Duluth’s First Years as a City (1870–1873)

This perspective map of Duluth in 1871 was made by E. Chrisman. (Image: Zenith City Press)

With a railway almost on the point of being brought into operation, and construction on another actually begun, the second holding out the bright prospect that the vast “empire” it would open would develop immense possibilities, in trade, for the Head of the Lakes, or more directly for Duluth, seeing that the terminus of the second road, as well as the first, would be within its boundaries, it is not surprising that the people of Duluth felt that the place should be advanced to the dignity of city status. And the rapid development of its docks, and, above all, the realization that Duluth had at its back the active interest of the greatest financier in America, gave the leading men in the political affairs of the place courage to petition the state authorities to grant them a city charter.

First City Election

This the State Legislature promptly did, the act being approved on March 6, 1870. Section 14 of the measure provided that: “The first election of officers under this act shall be held on the first Tuesday of April, A. D. 1870, and the persons heretofore constituting the town council of the Town of Duluth, to-wit: James D. Ray, Sidney Luce, Luke Marvin, J. B. Culver and William Nettleton, are hereby authorized and empowered to designate and appoint three discreet and judicious persons in each ward to act as judges of election, and also to locate and provide a place for holding the election aforesaid.”

The election was held on April 4, 1870, in the schoolhouse at Portland, and the candidates for election to mayoral office were Col. J. B. Culver, Democrat, and John C. Hunter, Republican. Carey records that 448 votes were cast, 241 being in favor of Culver, and 205 in favor of Hunter, two being “scattered.” Those elected to other city offices were: George C. Stone, city treasurer; Orlando Luce, city comptroller; and Henry Selsby, city justice. The full list of the original city officials is given below, but all, excepting those named above, “were appointed by the mayor and City Council,” states Carey.

First City Administration

The first city administration, according to J. J. Egan, who was first city attorney, included the following: J. B. Culver, mayor; Orlando Luce, city comptroller; George C. Stone, city treasurer; Walter Van Brunt, city clerk; R. S. Munger, Sidney Luce, Edgar Nash, Ansil Smith, Benjamin Decker, Charles E. Sweet, and David Geiger, aldermen. A. G. Simonds was city assessor, according to another historian, who gives the first aldermen as follows: R. S. Munger and Sidney Luce, first ward; William Nettleton and Edgar Nash, second ward; C. E. Sweet and David Geiger, third ward; James D. Ray and Nicholas Decker, fourth ward; James D. Ray was “elected vice-president of the council.” A few months later Aldermen Sweet and Decker resigned, and were succeeded by W. W. Spalding and Luke Marvin.

First Council Meeting

The first meeting of the City Council was held in the schoolhouse in Portland on April 12, 1870, and followed the customary course, the first ordinance considered being that which was necessary to properly regulate trading in intoxicants.

The members of the council were at first very loath to commit the city to heavy expenditures, and even pondered long over small outlays, expecting City Clerk Van Brunt, for instance, to be content in using a cheap notebook for the necessary permanent entry of important initial measures enacted by the council. Maybe their long consideration of his astonishing request for an appropriation of fifty dollars, with which he might purchase a suitable set of record books, eventually broke down their parsimoniousness; whatever the cause, the city “fathers” soon became “courageous” in the expenditure of public moneys. Indeed, there soon came a time when they did not even ponder long over the question of committing the city to very heavy liabilities, to cover which there were no realizable assets. Still, the courage of those pioneer directors of Duluth is rather to be praised, than deplored; even though there were no tangible immediate assets, there was no reason why they should discount the future, which at the time looked roseate. Under favorable development, such as had been taking place since 1869, the city would soon be rich enough to amply provide for the heavy bond issues, was probably the general reasoning, and conviction.

First Bond Issue

At the third or fourth council meeting, the council “felt that they must have some money, if they were going to have streets,” so they voted that the city bond itself for $50,000 for “general purposes,” as authorized by the charter.

Original City Boundaries

The first city charter, approved March 6, 1870, declared the boundaries of the new city to be as follows:

All of sections number 22, 23, fractional sections 24, 27, 33 and 34, and the east half of section 28, in township 50 north, of range 14 west; all of section 4, in township 49 north, range 14 west; and also all those tracts, or parcels, of land embraced in and heretofore constituting the towns of Rice’s Point and Upper and Lower Duluth, platted and recorded as such, together with all that portion of the Bay of Superior within this state, and that portion of Lake Superior lying south of the corporate limits aforesaid, and within one mile of the shore of Minnesota Point.

Portland Vacated

Portland was surveyed originally “crisscross” to the plats of other land which came into the City of Duluth, and in order to bring it into uniformity it was found necessary to “vacate” the town. Carey wrote, regarding the rearrangement of Portland lots, as follows: “The reason that the Town of Portland was not mentioned by name in the charter was that the plat of Portland was vacated by the decree of the District Court, on the petition of Clinton Markell and John I. Post, on August 6, 1869, and all of the territory covered by the name and old plat, was included in the new city.”

The reason for vacating Portland was that it was determined by the owners of the other lands to be embraced in the new city that the streets and avenues should run as now laid out and platted; this plan did not correspond with the plat of Portland, as then laid out. So, in order to have uniformity in platting, Portland was vacated. Then all the owners of lots, by common consent, deeded their interest in the lands embraced in the vacated plat to J. D. Ensign, as trustee, who, after the land was replatted in 1870, deeded back to each owner relatively to their old interests, an equal number of lots according to the new plat.

Early Franchises

At one of the first meetings of the new City Council a gas franchise measure was considered; and in October the question of the granting of a seventy-year street-railroad franchise was brought forward. Regarding these matters, a chronicler wrote:

At an adjourned meeting of the council held at the office of Alderman Nash, Col. C. H. Graves, as agent for the Town of Duluth, presented a resolution of the trustees of that body, which promised to, if possible, grant a gas franchise, should a city be formed, to Charles and John Newcombe, Eli C. Kingsley, George C. Thomas, Luke Marvin, Horace H. White and William Branch. A resolution was passed by the council ratifying this action of the trustees and presumably granting the franchise, but of this there is no record.

A seventy-year street-railroad franchise was granted to Gen. George R. Sargent, R. S. Munger, Col. C. H. Graves, L. H. Penny, R. A. Gray, J. D. Ensign, Sidney Luce and R. C. Munger, the city reserving the privilege of buying the road after five years or after ten years. One mile of track was to be laid at once, a 10-cent fare charged, cars were to be of best quality and to be run on all streets and avenues of the city, if so ordered by the council.

Original Water Company

Camille Poirier was probably the first to institute a water-supply system. He took up residence in Duluth in 1870, regarding which year, presumably, his autobiography reads:

I claim that I was the first water corporation in Duluth. We had to go to the lake for our water, and, as the population increased it was very hard work. I had a large hogshead put on a cart, got a man to take charge, and started the first water delivery in Duluth. It went very well, but my servant proved unfaithful; he ran away with about $400 of my money, so I sold my outfit to the Collins brothers, who did a good business for many years.

It was not until 1882 that the City Council granted a gas and water franchise, to the Duluth Gas and Water Company; Poirier’s public service corporation needed no franchise.

First Wholesale Merchant

William R. Stone, according to Cooley, was the first to establish a wholesale grocery. He apparently was also the first coal merchant. This distinction has been accorded to E. N. Saunders, but although the latter arrived in Duluth in 1870, it is not claimed that he “engaged in the coal business” until 1871, whereas Poirier states that in April, 1870, when the frost covered the inside walls of his living quarters to the depth of half an inch, he “got a ton of coal from Stone for $12.00.”

First Police Force

Jerome E. Cooley writes of “how Samuel J. Thompson, who was the entire police force, never arrested anyone for not paying his debts, and he never was investigated by a grand jury.” That however was, probably, during the years of gloom, following the collapse of 1873, when the “police force, which had risen to the proud number of six men, was curtailed to one man, Chief Thompson,” who “was a general without an army, a chief without a force,” but who “saw his duty and stuck to his post, collecting his salary by a levy of fifty cents a month on Superior Street merchants.”

According to the Police Department records, Zachary Brown was sheriff in 1869, when the town first showed signs of rapid growth, and it was stated that “sometimes the job became too big for one man, and it was necessary for the citizens to form themselves into a vigilance committee,” for such emergencies as the one earlier referred to in this chapter.

However, the first chief of police appointed after Duluth became a city, in 1870, was Robert S. D. Bruce, whom Colonel Culver appointed chief on April 21, 1870. He “was a big, burly Scotch-Canadian who could handle any fray” and Colonel Culver had much confidence in him. Nevertheless, one bright day in June of that year Chief Bruce absconded, taking with him “the payroll (and presumably pay) of the men employed on the construction work” at the new breakwater built to protect the new Elevator “A.” He was never afterwards seen in Duluth. George Berkelman, “a patrolman appointed in May,” became acting chief on June 4th, Maj. J. L. Smith succeeding him, as chief, five weeks later. Major Smith was “a pompous individual” and he “delighted in exhibiting his authority on any and every occasion.” A story is told of an occasion when there was an excursion party in Duluth and crowds of strangers thronged the streets. Perfect order prevailed, and in the midst of the quiet Chief Smith, who was conversing with a number of them, stopped suddenly and summoned one of his two assistants, by loudly blowing his police whistle. Answering the call came an assistant, panting and out of breath, and demanded to know who was killed.

“Did you feed the prisoners?” asked the major.

“Yes,” responded the surprised officer.

“All right,” said the chief, and walked on, pushing his way through the admiring crowd.

Fourteen police officers were appointed by Mayor Culver during the first year of Duluth as a city. George Berkelman succeeded Major Smith in December, 1870, and was chief until November, 1872, when Samuel J. Thompson was appointed. He served “with considerable honor and little compensation” until 1878. His successor, George S. Huse, “was paid no salary, but was allowed one dollar for every arrest he made” and “given the fees he collected as poundmaster.” Soon, he became convinced, as he expressed it, that “no man had money enough to get drunk.” His total earnings, as “constable, sheriff, poundmaster, and lamplighter,” which last-stated duty devolved upon him on “moonless nights,” were not in excess of $3.50 a month, the village records show.

With the return of “good times” in the early ‘80s, the police force again grew, and became uniquely distinctive in 1883, under Chief Jeff Daniels, the first uniformed police of the City of Duluth then appearing.

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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