Slabtown & “Below the Tracks”
From Lost Duluth: Landmarks, Industries, Buildings, Homes, and the Neighborhoods in Which They Stood, copyright © 2011, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota. Image: Sly Yagoda.
Duluth’s Slabtown neighborhood, actually a subsection of the West End, housed a variety of low-income families from varied ethnic backgrounds, including Finns, Norwegians, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and French. The neighborhood stretched from roughly Twenty-Sixth to Thirtieth Avenues West and from Michigan Street to St. Louis Bay, centered on the Twenty-Seventh Avenue West Bridge. Immigrants came to the area to find work on the ore and coal docks and in the lumber mills and other smokestack industries that lined the bay, and they built their houses and churches as close to their workplaces as they could.
Slabtown’s name comes from the area’s historical background. This spot along St. Louis River long served the timber industry and was lined with lumber mills. At these mills, the outer layer of bark was removed from logs before they were milled into lumber. These leftover “slabs” were then tossed into the bay, where they floated. The local residents gathered this surplus wood and used it to heat their homes. Hence, the neighborhood whose residents used slabs of bark-covered wood as heating fuel became known as “Slabtown.” An enclave of Slabtown west of Twenty-Seventh Avenue was called “Below the Tracks” because it stood south of the railroad tracks that run between Michigan and Superior Streets.
Everyone worked, even the children. In a 1998 Duluth News-Tribune story, former residents explained that the ore docks hired teenagers to steam-thaw frozen iron ore so it could load better. To save money, coal was delivered in the street, and youngsters spent their after-school hours shoveling it into basement storage bins. They played hard, too, facing off against one another at broomball and hockey on the frozen bay, where they sometimes raced homemade single-masted ice boats.
Urban renewal doomed Slabtown. As early as the 1950s, the city purchased, condemned, and demolished houses and other neighborhood buildings such as corner grocers and filling stations. By the time Interstate 35 pushed through the area in the 1960s, 232 homes had been destroyed and the families that lived in them displaced. The new post office replaced Below the Tracks, and businesses such as the Duluth Grill and several gas stations have replaced homes east of there. Below the highway the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District occupies the rest of Slabtown.
Photos of Slabtown in our archive came from brothers Sylvester and Dick Yagoda, who grew up in Slabtown and helped organize reunions of former Slabtown residents in the 1990s.