Duluth Triumphant (1869–1873)

This sketch of Duluth appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1871. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The Return of Prosperity to the “Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas”; Dr. Thomas Foster’s Prediction    

After twelve years of poverty and apparent stagnation, Duluth in 1869 came to life. Its growth was really too rapid to be stable and permanent, as the financial check of 1873 demonstrated, yet the permanent works carried through during that brief period of activity on the North Shore were sufficiently substantial to make it impossible for Duluth to ever again fall back to the state of extreme poverty she experienced in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Luke A. Marvin, returning from school at St. Paul in 1867, found that “an air of somnolence” still hovered over “the little settlement.” He wrote:

There was not much change visible in Duluth… A few more houses had been erected, but there was an air of somnolence about the little settlement, and it was not until the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad came that it began to take on signs of life. Then it came with a rush. In the latter part of 1869, and in 1870, the people just came flocking in; in a few months there were two or three thousand people added to the population.

There was no place to put them. There was not a hotel in the place, and every family had taken in as many as it could accommodate, and yet there were thousands to be provided for. They lived in tents; they put up the rudest kinds of shacks for a temporary shelter, until they could erect houses. As fast as the sides and roof of a building were completed, and before doors or windows could be supplied, the place would be rented out for lodgings. The owner would take a piece of chalk and mark off on the floor space sufficient for a man to lie down, number the space and rent it out.

Tenants had to provide their own bedding and blankets. They would buy a piece of ticking, sew it into a bag, and go out and fill it with straw, shavings, sawdust, leaves, anything that would answer the purpose of a bed, and then buy their blankets. They would do their own cooking over fires in the open air, or, if they were fortunate, they would get some of the inhabitants to give them table-board.

This rush of people comprised all classes. Most of them were from the Eastern States. Some came to work on the railroad; some came to engage in business; others in lumbering, or came to work in the woods, as lumbering was then beginning to be a very important business, the railroads alone being great consumers of all kinds of timber for construction purposes.

There was a sawmill at Oneota at that time, and another was started on the lake shore of Duluth. The entire outputs of these mills were sold before it was out and when a vessel-load of lumber came down from Oneota for delivery to the settlers, there would be scores of applicants ready to pay two or three times what it had been sold for.

The owner of the sawmills was R. S. Munger, who saw Duluth grow in six months from a little hamlet of fourteen families to a place of 3,500 inhabitants. He said:

The first thing I did (after coming to Duluth in January of 1869) was to engage in the lumber business. I had the machinery for a small sawmill shipped from St. Paul, and erected my mill on the lake shore. The hills of Duluth furnished me for a long time with the finest quality of pine, and by the time I was in operation, and the rush had set in, I couldn’t begin to supply the demand. I got more machinery and started another mill up the St. Louis River, from which every day the lumber would be rafted down to Duluth. It did seem as if I could never be able to satisfy the demand. The hills of Duluth, and out on Minnesota Point were dotted by thousands of tents, all kinds of the rudest kinds of shacks, and all those thousands were clambering for lumber in order that they might erect houses. It was a good business and I made money rapidly.

Return of Public Plough Demanded

Duluth was certainly taking shape when the editor of the Weekly Minnesotian saw the necessity of inserting a notice in that pioneer Duluth paper, “requesting that the parties who had surreptitiously borrowed the public plow would return it to the authorities, as it was necessary to carry out some contemplated public improvements.” Grading of roads, or public highways had hitherto had little part in the public works of the North Shore, it is more than probable.

Superior Street in 1869

Henry Truelsen (who “first saw Duluth on May 8, 1869,” landing at “Peyton and Kimball’s dock” from a small ferry-boat Captain Thompson was then running between Superior and Duluth), described Superior Street, Duluth, as he first remembered it. He said:

At that time, Superior Street was only a country road that had been cut through. The hillside forest ran right down to the street, or road, and when a settler wished to erect a cabin, he was compelled to clear away the forest where now stand magnificent houses. The street was up and down, like a billowy sea, and later-day grades were made by filling in the hollows.

Opening of Navigation: The Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas

In May, 1869, there was a great influx of settlers; so great, indeed, that it would almost seem that the publication in the Weekly Minnesotian of May 1, 1869, of an optimistic and prophetic speech delivered before the “straggling few” Duluth hearers on the Fourth of July of the previous year, 1868, was to some extent responsible for this rush. It, of course, was not, for news did not travel very quickly in those days, and the little Duluth “sheet” of 1869 would hardly have had a wide “exchange list”; nor would its opinions be likely to be quoted extensively in outside journals. Nevertheless, those who did see a copy of the Weekly Minnesotian of May 1, 1869, would certainly have been attracted by the glowing future Dr. Foster pictured for Duluth, “the zenith city of the unsalted seas.” His speech in part reads:

Fellow Citizens: On this 4th of July, 1868… it would not be amiss to dwell mentally for awhile upon the future of this region, which is even now looming up in the near distance, promising to pierce and lighten up these forests with roadways and farm homesteads, to mine these rocks into material wealth, to whiten yon huge sea with clouds of canvas, or fret it with volumes of propelling steam, to cover the shores of these broad calm bays with mast-studded wharves and monster grain warehouses, and to erect within the sound of the surge of Superior’s waves a great city, which shall be the abode of commerce and manufactures, and refinement and civilization here, nearly midway between the two main oceans of the world, the terminus on the one hand of 1,700 miles of land-travel from the Pacific Ocean eastward, and the terminus of 1,600 miles of water transportation westward, from the Atlantic Ocean, to the headquarters of the mighty St. Lawrence, of which that magnificent expanse of water spread out northeastward before you is but the widening and tributary. The dawn comes; the daylight is really breaking in the east, in the west, and in the south; and soon the sun of our progress, keeping pace with the steam railroad car, will shed its effulgence upon these pine and birch-clad and rock-bound shores. I hesitate not to bid you, with almost the confidence inspired by transpired fact, to believe, that the railroad that will bridge over the short portage of 150 miles between the Great Lakes and the Great Mississippi will certainly be completed in the short time of two years from now.

Dr. Foster assured his hearers that there was “no delusion this time”; work on the railroad, at the St. Paul end, had actually begun; the first locomotive had actually “arrived and been placed on the road”; and “in a very few more mails to be brought by the stage coach, so soon to be obsolete” they might “expect to read an account of the formal opening of at least twenty miles of the road”; and that “this fall, or in the ensuing spring at the farthest, work will be commenced on this end of the line.” He continued: “I speak to you in no uncertain or dubious terms. The time for doubt has fled… We deal now with certainties and we can trust now to the truthfulness of promises based upon it.”

He predicted that on the Fourth of July, 1870, the Head of the Lakes, “a great region of God’s most magnificent creation,” would be “redeemed, regenerated and disenthralled” from the “vassalage of an iron physical nature,” and lack of communication with the outside world. The completion of the railway would give Duluth “voice to be heard by the rest of the world,” and the Head of the Lakes “by the hands of the artificers” would be “fashioned into a different shape, less wild, less rude, less forbidding, more genial, better fitted for the enjoyment of civilized inhabitants.”

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