Finn Town

This Finnish Suamalainen or boarding house still stands at 329 Canal Park Drive, formerly St. Croix Avenue, as does the red brick boarding house next door. Though located just south of Duluth’s “official” red light district, it is widely believed the “Little Red Hotel” operated at some time as an “immoral house.” During Prohibition a secret passageway was constructed between the two buildings. (Image: Zenith City)

Finnish immigrants came to Duluth as early as 1868, and in the 1870s and ’80s began arriving in greater numbers. During this period the base of Minnesota Point to the canal (today’s Canal Park Business District) was made up of two divisions called Cowell’s Addition and Industrial Addition, known collectively as Uptown—at least on the western or bay side of the Point. The eastern or lake side along St. Croix Avenue (later First Avenue South, today Canal Park Drive) and north of Buchanon Street was called “No Man’s Land” in the 1870s, and there many immigrants set up shanties.

By 1895 this area had become known as Finn Town and was primarily populated by Finnish (and some Swedish) laborers and their families, many of whom were at work building the canal’s concrete piers, earning two dollars a day for their efforts. Locals began calling St. Croix Avenue “Finlander Avenue”; Finns called it Rottakatu or “Rat Street” due to the large number of rats who lived among the outhouses. Near their homes (pictured right, along St. Croix Avenue in the 1890s) they built a Finnish church, a Finnish school, a large Finnish bathhouse, Finnish restaurants, and Finnish boarding houses. Finn Town later became home to other minority groups, and other boarding houses (that’s the Soumalainen Boarding House, above) and cheap residential hotels hosted sailors and migrant workers.

Boarding houses in “Finn Town” along St. Croix Avenue in the 1890s, known to the residents as “Rat Avenue.” (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

The area south of Buchanon Street was populated by a community of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who established the Adas Israel congregation, which later built a synagogue on East Third Street. This community included Weiland Flats, an apartment complex built by Ernest Weiland behind the site of his tannery on Lake Avenue South, the current site of parking lots for the Lake Superior Marine Museum and Grandma’s Restaurant. It was a three-story vernacular structure facing Lake Avenue on ground created by filling in the lake shore. Weiland and several of his relatives lived there in the 1890s, but it soon became low-income housing. The flats were occupied until 1942 when the building was demolished.

Uptown could be a rough and rowdy place, and some of the city’s seedier citizens spent their free time in its many saloons and brothels. Children passing through the area to get to and from Park Point were warned by parents to “stay away from the pretty ladies dressed in kimonos.” From the the 1880s to the 1930s housing units occupied by prostitutes were labeled “female boarding houses” on insurance maps and were clustered together in Duluth’s own red light district: either side of the St. Croix alley south of Railroad Street and north of Sutphin Street. The red light district was “cleaned up” in the late 1930s, and illegal activity shifted to the Bowery, west of Fifth Avenue West between the railroad yards and Superior Street, where that behavior had been going on since at least the 1890s.

Fewer and fewer people chose to live in the Finn Town area over the years, and it fell into decay. By the late 1960s wrecked cars, broken appliances, and other abandoned items lay strewn among the ruins of Finn Town. Today the site of Finn Town is populated by luxury hotels.

From Lost Duluth: Landmarks, Industries, Buildings, Homes, and the Neighborhoods in Which They Stood, copyright © 2011, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota.

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