Pioneer Recollections of William Epler

Among the records of the Duluth Historical Society are many interesting documents descriptive of the experiences of the early settlers. One of these was written by William Epler, who was a resident here from 1856 to 1870, and who at the suggestion of Dr. Codding a few years ago wrote the following interesting account of the early settlement of Duluth and Superior. Mr. Epler’s account is as follows:


Dear Sir: Yours of the 12th inst. at hand. I shall be glad to assist your society in any way I can in its endeavor to gather and preserve the facts and incidents pertaining to the beginning of Duluth. I only wish I could do more. I must depend entirely upon memory, and forty-four years, the time which has elapsed since I left Duluth, is a long vista for the memory to traverse in quest of facts for an historical society. It is true I visited Duluth in 1870, and again in 1900, but my residence there came to an end June 2, 1860, and I know nothing of the city’s history since that date. Let me state right here the facts of our going.

The wife and self, left for Detroit on the steamer Illinois, a large side-wheeler, June 2, 1860. No ice was in Superior bay, but there was two or three miles of float ice on the outside. We made the Apostle islands during the first night out, became ice-bound there, and remained fast all the next day. The ship transacted the little business it could at La Pointe and Bayfield.

We got to sea again some time during the following night. The remainder of the voyage was made without hindrance.

I first arrived at Superior City August 5, 1856, afoot and footsore.

I had come over the trail from St. Croix Falls. Having been raised on an Illinois farm, I had never seen a body of water larger than Lake Pepin or Lake St. Croix. I can well remember my first view of Lake Superior. As we emerged from the old military road the sight presented was an impressive one.

This military road had the appearance of a broad swath cut through the tall, thick forest, as indeed it was. The road was about eighty feet wide, all cleaned up nicely. It had originally been intended to connect Lake Superior with the St. Croix river, but I believe it was never finished.

At the time of my arrival, Superior was enjoying a great prosperity, but a year later the great crisis of ’57 came and paralyzed everything.

At the date of my arrival Duluth and Portland had a population of a dozen or so. Duluth was confined to Minnesota Point.

Portland joined it at the mainland and extended back and up the hill.

Duluth boasted of a sawmill and two houses that I distinctly remember, perhaps two or three more small houses. One of the two was afterwards known as the Culver House. It stood on the east side of Lake avenue, close to the north side of the canal, or where the canal now is, and was still there in 1890.

Col. J. B. Culver occupied this house from the spring of ’57, possibly from the fall of ’56, until October, 1859, moving from there into a new residence which he had had erected in Portland.

This Duluth house which I am considering was the capital of St. Louis county. What little county business that needed attention was transacted in this house. Mr. Culver was the recorder of deeds and Samuel Badge assistant. The county commissioners met in this structure.

Pardon one for reciting a matter entirely personal, but it was in this house I first met the wife of my early manhood.

Miss Jane Abigail Woodman, a sister of Mrs. J. B. Culver, and it was here that we were married on April 12, 1859. Ours was the first marriage ceremony ever performed in Duluth.

By an examination of the records, you will observe ours was the second license issued. The first, as appears on record, was for parties down the north shore, towards Pigeon river. Let me add that this noble, lovely woman, the first lady married in Duluth, went with me to the silver mines of Nevada, and there she died, October 2, 1863.

The other house which I remember most distinctly was about a block distant from the Culver home, toward the mainland, and was known in ’58 and ’59 as the Jefferson House. A Mr. Jefferson, R. E. Jefferson, I think, kept the house as a public inn.

John Dunphy, during the latter ’50s, resided near these buildings.

On the south side of the canal-where the canal now is-from the Jefferson House, a trail extended along up the point towards the mainland and into Portland, if Portland had any “into” at that time. The town boasted of two houses, one the claim house of William Nettleton, standing, I should judge, at or near the intersection of Lake avenue and First street; the other three blocks east. The last mentioned house was later occupied by the United States land office and was destroyed by fire early one morning during the winter of ’59 and ’60.

Col. John Whipple and Colonel Culver were the two land officers. After the fire the office was removed into the claim house of Mr. Nettleton, remaining there until my departure from the country.

Both of these were log houses. Mr. Nettleton built his own.

I do not know who erected the other-perhaps the promoters of Portland. Mr. Nettleton had nicely cleared about forty acres, maybe more. His house stood on the south side of the clearing, near the center, now the very heart of Duluth.

Later, probably in 1857, a warehouse was built on the lake shore, about at the intersection of Second avenue with the lake.

This was a substantial, well-built frame house, supported by strong timbers, or a trestle, at least sixteen feet high. The entrance to the warehouse was thus brought up to a level with the bank, the house standing over the waters of the lake. A romantic, picturesque place to live, especially when storms lashed the lake into fury. Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Luce had their residence in this building from the time it was built up to the time of our leaving.

In 1858 a Mr. Ryder built a very genteel two-story house not far from the crossing of First street and Fourth avenue east. I do not think Mr. Ryder ever occupied it. He sold it to E. C. Martin, a deputy United States surveyor, who resided there as long as I remained a citizen of Duluth.

I know where the avenues and streets of Duluth are, as I have a map of the city before me. The house that Mr. Culver built and occupied in the fall of 1859 stood near the crossing of Second avenue and East Second street. It was a nice, comfortable, two-story house, but must not be confused with one of a more pretentious character erected by Mr. Culver after the war and which stood not far from the site of the first one.

I am now through with the houses of Portland, as they stood up to 1860. I am still well aware my locations are faulty, as I have had to rely upon memory for incidents occurring in a period long drawn out. I still remember about the distances and directions and the different houses as located from the Luce warehouse.

Returning to Duluth: Up to 1860 two or three small houses had been built a couple of blocks below the Culver house, one of which was the property of Charles Chester. The other was owned and occupied by members of the Ryder family. These constituted all the residences in Duluth, excepting two or three huts in the brush, near the trail, and about half way between the Culver house and the mainland, occupied by white men with Indian families.

John Dunphy occupied the Culver house, I think, after it was vacated by Mr. Culver.

In September, 1856, soon after my arrival in Superior, and after I had looked around the country a little-Duluth, Fond du Lac and elsewhere-I accepted a position with William Burt, a deputy United States surveyor. Our trip to Burlington bay, the field of our work. was made in a birch bark canoe. Mr.Burt, another young man and myself left Superior shortly after noon, paddled up the bay, portaged just about where the ship canal now is, and proceeded on down the lake.

This portage across Minnesota point was used by all travelers up and down the lake, and became a kind of meeting point.

Our first work as surveyors was meandering the lake shore, from Burlington bay around to Agate bay. At these two bays I am informed is located the city of Two Harbors. Our field work of locating township lines extended back into the country and on down to Beaver bay. As winter approached we moved up to Rice’s point, and did some line and meander work there.

I well remember we were at one time extending some line work over the north end of Superior bay, now Duluth harbor, on the ice, when on looking down towards the entry, we saw the bulky form of the old steamer Lady Elgin-famous now in history and tragedy-coming in.

There was great rejoicing, for she had not been expected.

Supplies for the winter were very short, and she brought sufficient provisions to make possible the survey of a railroad from Superior to Bayfield, which survey was made that winter by Thomas Clark.

There was a narrow strip of open water through the entry leading up to Quebec pier. All other parts of the bay were covered with ice. When working about Superior bay we camped where Rice’s point joined the mainland, and near a house occupied by a squatter, a pre-emptor. I believe his name was Bennett.

I very well remember he had built a comfortable cabin and had a nice family.

Oneota had been started and had a sawmill. Messrs. Ely and Wheeler seemed to be the men of the place. Later, in ’58 and ’59, a Mr. Merritt resided there. He was a county commissioner, I think. I remember he used to come down to the capital at Duluth to attend to public business. He was a nice gentleman and good citizen, and had quite a family. I understand his sons grew up with the country and became leading citizens.

Fond du Lac attracted considerable attention at this early day. It was a romantic, pleasant appearing place, with Colonel Carlton as the presiding genius. D. G. Morrison, of Superior, had large holdings there. Colonel Carlton was a generous pioneer and dispensed hospitality with a lavish hand.

Hon. W. W. Kingsley (delegate to congress) located a claim early in ’56, naming it Endion. He built on it a comfortable log cabin, which stood, as near as I can make out, near the corner of Water street and Mission avenue. I hibernated in this Kingsley cabin during the winter of 1857 and 1858, along with a young man by the name of John McFarland. John had been engaged by Mr. Kingsley to look after the place during his official absence. Mr. Kingsley was a man of literary tastes and had stocked his cabin library with many good books. Having nothing else to do but snare rabbits and fetch water and wood, John doing the cooking, I read many of the books. The collection was of standard and established kinds.

In the fall of ’58 an incident occurred which is really a matter of history. An election for county officers was being held in Duluth. A number of foreign squatters, Huns, Russians, etc., not being familiar with American methods, got the idea that the election meant no good for the claim-holders, and that it should be stopped. A dozen of them got together, and arming themselves with stones and clubs, rushed the polling place, a small house standing on the lake shore, about two blocks below the portage. J. B. Culver, Sidney Luce and a Mr. Green were judges. Another young man, I think it was R. E. Jefferson, and myself were clerks. The first we knew of the trouble a huge stone came through the window, followed by a chorus of wild yells from the outside. Mr. Luce snatched up the ballot box and Mr. Culver the poll books, and darted out of a back door into the brush. Mr. Green, who was cornered, was indiscreet enough to show fight. I have forgotten what became of Mr. Jefferson. I was a mere boy. The mob, perhaps thinking I was an onlooker, paid no attention to me, but gave all their attention to Green. Just here I exhibited my indiscretion by encouraging Green in his unequal fight. A big Hun, about seven feet tall, took me by the collar, swinging a club over my head meantime, and commanded me to be quiet. I cheerfully obeyed. No one got hurt. Even Mr. Green lived to laugh about it, and I don’t think anything was ever done to bring the miscreants to justice.

I remember Lester river, but cannot recall to mind anyone by the name of Lester. The Palmers lived at Sucker river.

Vose and Leander were among my most intimate friends.

I and a man by the name of Leander became deputy surveyors.

We were in camp together several summers, subdividing the townships, beginning at Rice lake, extending back to the Cloquet and down to and below Grand Marais. Buchanan was located near Knife river. The promoters intended that it should be a copper town. The United States land office was first located at Buchanan, being removed to Duluth late in the ’50s.

You will observe that I have said nothing about the men and women I found residing about the head of the lakes in August, 1856. Let me say they were most excellent people, wide awake and energetic. I may mention only a few: D. George Morrison, August Zachau, – Hill, an esteemed settler of Superior; Thomas Clark and Richard Rey, surveyors and engineers; Thomas and James Ritchie, Col. Hiram Hayes, still an honored citizen of Superior; M. S. Brigrt, William H. and George Newton, Alexander Paul, Commodore Saxton, George Holcomb, Wise and Ashton, newspaper men; William and George Perry, bankers; Culver and’ Marshall, merchants; George Nettleton, J. D. Howard, J. D. Ray, Coburn, Post and others equally worthy of mention were there, showing all alike the prosperity and enthusiasm of the place.

Duluth cannot be said to have had a resident population at that time. It was made up of transient people who came and went, explorers, fishermen, voyagers and Indians. Clark and Relf doubtless surveyed and platted both Duluth and Portland, as they did most of the other projected cities around the head of the lakes and down the north shore.

To sum up, there resided in Duluth, June 2, 1860, John Dunphy and family, Mr. Ryder and family, R. E. Jefferson and family had gone down the lake the fall before; Messrs. Brown and Badger, with their Indian families; Chester and family had, I believe, also gone down the lakes. These are all I recall to mind.

There were living in Portland: E. C. Martin and family, Sidney Luce and family, Colonel Whipple, of the land office, and occasionally W. Nettleton.

No history of the head of the lakes, no matter how full otherwise, would be complete without special mention of that western explorer and surveyor, George R. Stuntz. Tradition says he came to the head of the lakes in 1852. He made Superior his home and base of operations. His destiny seemed to be to give this Lake Superior country a start, and he did it.

He blazed the way to the wheat fields, the mines, through the forests and explored the rivers. Together all these are pouring a continuous stream of wealth into and through your harbor and building your great city. Too much cannot be said in praise of this picturesque figure of the old pioneer days.

I can further say that no account of Duluth could be written with Col. J. B. Culver left out. I knew him intimately as husband, father, friend and citizen, and it is only with feelings of gratefulness that I write his name. A talented, cultured gentleman, and withal, Duluth’s most strenuous and progressive citizen.

His loyalty to Duluth and the head of the lakes was unmoving under the most painful delays and trying circumstances.

Soldier as well as citizen, the hero of two wars, he ever stood ready at the call of duty.

From Dwight Woodbridge and John Pardee’s History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.


  • Woodbridge, Dwight and John Pardee, eds. History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.
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