Recollections of the Early Days in Duluth Part 2

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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.


The Ancient and Honorable Order of Fish Eaters includes all of the “first families” of Duluth.

In the early days, eat fish or snowballs was the general order all must obey. This drew social lines very rigidly. Present day citizens have a wider range, even strawberries in February, if purses permit.

So, to be called a “fish-eater” in Duluth nowadays is to be paid the highest compliment that can be given a citizen. It means a spirit and a constitution hardy enough to survive the hardships of pioneering in Duluth when Superior Street was a mud alley. It also means a faith in the eventual development of the infant village. It has taken lots of faith and grit to carry Duluth up the hillside and spread it up and down the lake shore. The Ancient and Honorable Order of Fish Eaters is to be credited with the foundational work.

The fish business of the Lake Superior region is as old as the civilization of the Northwest. It was the first line of trade to follow the fur industry.

Indeed, the first fish-dealers were Indians, who took their catches to the Sault when boats began to navigate the lakes, even before the docks were built. Their fishing was done in bark canoes. They paddled up and down the rapids and caught whitefish by spears, dip nets and sometimes with hooks. Their fish was sold to the passenger boats. Imagination pictures one of the palatial lake boats of the present day being accosted by a fleet of canoes and Indians calling their goods in Ojibway, French, English, or a mixture of all three!

The aboriginal fish-dealers continued in the business as long as it was profitable for them. Finally the fish got so scarce, or wary, that the Indians could not get enough by their primitive methods to pay them for their trouble.

Stannard Rock, about twelve miles from Marquette, was a great fishing resort for both lake trout and whitefish. It was known as the graveyard for lake boats, as it lay in the direct path of navigation and most of the great boulder was about eight or twelve feet under water.

It required a keen eye and an alert sixth sense to pilot a craft around Stannard Rock when a storm was on or fog lay low. The government finally got a lighthouse built there, which made Stannard Rock a safe and secure home for the lighthouse keeper. Anchored twelve miles from his nearest neighbor and no road between, keeper as well as navigation was safeguarded.


The canal was the idea of such leading citizens as Sidney Luce, J. B. Culver, J. D. Ray, the Nettletons, Commodore Saxton and others. They believed it necessary for Duluth’s development as a lake port, since experience had proved that no breakwater outside the natural harbor could withstand the pounding rollers of a series of northeasters.

Like most civic improvements, it was financed by issuing bonds on the city. J. H. Upham & Company owned a dredge and undertook the job. I do not know who the engineer was, if any.

As soon as Superior heard of the project, she undertook to stop it, which is probably the original cause of the long-cherished feud between the Twin Port cities.

Superior claimed the canal would divert the water of the St. Louis River from its natural channel through St. Louis, or Superior, Bay, out through the entry on the Wisconsin side. The canal did just this too, though not with the direful results Superior predicted. She feared the St. Louis River would eventually fill up the bay on her side and make her an inland city.

What other damage the canal might cause, she didn’t dare imagine! Or perhaps couldn’t, working her imagination overtime.

Superior did not make much headway with her objection, as long as she merely shouted her complaints across the bay. So she got the state of Wisconsin to endorse and finance her in the fight. Her congressman got a bill through Congress prohibiting Duluth from going ahead with the work.

But Duluth had friends at court and was kept informed as to what steps were being taken. In the meantime the dredge was digging the bay aside as fast as it could bite out the earth.

One day a dispatch arrived announcing that a temporary injunction had been granted Superior to stop work in the canal until the government engineers could investigate. The army headquarters were then at Leavenworth, Kansas. So anyone sent to serve papers could not reach Duluth for two or three days, at the best.

Duluth received the unwelcomed news on Friday night. The army man might be expected Monday. The dredge was then working fast and furious. But it was thought that by making extra efforts they could beat the man with the papers.

So they began digging about five o’clock Saturday morning and didn’t stop the dredge until Monday noon. When the United States officer stepped off his special train from Leavenworth, he was a few minutes too late. The natural peninsula had been turned into an artificial island!

The water in the bay was about six inches higher than in the lake. This caused quite a current through the canal, which soon cut the dredged opening deeper and wider. The six-inch fall of water from the bay soon washed loose sand and gravel away from the already small opening, but as soon as the extra water in the bay had run off and a northeaster came on, the water began to flow back into the bay.

However, a Superior gent, on an investigation mission, sailed out into the lake through the Wisconsin entry, navigated the full length of Minnesota Point along the lake side, voyaged the new canal and returned home by way of the bay. He reported what Duluth had done and the next day the entire population of Superior arrived to exclaim over the way Duluth had defied the United States government.

To repair the damage, Superior succeeded in getting the federal government to order Duluth to construct a breakwater or dyke across the bay, about three-quarters of a mile below the canal. This was to stop the anticipated flow of water that was expected to come from diverting the channel of the St. Louis River!

So a crib was built across the bay, with openings near each end. This cost Duluth $80,000. After a few years, Superior began action to compel Duluth to take out the dike, claiming it interfered with navigation! Duluth, always willing to oblige a friend and neighbor, tore away what remained of the old cribbing and Superior became reconciled to her fate.

The Bay of Duluth—or Superior Bay, if you happen to live on that side of the planet—was not always the excellent harbor it is today. Originally, there were a number of small islands dotted over it, collected mostly near Rice’s Point. There were chiefly mere bogs, but one was quite an island, with rather large trees and brush on it. These islands resembled the quagmire growth which characterizes St. Louis River in the vicinity of the steel plant.

But they were not permanent or solid ground. After the canal was constructed, a strong current upstream would be created during a northeaster. The wind would blow water through the canal into the bay, then when the storm was over, the tide or current would flow back.

This churning process washed some of the islands loose and they floated through the canal into the lake. Improvements along Rice’s Point caused other bogs to disappear. When Cutler and Gilbert built a saw mill where the Imperial Flour Mill was afterward erected, their logs and booms used up the rest of the islands.


There are many weighty questions
That confront us every day.
One of the worst to settle is—
Who put the water in the Bay?
Some say Jim Bardon was the man,
While others seem to doubt
And claim that Zachan was the one
Who brought the thing about.

Some seem to think half-breed Bungo
Brought the water from the Sioux,
He being the first white man here,
As he’s often said to you.
Some say that Wheeler took a hand
And wheeled it up the Lake,
And put it in behind the Point,
And never made a break.
A break I’m told, has not been made,
‘Til Merrit started out
To regulate the water board
And bring reform about.
When we come to look around
And make inquiries of the mob,
We find there’s many in both towns
Who were here and claim the job.

Camile Poirier says that he
Came here with a canvas sack
And helped Van Brunt and J. P. Johnson
Bring the water on their back.
LaVaque declares that might be so,
As he can testify,
He got some from them to mix his paint
As they were passing by.
Billy Sargent thinks that he
Should hold the honored place today,
As he was the man who first proposed
Putting’ water in the Bay.

Alf Merritt now comes to the front
Says, “This is a pretty note,
I got the water from Beaver Bay,
And brought it in my boat..
The Wielands say that’s a mistake,

As they owned Beaver Bay.
No water for three hundred years
Has ever gone away.
Paddy Doran now comes out and says,
“These claims seem awful queer,
I got the water all myself To help string out my beer..

Ben Decker claims he was the man,
And can prove it clear enough.
‘Twas he who made the beer and
He sure had to have the stuff.
Bobby McLean put soup in Superior
As I’ve often heard him say,
But that was many years before
There was water in the bay.

H.M. Peyton and Colonel Hayes built
The Point of drifting Sand;
Commodore Saxton then came here,
And surveyed out the land.
Then Mendenhall and Charles R. Haynes
Cocked their weather eye,
And put up a sign with “Land for Sale”
To “ketch” the passer-by.

Butler, no doubt, took a band
To settle all their strife,
The mistake he made in starting,
He did not take a wife.
There are many other questions
To be settled every day
of just as much importance as
Who put the water in the Bay.

We will fret and fume and worry as we
Journey through the land
And in everybody’s mix-up
We will wait to take a hand.
We think that we are competent
And no doubt but what we are
To settle every question
For which Wilson went so far.

But that is not the mission
Of the Old Settlers here on earth
We’re here to cheer the feeble ones,
And honor truth and worth,
This waning band of Pioneers
Have watched the weary night
That the present generation
Might well enjoy the coming light.

The locks of those whose heads are grey,
Whose shoulders stoop with care,
Were once the leaders in this place,
No task too great for them to bear.
Now you enjoy what they’ve brought forth
By working day by day,
You then may learn, as you grow old,
Who put the water in the Bay.


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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