Wilhelm Boeing & The Duluth Ship Canal

Wilhelm Boeing. (Image: Duluth Public Library)
Wilhelm Boeing. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Years after the Duluth ship canal was dug, German immigrant and Michigan lumberman and financier Wilhelm Boeing  claimed ownership to the land the canal passed through. Following the Panic of 1857, Boeing had purchased fourteen lots on either side of Portage Street, which had been dug up to create the canal in 1870 – 1871. On September 27, 1889, Boeing posted the following in a circular:

To all boat and vessel owners—You are hereby notified that on and after the fifteenth day of October, 1889, the right of passing through the canal connecting the waters of Lake Superior and the bay of Duluth will be denied by me to all boats and vessels. A rope will be stretched across the canal on my property, which lies in  and upon either side of said canal, and the owner or master of any boat or vessel breaking the same will be promptly proceeded against in the courts. Wm. Boeing. September 27, 1889.

The circular would also be handed out to all captains of vessels passing through the locks at Saulte Ste. Marie headed for the Zenith City.

Boeing then told the Duluth Evening Herald that the posting was “not intended to work hardship to any interests of Duluth, but simply to establish what rights I possess.” His goal was to prod the city into purchasing the property, which had already appointed a committee to investigate. They had yet to contact Boeing, and he had become impatient.

Common Council President J. J. Costello hinted at the cause of the delay, telling the Herald that Duluth had considered paying a reasonable sum for the property but Boeing’s asking price—$100,000—was “preposterous.” Besides, Costello argued, because the canal was then eighteen years old, it was likely Mr. Boeing’s claim on the land had expired due to some statute of limitations. And since the federal government took over ownership of the canal in 1887, how could Boeing sue Duluth over property it had no jurisdiction over?

Boeing wrapped up business in Duluth—which included by the end of September and left his friend and business associate Marshal H. Alworth handle matters concerning the canal. meanwhile, the city attorneys strategized how to handle matters should Boeing hold true to his threat.

On October 14 Alworth allegedly received a simple telegram from Boeing: “String the rope.” The next day Alworth hired Frank Jacobs, James Jones, and ferryman Charles Winters, who held the contract to carry people and goods across the government canal (the canal would not have a permanent bridge until 1905). At about 12:15 a.m. they tied a half-inch rope to a piling about halfway between Lake and St. Croix Avenues (St. Croix Avenue is Canal Park Drive today), brought it across the canal on the ferry, and then tied it off on another piling on the south side of the canal.

Police Officer Frank Horgan promptly cut the rope. When Horgan went home after his shift, Alworth’s men put the rope back up. When the steamer Winslow was warned of the rope as she passed through the canal later that day, her captain yelled “to hell with you and your old clothesline” and steamed through, the ship itself cutting the rope. Alworth’s men then put the rope up again, only to watch the tug Spirit break it a short time later.

The next time Alworth’s men tried to block the canal, they took 18 feet of chain and spiked it to the wooden piers. They then attempted to tie the rope to the chain so that the weight of the chain would lower the rope out of reach of any boat master’s knife. But they failed to connect the rope and chain, and the chain was left in the water until 9 a.m. the next today, when a Duluth Herald reporter retrieved it and “onlookers made a wild scramble for pieces to preserve as relics of Boeing’s audacious attempt to stop navigation through the canal.” At 9:30 a.m. Police Chief Doran arrived and instructed Officer Smollet to “arrest anyone attempting to put a rope across the canal.”

There were no further attempts to rope off the canal. Boeing died from influenza in 1890, just months after the posting, and while his estate did pursue the matter after his death, we could find no evidence that Wilhelm Boeing was ever compensated for the land he had lost to the canal.

Most of the land that Boeing owned is now either part of the canal, its piers, or Canal Park itself—the green space on either side of the canal. The area of Minnesota Point from Michigan Street to the Canal, which most people consider “Canal Park,” is technically the Canal Park Business District.

Even without $100,000 he asked of Duluth, Boeing had plenty of money. Most of his vast wealth went to his son William, who would eventually move to the Pacific Northwest and start building airplanes. Today, of course, Bill Boeing’s company makes most of the commercial airplanes in service.

From Crossing the Canal: An Illustrated History of Duluth’s Aerial Bridge, copyright © 2008, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota