sponsored. It is interesting to note the results of two entertainments. On Friday, October 11, 1902 a supper was held. The sale of tickets brought in $25.25, the expenses were $3.82, and the net was $21.43. On November 7, 1902 a dance was held. The sale of tickets brought in $15.50, music cost $8.00, other expenses $4.75, and the profit was $2.75.

There is no information as to how the volunteer fire department functioned as a unit in an emergency, but it seems like a case of every man and boy responding at the sound of the alarm and doing the best he could. There had been several bad fires but the worst one was when George McEwen’s store burned. It happened in the late winter when frame buildings were pretty well dried out. The fire started in the upstairs apartment and spread rapidly. The volunteer firemen responded promptly but their efforts were ~utile and it soon became obvious that the only thing to do was to salvage as much of the stock and fixtures as possible. A chemical fire company from downtown arrived but could do nothing more than protect the utility poles.

Although there were some house fires the problem was largely grass and brush fires and chimney fires. The latter were quite common as most people burned wood. With cedar shingles and chimney fires and the fact that there were no hydrants in the early days, it is surprising that more disastrous fires did not occur. With the advent of motorized fire equipment and water mains there was little need for the fire hall and in 1925 it was torn down.

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