The Recollections of August Zachau

Few, if any, of the present inhabitants of Duluth, when they board a train to be whirled away to some distant destination, think of how different the same trip appeared to the early settlers a half century ago. Then, instead of the iron horse gliding along over the smooth steel rails, the only means of locomotion were walking through the woods or making the journey in a flimsy canoe borne on the waters of the rivers or perhaps by the tedious method of lake navigation. August Zachau, one of the first pioneers at the head of the lakes, and the builder of the 293  first house in Superior, tells the story of a business trip he made to Chicago in 1854.

Mr. Zachau was at that time engaged in the construction of other buildings, and after getting out timber from the woods started on a journey to Chicago for supplies and matched lumber to be used in finishing the Pioneer House, a hotel on which he was then at work. The only lumber to be had here then was what could be sawed by hand from the timber in the woods, and after sawing 50,000 feet by hand, he planned to ship the remainder into the heart of the woods from Chicago.

Starting from Superior on a bleak, rainy morning in April, 1854, he tramped through the dripping woods toward Kettle river in the company of the mail carrier. There was no building along the trail, and at night they camped around a fire, kindled with dry birch bark.

Kettle river and the station where the mail carriers met was reached after two days of weary tramping through the dismal forest. Here a supply of provisions, consisting principally of salt pork, was procured for the journey down the river. This was made in the canoe of another mail carrier, paddling through the day and camping on the river bank at night.

An exciting experience was the upsetting of the canoe and the contents going to the bottom of the river. Fortunately a waterproof match safe gave them the means of starting a fire and drying their water-soaked garments.

After reaching the St. Croix river the journey was continued in the company of a party of French and Indian voyagers, whose cheeriness did much to enliven the voyage, until Taylor’s Falls was reached. From this point the journey was continued on foot as far as Stillwater and from there by stage coach to St. Paul.

A number of steamboats were plying on the Mississippi river and the trip from St. Paul to Dubuque, Iowa, was made in one of these.

From Dubuque the journey was made by railroad to Chicago, the objective point of the trip. The whole trip had occupied about three weeks, but the expense was not commensurate with the time used in travel, as in fares it amounted only to some $35 or $40.

At that time Chicago gave but little promise of becoming the important commercial center that it now is. Even the lumber for the projected buildings in Superior could not be procured there. It was secured at Detroit, and so it happened that lumber was shipped from the lower lakes to Superior, where since that time millions of feet have been sawed and shipped to various parts of the country.

Mr. Zachau’s overland trip was taken in order to give him time to procure his supplies and have them ready for shipment by the opening of navigation. He returned by way of the lakes together with his cargo, in the early part of June, having spent six weeks in making a trip which now could easily be made in as many days.


  • 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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