A Week in Duluth (Atlantic Monthly, 1870)

The first page of Trowbridge’s article on Duluth from the May,1870, edition of Atlantic Monthly. (Image: Zenith City Press)

By John Townsend Trowbridge (describing his visit in August, 1869)

As the two little steamers found their way out from among the windings of the St. Louis River (where half the time one boat appeared, to those on board the other, to be gliding about, not on any stream, but breast-deep in a grassy sea of flat meadows), and desperately puffing and panting, put their noses into the white teeth of an easterly gale on St. Louis Bay, a bleak cluster of new-looking wooden houses, on a southward-fronting hillside, was pointed out to us as the Mecca of our pilgrimage.

The first sight, to us shivering on deck, was not particularly cheering. But as we passed on into Superior Bay, and a stroke of light from a rift in the clouds fell like a prophetic finger on the little checkered spot brightening in the wilderness, the view became more interesting. The town lies on the lower terraces of wooded hills which rise from the water’s edge, by easy grades, to the distant background of a magnificent mountain range—a truly imposing site, to one who can look beyond those cheap wooden frames—the staging whereby the real city is built—and see the civilization of the future clustering along the shore, and hanging upon the benches of that ample amphitheater.

The two bays were evidently once an open basin of the lake, from which they have been cut off, one after the other, by points of land formed by the action of its waves meeting the current of the river. Between the lake and Superior Bay is Minnesota Point—an enormous bar seven miles in length, covered by a long procession of trees and bushes, which appear to be marching in solid column, after their captain, the lighthouse, across the head of the lake, towards the land of Wisconsin. It is like a mighty arm thrust down from the north shore to take the fury of the lake storms on one side, and to protect the haven thus formed on the other. Seated on the rocky shoulder of this arm, with one foot on the lake, and the other on the bay, is the infant city of Duluth.

Approaching a wharf on the bay side of the narrow peninsula, we perceive a very large crowd for so small a town awaiting our arrival. On landing, we are made fully aware of the hospitable intent of the citizens. They not only sent the two steamers up the river to fetch us, but here they are crowding to welcome and carry us off to their homes. As there is no hotel in the place (though spacious ones are building), we are glad to fall into the hands of these new friends, some of whom have hastened the completion of their summer-built houses on our account. We are regarded as no ordinary guests, the real fathers of the city being of our party. A few papers signed in Philadelphia have made a great Northwestern port and market possible—nay, inevitable—at this point. The idea of such a city had long been in the air; but it was these men who caught the floating germ and planted it here. In other words, it is the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad that builds Duluth, and they are the builders of the railroad.

The “avenue” laid out on Minnesota Point is not yet the remarkably fine thing it looks on paper, and is no doubt destined to be in the future—a grand thoroughfare extending some seven miles along this natural breakwater, betwixt lake and bay. At present one sees but a rough, pebbly road, which looks more like a line of very tremendous handwriting, italicized by a wooden sidewalk drawn under it. It is flanked by a few stores, dwellings, and Indian huts, and by a good many trees in the neighborhood of the wharf; and it leads up thence to the real city front, half or three quarters of a mile above. As we walk up thither (that is, such of us as are not lodged on the Point), under a strong escort of citizens on foot (carriages are still scarce in Duluth), we can hear the roar of the great lake on the other side of the bar, and catch glimpses of its white breakers and blue distance through openings among the trees.

Civilization is attracted to the line of a railroad like steel-filings to a magnet; and here appears to be the point of a magnet of more than ordinary power, “Four months ago,” our guide tells us, as we mount the wooden steps which lead up to Superior Street, “there were only half a dozen houses in Duluth; now there are over a hundred.” These are not mere shanties either, but substantial wooden buildings, for the most part. We look up and down Superior Street, and see stores, shops, dwellings, a church, a school-house, a post-office, a bank, a big hotel, and, strangest sight of all, a large jewelry store going up in the woods. In the midst of all which visible preparations for an early influx of trade an astonishing quiet reigns. There are unfinished roofs and open house-sides all round us, yet not a sound is heard.

Our first thought was that business had been suspended in honor of our arrival. Then we remembered that it was Sunday—a fact which had been constantly jostled out of our consciousness by the secular circumstance of travel on that day, and of which we had been particularly reminded, I think, but once; that was, when a smile was raised by a worthy elderly gentleman going about in a very public manner, on the steamboat, innocently inquiring for a euchre pack.

Two of us are taken into custody by a dealer in hardware; and it is like getting home, after our journey through the wilderness, to find ourselves in comfortable quarters, ‘with the prospect of a real bed to sleep in, dinner awaiting us, and the kind faces of Mr.  N [Edgar Nash, we assume. ed.] and his sister beaming upon us as if we were old friends, for whom enough cannot be done. We have front rooms, the windows of which command a view that can hardly be beaten by any windows in the world; on the left, the stormy lake tumbling shoreward its white surges; and in front, just across the dividing bar of Minnesota Point, the comparatively tranquil bay, studded with “floating islands,” and stretching far off yonder, between forest-fringed shores, to Superior City, in Wisconsin, eight miles away.

THE NEXT MORNING (Monday, August 16th) shows a changed aspect of things. The wind has gone down, the weather is inviting, and we go out to view the town, which, so quiet the day before, is ringing now with the noise of axes and hammers and saws, and clanking wheels, and flapping boards flung down, and scenes of busy life on every side. Wood-choppers are cutting trees, piling sticks and brush, and burning log-heaps—clearing the land, not for wheat and potatoes, but for the planting of a city. The streets have not yet been graded, but the rude wagon-tracks go curving over hillocks and through hollows, amid rocks and stumps and stones, and the plank sidewalks span many a deep gully and trickling stream.

The plan of the town well befits its really superb situation. Superior Street occupies the front of the lower terrace of the hills. Behind this, and parallel with it, are the numbered streets—First, Second, Third, and so on—rising step by step on the gentle acclivity. Crossing the streets are the avenues, which go cutting their tremendous gaps through the dense forest growth up the wild mountain-side.

Going down to the lake shore, I am surprised to find under the cliff an old wharf and warehouse in the angle formed by Minnesota Point, I afterwards meet the owner and learn of him how they came here. Included in what is now Duluth is the old town of Portland, which had a name and a location at this point, but never any real existence. Here was an Indian agency, and that was about all. Good maps of the States show several such towns scattered along the north shore—Clifton, Buchanan, Burlington—like flies on the back of that monstrous forefinger of the lake, which is seen pointing in a southwesterly direction across the continent. Of these paper towns Portland was always deemed the most important. Situated at the western extremity of the grandest lake and river chain in the world—that vast freshwater Mediterranean which reaches from the Gulf of St. Lawrence almost to the centre of North America,—it  required no great degree of sagacity to perceive that here was to be the key to the quarter of the hemisphere, —here or hereabouts. Wherever was established the practical head of navigation between the northern range of States and the vastly more extensive undeveloped region beyond, there must be another and perhaps even a greater Chicago.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….

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