The Recollections of Fred W. Smith

One of the early inhabitants of Duluth is Mr. Fred W. Smith, who is now a resident of Cass Lake, Minn. Mr. Smith tells the following story of the early days: “I was a boy just eight years old when my father was appointed to a Government position, that of register of the United States land office at Duluth, in 1869. The office had been originally established at Buchanan, a town some eighteen miles down the north shore, and had existed at that place for some years. With the growth of Duluth, Buchanan was abandoned as the official site of the office, and it was shifted to the head of the lakes. Of the old town not even a vestige now remains, and but few remember its former existence, its site having grown up with brush and trees, which have in turn been cut down and destroyed. When the office was removed to Duluth my father was appointed register and Col. William H. Feller was receiver.

My father went to Duluth in the summer of 1869 to assume the duties of his position, leaving the rest of the family to close out and follow in good time. During the summer and fall he built his first residence on the corner of First street and First avenue, west, and the following winter we all moved up, driving by sleighs and by easy stages overland over the old Government road from St. Paul to the head of the lakes, arriving in Duluth Christmas evening, 1869. The next morning I had my first look at what was to constitute my home for over thirty years, and which I have seen develop from its then seemingly impossibility to its present great actuality.

“The haphazard, scraggly and repellant settlement of that time, a mixed combination of Indian trading post, seaport, railroad construction camp and gambling resort, altogether wild, rough, uncouth and frontier-like, bore not the remotest semblance, physically or otherwise, to the city it now is. Nor did it seem within the range of the wildest imagination that a city could ever be built there. In only one particular did it then forecast its future; it was long, all long and no wide; extending from the old Bay View House, then completed, on Fourth avenue, west, in a broken interval of buildings to Decker’s brewery back on the creek at about Eighth avenue, east. Between these two extremes was an irregular, disjointed and unconnected assortment, mostly of cheap frame structures, newly built with all the glare of new boards, fresh paint, tin and tar paper, interspersed now and then with an occasional relic of bygone times, like the old outside dock and warehouse trading post, linking the old fur trading monopoly of the Astors with the blatant commercialism of the future. There were probably 500 or 600 people in the place at that time, many of whom afterwards became wealthy, and whose names will long be remembered in the annals of the city.

“A. J. Sawyer, the future wheat king, occupied a long, low one-story and basement frame building near Third avenue, west, with a small stock of fruit, vegetables and other like truck, which he peddled personally with a single horse. Hie had just graduated from a job as chainman on a surveying gang and entered upon that commercial career which made his name known in all the wheat markets of the world, brought his firm to the position of one of the great grain handling and exporting concerns in America, with branch houses and elevators throughout the entire wheat belt of the West.

“The old Clark house was just building, that homely, broad and angular structure that constituted the main hostelry and political headquarters of the city until destroyed by fire in 1881.

In the next block east, housed in a two-story wooden building that was quite a marvel of architecture at the time, was the banking house of E. W. Clark & Company, the western representative of Jay Cooke, under the active supervision of George B. Sargent and George C. Stone, both well remembered names.

Incidentally, this building contained also, temporarily, the land office, express office and others of like character.

“In the second story of the ramshackle, wind-shaken twostory frame building near First avenue, east, was located the progenitor of head of the lakes journalism, the ‘Minnesotian, ‘ under the editorial management of that old war horse of Minnesota politics and publications, Dr. Thomas Foster, and with a mechanical force of printers, pressmen, devil and general utility outfit, all combined in the person of him, then called Tom Pressnell, now Clerk Presnell, of the United States courts. It was in this place and in this paper that Duluth received her baptismal designation, which has clung to her in all her varied and strange career of ups and downs, and which will follow her into the infinite future of the ‘Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.’ Proctor Knott is often erroneously given credit for having originated the catching phrase, but it was the erratic editor and not the versatile congressman that performed the christening.

“Still farther east the old Hunter store stood, mixed medium of commerce, with its large and varied stock, emporium of the builder, the sailor, the fur trader and the Indian; and diagonally opposite and some distance to the east was the old ‘outside warehouse, ‘ a relic of the old trading days, built half on the ground and half on piers, tall, dark, gloomy and mysterious, still reeking wtith the odors of bales of furs and barrels of fish. Under its cavernous basement we boys used to play in the daytime, finding fictitious gold mines and scalping imaginary Indians, but after dark we avoided its proximity, seeing in its gloomy appearance and weird shape the haunt of ghosts and abode of devils.

“And still to the east was the postoffice, a small, insignificant, unpretentious building, even for those days, and unnoticeable now, yet then amply sufficient for its requirements, with an office force of Dick Marvin as postmaster and, I think, Henry Ely.

This building still stands, elevated above and facing the street.

“A few rods back and facing the angular direction, then incident to all Portland buildings, stood the only schoolhouse.

Here, under the severe teachings of Merritt and Hussey, we youngsters received our first insight into the principles of higher education and lower corporal infliction. Many a time, at the request of the master, have I gone into the adjacent brush and with care and assiduity prepared a pliant birch, wondering the while for whom it was intended, grinning over the punishment some poor delinquent was to receive, only to find upon my return that I was the appointed. Low, rough and unpainted, with a porch ten feet high and a six-foot ceiling, with its giant box stove and wooden walls, it was then fit representative of the educational opportunities of Duluth, as the modern, wonderful buildings are of the present city. School life was a strenuous one in those days and learning came hard, from whichever end we got it, but the lessons were remembered, yes, and some of them felt, for long afterwards. Yet from out that old wooden shack have come men who became college graduates, lawyers, doctors and professional and business men who have made good in the walks of life.

“It was but a short distance from the schoolhouse to the old outside dock, then building, and the ‘breakwater, ‘ and in the long spring afternoon when school was out, and sometimes before, how we youngsters poured down upon the dock to play and watch the builders, the white-sailed schooners, now but things of memory, lying anchored in the offing waiting their turn, or docked at the wharf, sometimes three and four deep, discharging their cargoes of railroad iron for the Northern Pacific or the Lake Superior and Mississippi railroads, both then under construction.

Watching our chance, we would board one of the vessels, ramble over her decks and climb the shrouds to slide down the rigging, get all tarred up and then, dirty, tired and hungry, go home for another tarring. McDougall & McLennan were then building the dock and breakwater, and the grinding of the hoisting machinery, the falling and crashing of the dock timbers as they were handled and placed in position, the shouts and cries of the workmen and the hoarse cough and roar of the blasts in the point of rock, with the subsequent hunting for cover and dodging of flying debris, rendered the scene a choice and exciting one for an enterprising kid. The breakwater was completely destroyed in the great storm of 1871 and has never been rebuilt, the opening of the canal at that time rendering it unnecessary.

I can remember getting in the lee of some box cars at the base of the point and watching it break under the blows of the great sea, which strewed the point beach with its timbers and the wrecks of the schooners Francis Palms and Sweetheart and the steamer St. Paul.

“Superior street at that time was a continuous succession of hills and gullies, connected its entire length by a four-foot plank sidewalk, with the planks laid endways, bridging the ravines and tunneling the hills. To walk it was hazardous in the daytime, and sure death after dark. To find a place for crossing a street was a question of great deliberation and caution, and to actually cross an act of recklessness, forfeiting your life insurance. The avenues then, as now, ran uphill, and were followed by compass.

Minnesota Point was covered from its base with a heavy growth of pine, through which ran a narrow road for a mile or two, and the Point was mainly used as a camping place for roving Indians and a few fishermen.

“All was rough, wild and uncivilized externally; there were no connections with the outside world, except by stage overland to connect with the Lake Superior and Mississippi railroad as far as completed, and by boat through Lake Michigan to Chicago.

The town was rapidly filling up with the roughest element of the country, gambling was the main business pursuit of the bulk of the population, and murder their amusement. Strolling down the street only a few days after we arrived, I witnessed a running fight, in which several men were seriously stabbed and a son of Anson Northrup was killed. After receiving his death wound, all bloody and gory as he was, he chased his murderer with an axe, and the sight of it all was so terrible to me, an innocent country kid, not used to the ways of city life, that it haunted my dreams for long afterwards, and it was at least a month before I dared leave our own doorstep. One afternoon, in front of the bank, I saw a young, slender, gentlemanly dressed dandy, clothed in all the elegance of the style at that time, and with kid gloves on his white hands, unmercifully thrash a gang of ruffians, taking them one at a time, more, as it seemed to me at that time, from a pure spirit of sportiveness than for any other reason, and to stop their obscenity in the presence of passing ladies. This same man now lives in Duluth, rich, one of its most prominent citizens and commercial factors, staid, sedate and dignified, and the last man of the city that would be suspected of indulging in personal encounters.

“Two blocks back on Lake avenue stood the partially completed Episcopal church, surrounded by tall standing pines and birches, a peace offering for the wickedness of the lower city, and three blocks to the east the Presbyterians were erecting their first edifice, under the altar of which that winter a wolf sought refuge from its pursuers and was killed.

“The Bay View house stood on the corner of Fourth avenue, west, the present site of the Palladio building; a long, narrow, three-story frame building, the front part propped up on stilts and the rear burrowing into the ground up the hill. It was the only hotel operating that winter and was filled to its utmost capacity. At the other extremity of the town was ‘Ben Decker’s brewery’ and the building he lived in. The brewery was so built that it completely spanned the small stream coursing down the hill at that place, and which from this fact received the designation of Brewery creek, which it still retains. Decker’s plant was near the intersection of Washington avenue and First street, and was through direct line of descent the aboriginal ancestor of the Fitger brewery of the present.

“Away back on the hill, up First avenue, east, and at that time apparently beyond any ultimate growth of the town, was a block of land fenced in. In my rambles over the hills I often stopped to wonder over the purpose of this fence, until one day, blundering upon a plat of the place, I noticed a block not divided into lots and marked across its face: ‘Reserved for Young Ladies’ Seminary.’ Studying and worrying over the plat, in my youthful misconception of the meaning of the word seminary I pondered long and deeply over the proposition of the necessity of providing a separate burial place for maidens, so remote and secluded, and then having to fence it in.

“Manufacturing was yet inchoate; R. S. Munger had a one horse sawmill down in the marsh below the depot, near where the Stone-Ordean building now stands. He cut his logs on the adjacent bank and his crew divided their time between sawing them up and trapping muskrats. George Lautenschlager ran a small planing mill, and a short time after Douglas Petre constructed a little joint down on the rocks at the foot of First avenue, west, and squeezed out extracts of cedar and balsam, and incidentally a living, from the same machinery. If there were any other factories there at that time they have passed from my memory.

“The canal had not yet been cut through the Point, and the bay was more of a floating bog than a body of water, shallow, muddy and stagnant, given over to the catfish and pickerel, and the favorite loafing place of loons, ducks and divers. Probably one-half, at least, of the surface of the bay was covered with what appeared at the time to be permanent islands; some of many acres in extent and thickly grown up with small spruce, jack pine and balsam. These islands were for years favorite fishing places, and on lazy afternoons we used to get a flat-bottomed skiff, row out and anchor in the lee of one of them, and fish and loaf and idle the time away sleepily and content, at peace with the world and satisfied that existence was good. Sometimes, landing for the purpose of cutting a fishing pole or for general investigation or exploration, we were surprised to find that the footing was unreliable, and occasionally the ground would suddenly give way and the unfortunate disappear into the water and muck beneath as far as his arms, only to be immediately yanked out by an accommodating friend or struggle up, if alone, upon a more solid footing.

“After the canal was cut a strong current was developed back and forth in the waters of the bay, caused by the ebb and flow of the lake tide surging through the artificial entrance, and the islands began to cast off their anchorage and drift out through the canal into the lake, there to be broken up and disappear. As a matter of fact, they were mere superficial areas of muck and vegetable decay that in time gathered body, grass and weeds sprung up, seeds of trees were deposited, sprouted and grew, and to all external appearances they became as solid land, in which birds nested and rabbits brought forth their broods; but none of them had foundation and in time all were obliterated by current action. It was then no uncommon sight to see what was apparently a solid section of public domain covered with a rank growth of trees and vegetation, slowly and majestically shape its course with fair wind toward the canal, drift out with the race of waters, sometimes off down the lake, to vanish under the horizon or occasionally come back with the winds and pound to pieces on the beach point. During boom times many of these islands were platted and sold as city lots.

“The shore line of the swamp proper followed close to the line of the rock cliff that dropped sheer down for twenty or thirty feet from near the southerly line of Superior street. It was often possible to stand on the sidewalk on the lower side of the street and shoot ducks in the swamps where now tall brick and stone buildings rear themselves. In later years I have often amused myself by throwing rocks at mud hens and teal from the back door of Henry Bell’s Exchange Bank, on the corner of Lake avenue, while the proprietor was contentedly sleeping away the time in the front room, waiting for the next customer to come in.”


  • 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.
  • Menu