The Recollections of Sidney Luce

The name of Sidney Luce is one of the most prominent connected with the early history of Duluth. The following article he prepared a few years ago for the Duluth Historical and Scientific Association, covering events between June 16, 1857, and March, 1873. Mr. Luce is now a resident of Ohio.


This portrait of Sidney Luce, Duluth’s third mayor, hangs in Duluth City Hall. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

Upon my arrival in Duluth there were living here the following people: Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Culver and children, and a sister of Mrs. Culver, who afterwards married William Eplen, who was connected with the government survey party of E. C. Martin-who, with his wife, was living at the base of Rice’s Point. Mr. Culver was engaged in the lumber trade, having a steam sawmill standing next to the canal, at its entry from the bay on the north side; William Nettleton, a single man, having a pre-emption claim at the base of Minnesota Point, including a large portion of the low land contiguous to the water of the bay; Frederick Ryan, wife, and two sons and one daughter, a farmer having a pre-emption claim a mile or more north of the town; E. H. Rice and wife, who kept the hotel on the Point, a little north of the canal, the building being that owned and occupied in later years by Dr. Thomas Foster; H. S. Burk, a carpenter and joiner, having a pre-emption claim near Duluth; Charles Chester and reputed wife, afterwards the wife of James Edwards, of Superior; J. J. Brown and Indian wife, living a sort of Indian life, afterwards sheriff of St. Louis county; Samuel Badger and Indian wife, sister of Brown’s wife, Badger being a lawyer of considerable ability from Philadelphia, who, before his coming to Duluth, was married to a highly accomplished lady of that city; William Ord, head sawyer for Culver; John Dunphy and family, on a pre-emption north of Duluth, one of the few making good improvements; R. C. and Adam Borthwick, laborers; Waterman Green, wife and children, a carpenter and joiner having a pre-emption claim on the north side of the town, then called Portland, Green being one of the pre-emptors who wholly complied with the law; Harry Fargo, a cabinet maker, living on the Point, opposite Superior, subsequently murdered by Indians at a logging camp in Wisconsin and the body burned with the camp; Samuel Franck, an all-round man in the employ of Culver at the sawmill; Robert E. Jefferson, one of the original.proprietors of Upper and Lower Duluth, who died in the service of the army; John B. and Antoine LeDuc, occupying a blockhouse on land afterwards excavated for the canal; Amos Woodbury and wife, laborer; I. T. Whitmore, joiner; B. F. Whitmore, with surveying party; R. H. Barrett, register of deeds, and family; W. B. Robbins and Austin Smith, without their families, part proprietors of Portland, looking after its interests.

” went to Duluth in company with my brother Orlando, without any intention of remaining any length of time, to look after some investments we had previously made. We intended to return by way of St. Paul, calling upon relatives in Illinois, near Chicago. Finding the roads across the country to St. Paul impracticable, my brother returned by boat, as he came, and as

I had an offer of $3 a day to work on house building, I coneluded to wait awhile and go to work. This would give me an opportunity to better understand the prospects for the future of the country.

Not being well versed in western wild-cat ways, I was soon induced to build a warehouse, which I was assured would be needed the coming winter for the storage of supplies to be transported over a projected road to the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers. The house was 30 feet by 40 feet, three stories high and garret above. The foundation was partly made by an excavation of rock on the bank of the lake and partly by crib work in the lake, the foundation being about seven feet above water level. It stood in the neighborhood of 300 feet west from the Point of Rocks-outside the Point–from which the old breakwater projected. The third floor of the building was about on the level of the bank in front. Loose boards were used for a temporary third floor, and packing boxes used in the shipment of household goods were found to provide lumber for partitions and cupboards. The stovepipe led out of a window, and there were no doors. This floor constituted our apartments for first housekeeping.

Activity in building above, beneath and around soon made us comfortable, and upon this floor we lived twelve years in peace and poverty, finally ending in prosperity. On this floor also there was an office in which were quartered the register of deeds, auditor and treasurer, and later the United States land office. Practically all the public business of the county was transacted in this office until the commencement of the building of the railroad.

The commercial crisis of 1857 was a great setback to our calculations and prospects, and it caused quite a stampede from the country. Men without families generally left. Those with families were generally compelled to stay. I had invested more than my all and consequently became a permanent fixture.

As November approached matters political were being looked after. There did not appear to be much organized opposition to the Democratic party, consequently election laws were construed to meet the emergencies of the candidates for office.

Neighboring towns were well supplied with a migratory population, ready to respond to calls for assistance. An old coat and hat served the purpose of habilitating the Indian, rendering him a full-fledged legal voter. Not being in the territory long enough to be entitled to vote, I was an idle spectator, observing the farce that was being enacted.

In the summer of 1857 the United States land office was established and opened up at Buchanan, twenty miles down the lake from Duluth, on the lake front on this side of the mouth of Knife river, with a Mr. Clark, from Kalamazoo, as register, and John Whipple, of Rome, N. Y., as receiver. This event added a little to the alleviation of the monotony of things then existing.

A small steamer called the Seneca made regular trips from Superior to Buchanan, calling at a dock adjoining my house, in the town then called Portland. An opportunity was thus afforded pre-emptors to prove up. In very few cases had the preemptors complied with the regulations. Such as had done so were permitted to prove up and receive the register’s certificate or receiver’s receipt. Others not complying with the law, but having elastic consciences, were permitted to do what I think may be properly termed ‘perjure up.’ “The office at Buchanan not resulting in the building up of the place as its promoters had anticipated, and its geographical location not being favorable to the greater number of people, it was removed to Portland June 26, 1859, the office being in a building near where my warehouse stood, built by the proprietors of Portland. Soon after its occupation the building burned, but the books, papers, furniture, etc., were all saved in good condition.

The office was then moved to a building at the base of Minnesota Point, where it remained until May, 1861. This was on the pre-emption claim of William Nettleton. There were two changes in the office of register, the first being the substitution of J. S. Watrous for Clark, and the second of J. B. Culver for Watrous.

In the fall of 1858 I was solicited to act as one of the judges of election, which I reluctantly consented to do, fearing trouble in trying to conduct the election legally. Before that quite a large number of men claiming the right to vote on the ground of having taken pre-emption claims without complying with the law in reference to improvements and residence, and not living in the county, had been allowed to vote. The election board as constituted was a unit against allowing this, and the refusal to receive their votes resulted in disorder and rioting.

The election was held on Minnesota Point, where stones were plenty, and they were freely used. Windows were smashed freely. During the melee that followed one of the judges, L. H. Merritt, seized the ballot box and with the loss of his hat made away with it in safety. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, and still more fortunately it proved a wholesome lesson at subsequent elections.

At this election John Dunphy was elected register of deeds, his election being contested by R. H. Barrett. The court ruled against Barrett, who was poorly qualified for the position if he was entitled to it. Mr. Dunphy proved to be a capable and efficient officer, as will appear from the records of his administration.

The season of 1859 was like its predecessor. There was nothing doing to relieve the stringency of the times. Our population was steadily decreasing, and to retain what remained was a matter of anxiety. In canvassing the matter it was found that there were four single men out of employment, one of them being a practical brewer. He suggested the building of a brewery, as the four could do all of the construction and carry it on.

As this seemed likely to add a little to our enlivenment I encouraged the project by giving them a location and otherwise assisting. The location was on what was then called Washington avenue, on a small stream. The company was composed of HI. S. Burk, Gilbert Falconer, Harry Fargo and J. G. Bush.

The enterprise was not a pecuniary success, but it afforded employment as the means of support. After some little time I became the principal proprietor and sold out to Nicholas Decker.

My advices are that none of the parties are now living.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….


  • 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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