Recollections of the Early Days in Duluth Part 1

Self-Published by author Jerome Cooley in 1925. Readers should be aware that Mr. Cooley put this book together when he was elderly, and not all of his “recollections” are historically accurate. Reader should also note that Mr. Cooley is very much a 19th-century man, and his language—much of which we would consider politically incorrect today—reflects the era in which he developed.


Jerome Cooley. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

It is often remarked that the only real enjoyment old people have is recounting and reliving the scenes and events of early life. Early recollections are usually the sweetest as we advance into old age. Sorrows have lost their sharp edge, while memory brings to mind some pleasant little incident that cheers a saddened heart and relieves a worried mind.

We are all on the same highway, the old and well-beaten trail that leads from the cradle to the grave. Running on high, with both brake bands busted and the reverse gear not working, it is but a question of time, and a short time at that, when we will arrive at that time and place where the wicked cease from troubling and the good can enjoy a rest.

So it is sometimes wisdom to stop in our mad career and review those who have passed on. We may benefit by their experiences, gather inspiration from their successes, and avoid their errors.

Our beloved city is not so old but that some can recall its early founders and their part in laying its foundation that it might become one of the greatest commercial and manufacturing centers of the continent.

More than one citizen of Duluth, in the year 1925, can remember the celebrations held fifty-five years ago, when Duluth received her first city charter on March 6, 1870. A citizen of New York with similar memories in 1925 would need to be two hundred and seventy-two years old. In London he would be over a thousand. And who knows how old a Roman or an Athenian must be to recall the establishing of their respective municipalities.

Duluth, with her present population of a hundred thousand or more, is one of the infant metropolises of the world. She is a lusty infant crying day and night for her natural right to grow and develop according to her own gifts and talents, unhindered by older sister cities who would appropriate some of her birthrights. Her sturdy insistence that she be permitted to develop her inherited rights is due chiefly to the hardy independence of her original settlers.

So let praise be rendered where praise is due!

The pages following do not comprise a history of Duluth. I have set down in this little book only recollections of people, events and times that have largely passed beyond the remembrance of most of those now living in Duluth.

During the last decade of the last century the city began to take on and has since maintained a larger growth, until Duluth has become a substantial and important city. Many who came to Duluth at the beginning of and during this later stage, and others of another generation who were born here, have become important and constructive factors in the building of this community and its institutions.

To write of these men and women and of their lives and dreams and efforts is not within the scope of this book. I leave that to those who have been intimately associated with this period and I hope it will be taken up and that it will be thoroughly done.

At the earnest insistence of some of my friends, I have been led to undertake the task of assembling-in this book some of the matters that have occurred to my memory about men and happenings in the period of the city’s infancy and youth. That is all. And with a full realization of what those of a later generation have done for Duluth, I dedicate it to the memories of those of other days, whether they be still living or passed along into the bottomless reservoir of past history, who laid the foundations, on which those who came after have built and are building.



By the North Shore is meant all the land from Fond du Lac to the Canadian border, on the north and northwest of Lake Superior. Up to about 1850 the North Shore was part of the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation and was guarded with scrupulous care by the Indians to prevent explorations by the white men. In 1860 there were but 80 white inhabitants in the region.

It was supposed that the north shore of Lake Superior was one vast copper mine and a large city was expected to spring up near Stony Point or Sucker Bay, to accommodate this industry.

The Land Office was located up the north shore about twelve miles, at a place named Buchanan, in honor of the President. It was established in the fall of 1857, on Stony Point. The remains of the Land Office building have long since disappeared.

John Whipple was receiver and Samuel Clark register. Their report would indicate that they had rather a serious time in getting the office located and running. According to their letters, it cost them $60.00 to get their safe, which had a double padlock, from Superior to Buchanan. The plats, books and blanks were lost in transit.

Mr. Whipple went to hunt them up. He left Superior October 13, 1857, on the steamer Elgin for Chicago and arrived there the 25th, after a very stormy passage. From there he went to Dubuque, Iowa, as the papers were shipped up the Mississippi River. When he got there he learned they had left. He took the next boat for St. Paul, but on arriving there found no mail. The postmaster said the papers had been shipped backed to Chicago.

He then started back for Dubuque, hoping to overtake the papers. He knew that if they got to Chicago they would be too late to catch the last boat for Duluth that fall. On arriving at Dubuque he found they had not arrived. The postmaster said they had probably gone to Taylor’s Falls. He then took the next boat up the river to Taylor’s Falls, where he unearthed the accumulated mail for the whole upper country.

After sorting out the Land Office papers he hired a team and started for Buchanan over the old Government Trail, which had been cut through from Superior to St. Paul-the present Military Road. He got as far as Deer River, now called Pine River, where the roads were impassable for teams and he could go no farther. He hired a packer, but at Kettle River the packer played out and quit. Mr. Whipple was then forced to get another packer and by taking part of the load himself, reached Superior after four days, more dead than alive, as much of the way the mud and water was above the knees.

In 1859 the Land Office was moved to Portland, as East End was originally called. Sidney Luce was appointed receiver. Duluth does not seem to have gotten on the map, officially at Washington until 1862. Luke Martin was then appointed register by Abraham Lincoln and Col. M. H. Feller succeeded him. In 1869 Ances Smith was appointed. The Land Office was then located on the southwest corner of First Street and First Avenue East, where the Yale Laundry now stands. There it remained until about 1875.


The land comprising: Duluth was homesteaded by William Nettleton, J. B. Culver and others who founded the city. They took homesteads here, as the land was all government land. Settlement with the Indians came later.

One claim was called the Posey Tract, from old Joe Posey, a half-breed Indian. It was impossible to locate its boundaries, though it took in most of the Third Division, or down-town Duluth.

But a man named Prentice, by some hook or crook, got hold of a so-called title and began to collect blood money from the people who owned property in the Third Division. Some were sued and others paid him considerable sums of money for quit claims, to avoid suit. They feared he might at some time establish his claims and cause them trouble.

His description, or rather Joe Posey’s, ran as follows: “Starting at a certain rock near the base of Minnesota Point, thence in a northerly direction one mile, thence west one mile to a point; thence south one mile to a point; thence east one mile to the place of beginning.”

The trouble was-where was the rock? Some claimed it was near Rice’s Point, while others claimed it was farther up town. They finally decided that the point of starting was too indefinite to base a lawsuit on and the dispute was dropped.


In 1860 there were but 80 white inhabitants at the Twin Ports on the Minnesota side. The number did not increase very materially until in 1869 Jay Cooke selected the village as the eastern terminus of his Northern Pacific railroad.

Jay Cooke was one of the greatest financiers of his time. He visioned Duluth as a place of great opportunities and became actively interested here. The Jay Cooke Park out from Thomson, Cooke Street in Duluth and the fountain at Ninth Avenue East, commemorate his association with this part of the country.

His influence, together with rapidly growing dock and shipping enterprises made the villagers ambitious. Two railroads terminating here! The Lake Superior and Mississippi, already in and about to begin operations; and the Northern Pacific under course of construction.

So the village became anxious for the more exalted name of city. The citizens thought they saw a metropolis of great importance coming and coming rapidly. They felt an urge to get the machinery oiled and in running order, lest a vast horde of new citizens arrive and catch the natives unprepared. Great hustling ensued to get all the odds and ends gathered up and in shape before the boom arrived.

The state legislature granted Duluth a charter on March 6, 1870. The city celebrated with appropriate festivities and then proceeded to hold an election on April 4th.

A grand total of 448 ballots were cast, without troubling to get out the woman vote. Col. J. B. Culver, early settler and always a prominent citizen, was elected Mayor and took charge of the fate of the city he had helped to found.

The 448 citizens were secured in a truly western style.

But it went, as there was “none to say nay.”

Probably a week before, they let it become known amongst the Indians that there was to be a grand celebration on April 4th and for all to come. The invitation was enthusiastically accepted.

On election day they would take an Indian into a back room, give him a drink, have him put on a pair of pants and tell him his name was Joe LePort and for him to go out and put the slip of paper into the box and come back and get another drink.

When he came back they stripped the pants off and called the next Indian in line and did the same with him. They had so many Joe LePorts that the inspector afterwards thought that there was some fraud, but he was convinced to the contrary and no trouble came of it.

One big Indian, after his last drink, thought he would escape with the pants, but he was caught and summarily dealt with as a warning to other bad Indians that no fraud or deceit could or would be allowed. Duluth was a city and law and order must prevail.

So the 448 citizens became residents of the (to be) far famed city of Duluth.

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


  • Cooley, Jerome. Recollections of the Early Days in Duluth. Published by the Author"Duluth, Minn. 1925
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