The Recollections of Luke A. Marvin

Another of the old residents of Duluth is Luke A. Marvin, who has been for some years assistant auditor of St. Louis county, of which Duluth is the county seat. Although Mr. Marvin is an old resident he is not an old man by any means, as he was only five years old when his father brought him here in 1861. The elder Marvin came here from St. Paul and was soon after his arrival appointed registrar of the Governmen land office. He is now dead, but his son and namesake recollects very well the incidents of the journey to the future city, and the appearance of the latter when he first saw it. He says:


It was a tradition in those early days that no woman could stand the trials of a journey over the old Government military road between St. Paul and Superior, and as far as I know my mother was the first woman to adventure it, although on this point I am not certain. At any rate, she insisted on coming along with my father, saying that if he could stand the trip she guessed she could too. We were a week making the 150 miles or so that the road extended, and it certainly was a terrible trip.

“he whole distance lay through a dense forest, and through this forest the trees had been felled on a space wide enough for a road on which teams could pass each other. Stumps stuck up all over the road, in many places it was very marshy and trees had been cut down to make a corduroy. There were no springs to the coach, and we would go bumping over stumps, in momentary danger of upsetting at times; at others our wheels would be past the hubs in mud, out of which it would take the utmost powers of the horses to pull us. At intervals along the road there were relay houses, where we would change horses and where we would generally pass the nights. All the accommodations were of the roughest and most primitive kind.

After reaching Superior we were ferried across the river to Duluth, which contained ten or twelve families huddled about the base of Minnesota Point. We arranged for accommodations with one of these families until my father could put up a house, which he soon did. The people were hospitable and would gladly put themselves out for the accommodation of a stranger. The hills on which Duluth is now situated were then thickly covered with timber, there were no roads or streets, and the tents and shacks of the Indians were scattered all over the hills and Minnesota Point. The largest building in the place was Sidney Luce’s warehouse, a two-story structure, in which he lived with his family upstairs, and the lower part of which was used as a store and also for Government offices.

There were no schools or churches. Superior was the largest settlement then in this region, but even that was a place of only a few hundred souls. Once in a while a missionary would visit us, and then we would have religious services. I can recollect very well that Bishop Whipple came to the settlement soon after we had a house erected and held services at our house on my father’s invitation, although father was a strict Presbyterian.

But we didn’t care for denominational distinctions in those days.

Any minister of the Gospel was always welcomed and the entire settlement considered it a privilege to attend the services. I remember the impression the bishop made on me at that time, standing up in his robes in my father’s house, and using my mother’s sewing machine as his reading desk. It was the first time I had ever witnessed the Episcopal service. The bishop paid us frequent visits in after years, and was always one of the most popular divines that came to Duluth.

By the winter of 1865 father concluded it was about time that I started to get an education. So I was sent to St. Paul, there being no schools nearer at that time. Just before I started back home for my vacation in 1866 I received a letter from father in which he said that Jay Cooke, a banker from the East, was in Duluth and would pass me on the road as I came home. Mr. Cooke was going to St. Paul and father had asked him to look out for me on the road, and also told me to look out for Mr. Cooke. I guess every boy in the West had heard about Mr. Cooke at that time and looked upon him as one of the greatest figures in the land. His wealth in our minds was supposed to be incalculable, and his power as great as that of Aladdin and his wonderful lamp. Needless to say, I kept a good lookout for Mr. Cooke.

Our coach met him one day about half-way from St. Paul at one of the relay houses. Mr. Cooke came up to me and asked if I were ‘young Marvin.’ When I answered that I was he said  that he knew my father well, and as we had a little time to wait, he suggested a stroll in the woods while the coaches were being got ready. He wanted to know all about my studies, whether I went to church and Sunday School, and then gave me some advice on Christian living which I have never forgotten. He told me always to stick to my church and Sunday School, and never to be ashamed of them under any circumstances. He talked without affectation or pretension, and as easily as if I were a man of his own age, or he were a boy of mine.

While we were walking along he put his hand in the pocket of his coat and pulled out some fishhooks.

‘Do you ever fish?’ he asked, and then laughed. ‘That’s a foolish question to ask, ‘ he said. ‘Who ever heard of a boy that didn’t fish ?’ Then he gave me the fishhooks and continued: ‘I’m going to give you another piece of advice. Don’t go fishing in Lester river, because there are no fish there. I know, because I fished there for two or three hours and never got a bite.’ By this time we had got back to the relay house, and as Mr. Cooke’s coach was ready, he again shook hands with me and was off. I mention this meeting, as it was a memorable event in my life, and also illustrates the geniality and cheerfulness of spirit that were so characteristic of that great man. There are not many great financiers who will bother to talk to and advise a little boy.

There was not much change visible in Duluth when I returned to it. A few more houses had been erected, but there was an air of somnolence about the little settlement, and it was not until the Lake Superior and Mississippi railroad came in 1870 that it began to take on signs of life. Then it came with a rush.

In the latter part of 1869 and in 1870 the people just came flocking in; in a few months there were two or three thousand people added to the population. There was no place to put them. There was not a hotel in the place, and every family had taken in as many as it could accommodate, and yet there were thousands to be provided for. They lived in tents; they put up the rudest kinds of shacks for a temporary shelter until they could erect houses. As fast as the sides and roof of a building were completed, and before doors or windows could be supplied, the place would be rented out for lodgings. The owner would take a piece of chalk and mark off on the floor space sufficient for a man to lie down, number the space, and rent it out. Tenants had to provide their own bedding and blankets. They would buy a piece of ticking, sew it into a bag, and go out and fill it with straw, shavings, sawdust, leaves, anything that would answer the purpose of a bed, and then buy their blankets. They would do their cooking over fires in the open air, or if they were fortunate they would get some of the inhabitants of the houses to give them table board.

This rush of people comprised all classes. Most of them were from the eastern states. Some came to work on the railroad; some came to engage in business; others came to engage in lumbering or to work in the woods, as lumbering was then beginning to be a very important business, the railroads alone being great consumers of all kinds of timber for construction purposes. There was a little sawmill at Oneota at that time, and another was started on the lake shore of Duluth. The entire output of these mills was sold before it was cut, and when a vessel load of lumber came down from Oneota for delivery to the settlers there would be scores of applicants ready to pay two and three times what it had been sold for.

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  • 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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