The Sixty-Niners

[People were on their way to] the Head of the Lakes before the publication of the [Dr. Thomas Foster’s Speech calling Duluth the “Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas”]. And they were nearly all “headed” for Duluth. The Van Brunts, Walter and Henry, with their mother, were on their way from Faribault, coming by way of St. Paul and the old military road to Superior, at which dismal little place they arrived on May 6th. Their household goods came by way of Milwaukee later, and while awaiting them they probably were called upon to experience some of the hardships that seemed to have been the lot of most of the newcomers of that time. The snow still deeply covered the ground and there was probably not much comfort or heat to be obtained from the hardware stock of Mrs. Van Brunt’s brother, Edgar Nash, whose store was the first of that class established at Duluth, probably the first at the Head of the Lakes. The center of business then, or a little later, was from First Avenue, west to Second Avenue, east, and the present Wholesale District was then a place where good duck-shooting could be had, but little else. Even a few years later, “a deer, chased by hounds in the edge of town, came dashing down Superior Street, jumped into a window of the Clark House, leaped over the rows of long tables in the dining room … then jumped out of another window and dashed away” having not far to go to gain the seclusion of the woods.

Camille Poirier’s Narrative.-It was hard enough even in 1870, by which time Duluth may be supposed to have gained “its second breath,” after the first wild rush of ’69; and an appreciation of what must have been the lot of the early settlers of 1869 may be imagined by what Mr. Poirier said was his own personal experience in the early months of 1870. He said: 183… Duluth was talked about as the coning place; … and I decided to cast my lot with Duluth. I gathered my little stock of leather and tools, took a shoeman with me, and started (from St. Paul) on the 10th of February, 1870. … Came as far as Hinckley on the new road, and then by stage the balance of the way to Duluth. It took us four days to make the trip; it was very cold and we suffered much but got here. There were a few men working at the new dock at 3rd Avenue, east, and a rough path where Superior Street is today, with a corduroy bridge every block, to take care of the little rivulets coming down the hillside. After registering at Casey’s Boarding House, at seven dollars a week, and sleep on the floor … I got acquainted with Jeff Daniels. He had a bed, and gave it to me, as he was leaving the village. … I met Colonel Graves, a spruce young man from the East, who had charge of a good deal of Duluth property, and took a lease from him of 25 feet frontage between 1st and 2nd Avenues, east, on the upper side, and there I cast my lot and started at once to clear about four feet of snow from my newly acquired property. I bought a couple of thousand feet of boards half inch thick at one end, and 1I/” at the other, and a few rolls of tarred paper (do not know but what I bought them of W. Van Brunt, as he was then the head and tail of the Nash Hardware Co.).

I started to look for carpenters. None to be got; few in Duluth and all busy.

I met a couple and asked what they were getting, and when told $3.00 per day I offered them $5.00, and got them. I paid $5.00 to a teamster to go to Superior and get my doors and windows, and in five days I moved into my new shop. It was a boarding house inside of a week. Then I started to work night and day; I cooked my own meals and that is why I am so good a cook today … inside of six weeks I had six men working and many times working nights to finish a job (shoe-making). … My wife came on the 25th March, with my children. I had no place to put them, but Mr. Sweeney, then engineer of the village, was very kind and took me and my family in his small quarters, and we stayed four weeks with him. … In the meantime I built an addition to the back of my store; did not excavate but built it higher to fit the incline of the hill. Then I, proud as a king, brought my wife to our new mansion. The frost covered the walls half an inch thick the next morning; our bread was frozen solid; and everything else the same way.

Natural Cold Storage.-Camille Poirier spoke of an expedient practiced by the cook at Casey’s boarding house, presumably because of the dire lack of roofed space. He said: What struck me as funny was a pile of green wood, ten or twelve feet long, right in front of the door, and the carcass of a cow … on top of it;. The cook would go out with an ax and chop off good chunks of the frozen meat, and that was made into buillion, with lots of onions, and Duluth soil mixed in in place of pepper.

One Pioneer’s Opinion.-Life, undoubtedly, was somewhat Spartan- like in Duluth at that time, and Fred W. Smith perhaps may be excused for describing Duluth, as he first saw it on Christmas evening of 1869, as a “haphazard, scraggly and repellent settlement ** * a combination of Indian trading post, seaport, railroad construction camp and gambling resort, altogether wild, rough, uncouth and frontier-like.” The First Banker.-Egan, speaking of the coming of General Sargent in May, 1869, stated: He had with him a peculiar-looking man, as clerk. This person was not very well dressed, talked smoothly, seemed to have had considerable experience of the world, and transacted all the business. He could tell a good story, and when a northeaster came, he would assemble the old settlers at the financial headquarters on Minnesota Point, in the house of Commodore Saxton.

This able clerk would then damn the town, shiver with cold, claim there could be no future for such a God-abandoned country, and, when he had the people sufficiently blue, would purchase some real estate from them at a low price, at the same time kindly telling them that it was a great favor. It is hardly necessary to state that the gentleman was George C. Stone.

Duluth may feel grateful for the interest that shrewd, far-seeing 184financier had in the region, if one may accept as true some of the stories published of the supreme and successful effort he put forth some years later to bring in the necessary capital to develop the mineral resources of the Vermilion range. And in many other ways his association with and faith in Duluth was fortunate, even though he, too, was buried in the collapse of 1873.

As a matter of fact, Gen. George B. Sargent would presumably be placed in the premier place among Duluth bankers, although it is questionable whether that distinction should be given to him, as actually he was but the agent of Jay Cooke, and George C. Stone was, apparently, the actual working head of the pioneer banking house ‘of Duluth.

General Sargent’s Plans.-In the “Minnesotian” of May 22, 1869, was the following announcement: “Gen. George B. Sargent has decided to erect a banking house on Superior Street, four blocks east of the hotel. The building will be erected very rapidly.” That might well be termed “Jay Cooke’s Bank,” with George B. Sargent in the role of local sponsor and George C. Stone, banker, Egan describes General Sargent thus: “General Sargent claimed to own the world, loved a glass of wine, was liberal, advertised Duluth abroad, and he really is one of the founders of Duluth.” The general built a magnificent house on Minnesota Point, erecting it in thirty days, according to his son, William C. Sargent, who said: My early days (in Duluth) only go back to 1869. August 5th of that year I first set eyes on the Head of the Lakes, coming through the old entry on the good steamer “Meteor,” Captain Wilson master, with Alexander McDougall as first mate and Alexander Crawford as first engineer. We ran aground abreast of the old Quebec pier, and George W. Sherwood, with the little steamer “J. C. Keyes” came alongside, and we dropped in, bag and baggage, and were brought over to our new house on Minnesota Point, which father, who had preceded us, had built in exactly thirty days.

This was not the historic Sargent residence which, until 1915, stood at Forty-fifth Avenue, East, and London Road, and in which the most festive occasion of the ’70s on the North Shore was held in the summer of 1873; nevertheless, the Minnesota Point house of General Sargent was the scene of a memorable gathering, under appalling elemental conditions, in 1871, William C. Sargent stating that: In 1871, my father went to Europe to sell the bonds for the Northern Pacific Railroad. He brought over some six or seven German bankers to look over the situation. They came to Duluth, and a big ball was given in their honor. A special pavilion was constructed in front of our house on Minnesota Point; everyone was invited, many coming from St. Paul, Superior, and the country about. Just before the appointed time, a terrific storm arose.
The Superior people were on their way, crossing the bay in the “Stillman Witt,” Captain Jimmy Edwards. The rain poured down in torrents, lightning flashed, the wind howled, women fainted, brave men were appalled. When all appeared to be lost and the end in sight, old Jimmy Edwards went to the rail, turned around with a laugh and said: “It’s not so altogether blanketyblank bad” as he stepped over the rail into about a foot of water. The storm cleared quickly, the disheveled pavilion was quickly repaired, Siewart’s band struck up some lively music, and the affair closed in a blaze of glory.

General Sargent will, perhaps, always be associated in Duluth history with the Clark House, which was built under his direction.

Many were the schemes devised, wonderful were the combinations cemented, in a brotherly reciprocal and, indeed, jovial manner under the hospitable roof and the convivial environment of that historic old hostel. Egan said: 185The Clark House was a great figure in those days. All the bloods boarded there; parties were held, the ladies young and old of the city assembled, and the gentlemen, in swallow-tailed coats and kids welcomed them to the lancers and the waltz. Across the hall Colonel Hull and Mr. Scott, the proprietors, presided, both of whose names, for goodfellowship and kindness, should ever be treasured in the hearts of the old citizens.

The banquets, the games, the rejoicings, in that house cannot be told in public. General Schenck came to Duluth at an early day to buy real estate, under the auspices of Messrs. Banning and Branch. They sold him some interests in the so-called Endion Division, for about $4,000.00, and in the evening after the papers had been examined and a deed drawn, General Schenck and his secretary, and Branch and his attorney sat down for a quiet game of Draw, for recreation. The result was that Schenck came out $500.00 ahead, and Branch exclaimed to me, the next morning: “By jing, that old fellow can play poker, can’t he?” Duluth of pioneer days was a place of sweet memories to many, centering in the Clark House, which was not a place of debaucheries, or of bacchanalian carousals, but rather a communal center to which the best elements of the community were drawn for the exchange of pleasantries, socialibilities, and general festivities and rejoicings.

Egan said: The ladies were especially kind to newcomers, receiving them with gracious hospitality, and Mrs. Ray, Mrs. Markell, Mrs. Nettleton, Mrs. Culver, Mrs. Marvin, Mrs. Saxton, and others, by kind actions and encouraging words, restrained everyone, mixed with everyone, and their influence was exemplary in the extreme. Mrs. Dr. Smith, Mrs. William R. and Mrs. George C. Stone, and Mrs. Dr. Collins followed suit, and their kindnesses and politeness to the young men of that day are, or should be, remembered.

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.
  • Menu