The Village of Duluth (1877-1887)

This perspective map of Duluth in 1883 was made by Henry Wellge. (Image: Zenith City Press)

It cannot be stated that the financial troubles of Duluth were over when the “district” became the governing body, and the involved embarrassed city passed away; indeed, there were some who would not recognize that the city government had a right to become extinct, and who fought strenuously against the movement to establish a village, or district; and after the district had been created by legislative enactment, one man went so far as to threaten “to hold an election and put himself up as a candidate for mayor of the city, in order to be able to have the bondholders get service against him.” It was only a threat, fortunately. Nevertheless, the perplexities of the district officials were such that only men of great shrewdness of mind and originality of thought could have devised the expedient adopted to circumvent the interests opposed to the reconstruction.

The district did not live long; it came into authority on March 14, 1877, and on October 22nd of the same year was incorporated as a village; still, it served its intended purpose, and may be considered to have helped somewhat to bring good times again to Duluth.

The Prairies Being Rapidly Settled.-Far-seeing men saw that such a “clearing of decks,” municipally, was necessary, in order that Duluth might take full advantage of the prosperity they saw must result from the rapidly-increasing settlements beyond the lakes.

They had had convincing demonstration that the Dakotas would soon become an important wheat-growing center, and they wanted Duluth to benefit by it.

In 1875 Oliver Dalrymple, the celebrated wheat grower, opened up his Red River Valley Farm, just west of Fargo on the Northern Pacific Railroad, stated one review of the time. It was a time pregnant with great promise for Duluth when the first harvest from the vast wheatfield proved to the world the fertility and strength of Dakota’s soil, and that, of all countries, it excelled in the production of No. 1 hard wheat. The people of the East, attracted by this new Eldorado, in which the gold did not lie hidden in the caverns of the earth, but which came with the sowing and reaping, flocked to Dakota, and, as if brought into existence by the wand of the magician, homes and business blocks, schools and churches, sprang up all over the broad prairies, and the land which had been declared a part of the “Great American Desert” became a veritable garden-the greatest of the earth’s wheatfields.

Duluth the Grain Port.-Duluth was the logical shipping port for the grain, and “capital was not long in discovering this,” for “no sooner was the successful growing of wheat in Dakota an assured fact than money was ready and waiting to build up the elevator system which has made Duluth famous as the great wheat center of the world.” As a matter of fact, the elevator capacity at Duluth was the same in 1877 as it had been in 1872, but the capacity of elevator “A” was doubled in the next year, and in 1880 the construction of elevator “B” was begun. Then followed quickly elevators C, D, E, F, and G, with three warehouses for overflow, all constructed during the years of the village. In 1877, Duluth received 460,595 bushels of wheat; in 1886 the total was 22,425,730 bushels, all put into Duluth elevators in that year, and “at least 10,000,000 bushels more were turned away because of the inability of the elevators to 248handle it.” Duluth’s elevator capacity in 1877 was only 550,000 bushels, so the progress made at Duluth docks during the decade of village government is well indicated.

The Ingenuity of Desperate Optimism.-Anticipating this prosperity, expecting perhaps even more, the guiders of Duluth’s destiny in 1877-chief among them, in this respect, being perhaps J. D. Ensign and Luther Mendenhall-gave the vital matter, of delivering the place from the incubus of strangling debt, long and careful thought. And were it not for the knowledge we now have of the difficulties under which the municipal body then labored, we would consider the proceedings of the newly-elected civic body, the trustees of the District of Duluth, at their first meeting in 1877, as extraordinary, if not dishonorable.

The first meeting of the trustees of the District of Duluth was held in the office of Sawyer and Davis on March 14, 1877, and although all “presented certificates of election” and, presumably, all proceeded to dispose of, or attend to, such matters connected with the District of Duluth as were presented for their consideration, as trustees, yet the president “refused to qualify” and thus legalize his acts. The record says that “Mr. Miller refused to qualify, and Luther Mendenhall was elected vice president.” Thus was established a condition by which the administrative body could not be held responsible for their acts for and in behalf of the district, their proceedings being fundamentally irregular. And thus they were able to proceed with vital and important measures with less hampering restrictions than would otherwise have been the case.

The new administration, as elected, comprised: Andraes M. Miller, president; W. L. McLennan and Albert N. Seip, trustees; W. W. Davis, recorder; Luther Mendelhall, treasurer; and E. P. Martin, justice.

Re-assessment.-Among the important acts promptly taken by the trustees was the re-assessment of the district, which readjustment they were authorized to effect by the powers granted them by the charter, or law; and it was a radical re-assessment, as will be understood by a comparison of the “Tax Notice” of 1873 with that for the year 1877. In 1873, the “valuation of taxable property of the several town of St. Louis” totalled to $3,108,260.00, of which the city and township of Duluth represented $2,735,234.00. In 1877, the total county valuation was $1,339,121.68. By the re-assessment taxes were reduced from $123,478.65 (of 1873) to $29,034.41. Yet, the re-assessment was not challenged, apparently; and it is more than likely that not all of the $29,034.41 even came into the public treasury.

Bond Issue.-Another important measure was the issuance of village bonds, the law giving the district power to issue bonds to the extent of $100,000, but stipulating that the issue could be made and the proceeds used “only as required for actual expenses of the village, from time to time.” It has been stated that “there never was any question about the validity nor of the payment of these bonds, nor their coupons,” but it is known that very strenuous opposition developed to the issuance of village bonds to replace city bonds “at 25 cents on the dollar.” Village Charter.-However, under the guardianship and guidance of Judge O. P. Stearns, J. D. Ensign, and Luther Mendenhall, the civic workers proceeded to straighten the involved state of affairs, and on October 2, 1877, succeeded in obtaining a more favorable village charter.

Mr. Miller was re-elected, and was village president until January, 1879, by which time it was evident that prosperity had returned to Duluth, or at least that the black cloud of depression had passed, and the sky was comparatively clear, even though the sun may not have been shining very brightly.

Revival of Railway Activity.-The best indication that times were getting better was that railroad matters again seemed likely to become active. The Northern Pacific had stopped all development work as soon as the Jay Cooke crash came in 1873, and for the next year or two ran trains over their completed tracks on the barest possible schedule, and still could not meet running expenses. In 1875, it went into bankruptcy, and General Cass was appointed receiver. Economical management by a bondholders’ committee had succeeded in making the operation meet running expenses in 1876, the position improving each year, though it was not until 1880 that there was reasonable assurance that the construction work w6uld proceed to the Pacific. But there were other railway projects looming up.

The Vermilion range was more than a possibility; to Duluth men who knew, the development of its known iron resources, it would seem, would soon begin; all that was necessary was about seventy miles of railway, which it was believed eastern capitalists would undertake to lay without delay. And there was an even more attractive railway project talked of, one reaching even into the Canadian Northwest, territory which many people of -that day were convinced would in course of time be annexed to the United States.

Duluth and Winnipeg Railroad.-Of this Duluth and Winnipeg project, Pardee writes: Equipped with the St. Paul and Duluth to the south, and Northern Pacific westward, Duluth men, to whom all things were possible, conceived a railroad project to the northwest, laughing at the artificial barrier of the boundary, aiming for Winnipeg thirty years in advance of fulfillment. The project was mooted in ’77, a land-grant was obtained from the State in ’78, a corporation was formed, preliminary surveys were made and actual construction was begun by the Union Improvement and Construction Company, which spent $450,000 clearing the way, and received $500,000 in common stock of the railroad in return.

Duluthians must have felt that they would soon again be in a whirl of prosperity similar to that of the glorious days of 1869-73.

Yet, the construction company was doomed to fail, as “obviously such simple methods of finance would never see a railroad through a wilderness,.and not even a land-grant from the state was enough for completion.” The project faded, and became dormant, not coming to activity again until 1888, and not ever reaching anything worth while, until after it passed to the Great Northern in 1896, at receiver’s sale. Even then, it was a regrettable happening, for the railway soon cease4d to be a Duluth road, passing over “to the opposition.” Pardee writes: One sequence was regarded by the Duluth people as rather shabby. The Great Northern abandoned the part of the Duluth and Winnipeg road that reached into Duluth, and one Saturday night a crew was sent, unostentatiously that there might be no injunction to annoy, picked up the rails, and left the last fifteen miles a naked and abandoned right-of-way. It was a bitter reflection for the Duluth people, who had stood by the project in its teething and measles stage, that it should be made a Superior road.

Still, when first incorporated in 1876, and given a land-grant in 1878, it was a potential enterprise to the hopeful Duluthians, and it played a strong part in eradicating, at least psychologically, the effect 250of the crash of 1873. W. W. Spaulding, first president of the railway company, gives its early history in his autobiography, the reference reading: In 1876 the Duluth and Winnipeg Railroad Company was incorporated; the incorporators and first directors were Andrus M. Miller, Andrew J. Sawyer, John C. Hunter, Robert C. Mitchell, James Bardon, Hamilton Peyton, William W. Spaulding. I was elected president, and remained in office until 1883. Ground was broken for its construction in November, 1881, under the management of a Boston company, to whom we had disposed of our franchise.

The agreement for the sale of our interests was made in the spring of 1881 with J. B. Billheimer. Emil Hartman was engineer and draughtsman, acting for the Boston parties, among whom were H. J. Boardman, Captain Cooper, and William W. Whitcomb, attorney for the company. We were to receive $30,000.00 in cash, $100,000.00 in bonds, and fifteen hundred shares of the capital stock of the company. But the Boston company failed, and we never got but a small part of what we were promised. The franchise afterwards went into the possession of the Canadian Pacific Railroad Company, and was constructed by the North Star Construction Company, of which Mr. Fisher of St. Paul was a general manager. It is now (1900) owned by James J. Hill and is a part of the Great Northern system.

Luther Mendenhall.-If there is any one man to whom especial credit should be given for bringing Duluth out of the maze of crippling debt it is Luther Mendenhall, who was “vice president” of the District of Duluth during the critical period when it, legally, had no president. James Bardon, at a banquet of Old Settlers at Duluth, in 1912, said: The years 1867 to 1880 embraced the real formative period, the true pioneer period of Duluth. In all these years it was conceded that Mr. Mendenhall, lawyer and businessman combined, was the best-equipped all-round man in the community; efficient in managing his large trusts; cool in judgment; wise in decision; slow to act; yet always progressive. … It is safe to say that no man lives today, or has ever lived, who has done more than he for the upbuilding of this city and surrounding country.

Mr. Bardon named Munger, Markell, Ray, Graves, Hunter, Miller, Sawyer, Spaulding, Billson, Sargent, Stone, and later, C. G. Hartley and Chas. P. Craig, as helpful co-operators with Mendenhall in building the city.

Economy the Aim.-John Drew was again chief executive of Duluth in 1879, succeeding Miller, as president of the village, in January.

He “made a careful and economical officer, as the times and conditions demanded.” That may be appreciated from the fact that the cost of street-lighting for that year was only $6.78 a lamp. How many lamps there were is not stated, but there were at most not more than the village marshal could himself trim, and fill, and light on moonless nights. When there was moon, artificial light was considered unnecessary.

Beginning of Public Library.-Affairs municipal had so far brightened by 1879 that a public library was established in that year, the one established in 1869, at a meeting held in Leopold Brothers’ store in September of that year, having evidently passed away with the 1873 collapse. From the 1879 movement, if not from that of 1869, the library of today may be considered to have been based, the steps on the road being the organization of the Duluth Public Library in 1890, and the eventual passing, in 1902, from the Masonic Temple building to the present fine building made possible by a gift of $75,000 from Mr. Andrew Carnegie, for the purpose.

Redemption of Bonds.-In January, 1880, Peter Dean was elected president, and during the year was able “to notify Judge O. P. Stearns that the sinking fund for the payment of the old bonds was 251ready to work.” Judge Stearns, “as trustee, turned over about $5,000 worth of bonds and coupons, which were duly receipted for and burned.” Improved Village Charter.-Peter Dean did not complete his term, resigning in September, and Judge Ensign taking the chief office for the unexpired term. In the following January, Judge Ensign was elected president, and probably had important part in the movement which brought the village a new charter in April of that year, 1881, the new charter giving the village a city government again, to all intents, although the place was still termed a village.

Instead of a governing body consisting of a president and a number of trustees, the new administration would have a mayor and a number of aldermen, such as a city would have. Judge Ensign was elected to the mayoral office on April 13, 1881, the new government having jurisdiction over a larger area. The “act to define the boundaries of the Village of Duluth,” and extend the village boundaries to include “Rice’s Point and about four blocks to the east,” was the outcome of the redemption of a further block of the old city bonds.

The aldermen elected to govern the enlarged village, with Mayor J. D. Ensign, were: M. Carroll and John Letau, first ward; M. Fink and P. M. Graff, second ward; H. A. Douglas and S. Tannehill, fourth ward; and Jacob Zimmerman, fifth ward, which was Rice’s Point. E. P. Martin was justice.

Street Railway Franchise.-In 1881 “W. W. Billson and Frank Eaton, as secretary, signified their acceptance of the franchise of a street railway company under an act of the Legislature, the railway company being given the right to occupy the streets of the village under condition that it began work at once.” Later, the time was extended to May 15, 1883. The street-car company was known as the Duluth Street Car Company. It was organized in October, 1881, by Albert S. Chase, John M. Rich, Frank W. Eaton, Charles M. Wilson, S. L. Bayless, E. Ebmer, and W. W. Billson, and had an authorized capital of $100,000, the State Legislature granting the company the franchise, on November 17th, “to lay tracks on any street in Duluth, run cars, and give adequate transportation facilities” to the people of Duluth, and, strangely, “there was no time limit fixed by the franchise, which is therefore perpetual.” The village authorities, however, seemed to have some authority, and the company complied with .the local body’s stipulation as to time of construction, constructing its first line in 1882, when a single track, “a little less than one mile” in length, was laid on Superior Street, the line reaching.from Eighth Avenue West to Third Avenue East. Mules drew the “two or three” cars then run, but the opening of street-railway convenience “was hailed with due joy, and the newspapers did not fail to point with pride to the strides the city was making toward true metropolitan standing.” Of course, the street railway progressed and the facilities provided became more complete with the passing of years. The line was electrified in 1890, when the company had nineteen miles of railway in operation. Today, it has between 90 and 100 miles.

It must not be supposed that its course has been free from financial embarrassments; most pioneer railway companies fail to continue through to permanent prosperity without reconstruction. Luther Mendenhall was appointed receiver for the Duluth Street Car Company in 1898, and in 1900 a consolidation was made with the Superior 252street-car. organization, and about one-fourth of the present trackage of the Duluth Street Railway Company is in Superior.

Gas and Water Franchise.-On March 3, 1882, a thirty-year franchise was granted to the Duluth Gas and Water Company. Another account says that the franchise was granted during the first administration of Chas. H. Graves, who was elected mayor in April, 1882.

There appears to have been some opposition to the granting of the franchise, but after that was cleared “the ordinance granting … the franchise went through in a hurry. The first and second reading, and final passage, all occurred at the same meeting of the council, the rules being suspended for the purpose. The company lost no time in establishing the plants, notwithstanding that perplexing hindrances developed, and continued to operate the public utility, under their somewhat liberal franchise, until 1898, when the city acquired control, the people voting “in favor of a bond issue for the purchase of the company’s plants, and their operation by the municipality.” The city paid $1,390,000 for the gas and water plants, and within the next ten years spent more than two million dollars on new construction.

Altogether, during the about two decades of municipal operation of gas and water utilities, the city has invested more than five million dollars in the plants, and whereas in 1899 it pumped 4,279,875 gallons of water daily, it was necessary to pump more than eight million gallons a day twenty years later; and there was a very much greater increase in the consumption of gas. In 1899, the sale totalled to 25,309,963 feet; in 1919 the figures were 519,021,200 feet. The city faces additional heavy outlay soon for water improvements, but the above figures will give some idea of the immense plants already operated by the city.

Craze for Railway Building Along the Dyke.-In 1883 several projects were mooted, by opposing groups of men, to connect Minnesota Point with Rice’s Point, by means of a railway following the line of the destroyed dyke of 1871-72. It appears that: A sudden craze sprang up during the months of May and June, of 1883, to build railroads to connect Minnesota Point with Rice’s Point, on the line of the old dyke. The Lake Superior Railroad Company, the Duluth and Northwestern Railroad Company, the Duluth Transfer and Dock Company, and the Duluth, North Shore, and Southwestern Railroad Company, were started simultaneously, and all four roads were clamorously demanding the right-of-way that was supposed to exist along the line of the old dyke. Meeting after meeting of the village council was held, but the whole four schemes were blown up one fine morning by the reception of a telegram from the War Department, informing the people of Duluth that, if they wanted any more channels dug in their harbor, to give up the idea of crossing them with bridges, or other obstructions to navigation, as the Department would not ask money from Congress to deepen the harbor unless it was to be free and unobstructed. The alternative put an end forever to these railroad schemes.

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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