The Legend(s) of the Duluth Ship Canal Dig

The cover art of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune Magazine for June 3, 1945, did little to dispel the myths that the Duluth Ship Canal was dug by hand or cleared with a single blast of dynamite—and neither did the story inside. (Image: Zenith City Press),.

The Duluth Ship Canal Was Dug by Hand

MYTH!

The legend of digging the Duluth Ship Canal keeps growing taller with time. Most versions start with the facts: When the Ishpeming first began dredging in the fall of 1870, Superiorites filed suit to stop the dredging. Work stopped for the winter, and began again with the spring thaw.

That’s when the facts get lost in the drama.

In most versions of the myth, the courts sided with Superior the week before the Ishpeming started digging in April 1871. An injunction ordered Duluth to “absolutely desist and abstain from digging, excavating and constructing…said canal.” It was dispatched to Duluth via a courier: a soldier from Kansas, some say; others claim it was none other than Superior pioneer George Stuntz, the first man of European descent to live on Minnesota Point. In 1922 memoirist Jerome Cooley claimed a telegram arrived on Friday, April 28, telling Duluthians the injunction would arrive by Monday. So the Ishpeming’s crew went to work at dawn Saturday and “didn’t stop until Monday noon.” The canal was open before the injunction arrived.

Author Dora May McDonald, writing in 1949, tells that same portion of the story with more flair. In her account, after the Ishpeming struck frozen gravel that Saturday morning, word came that Stuntz had left St. Paul bound for Duluth with injunction in hand, destined to arrive Monday. Duluth city fathers called for every able-bodied man, woman, and child in Duluth “who could handle a spade or shovel, or beg, borrow, or steal a bucket or a bushel basket.” Citizens rushed to the work site and “dug, scratched, and burrowed till it was finished.” On Sunday rowboats filled with angry Superiorites arrived to watch and heckle the Duluthians’ efforts. At the break of dawn on Monday morning, the Duluthians had cleared a canal. When Stuntz arrived, the tug Frank C. Fero was making her very first pass through the canal; the canal was a navigable waterway, rendering the injunction moot.

Perhaps the most astonishingly inaccurate depiction of the canal’s birth appeared in the Duluth Evening Herald on July 1, 1929:

Leading Duluthians of the time…led by W. C. Sargent…formed the “Dynamite Club.” Under the cover of darkness they went to Minnesota Point at the site of the present ship canal. Bankers, clerks, professional men and laborers worked frantically with pick and shovel during the night to dig a ditch so the waters of Lake Superior and St. Louis Bay could join. As daylight approached and they realized they would not finish the task, leaders called for dynamite. The blast that followed cracked every window within a radius of several miles, pioneers recall, but when the debris settled the dynamiters were rewarded by the water rushing through the ditch thus created. The canal was dug shortly afterward by the government.

An article in the June 3, 1945, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune did little to dispel the myth, and came complete with a cartoon-like depiction of the fabled event.

Actually, an injunction to halt the canal was delivered by Stuntz but was not served until May 6—nearly a week after the Ishpeming had finished its initial cut. The legend of Duluthians hand-digging the canal does include a kernel of truth: hand work and blasting was needed to get through a particularly tough patch of frozen gravel, but once this was breached, the Ishpeming returned to work. The legend likely got its start by elaborating on that event. Indeed, Duluth pioneer R. S. Munger would later tell historians the following tale:

“I was engaged by the citizens of Duluth to dig the channel. We began work on a Saturday and by night Superior knew what we were about. At once the people over there began to scurry around to get a federal injunction restraining us. I hired a gang of several hundred men…and we worked all that day and far into the night…When the Superior people came over Monday morning there was the channel open and they couldn’t do anything.”

If Munger’s tale has any truth to it, the government courts once worked quickly—and on weekends. Other versions further embellish the drama. At least one historian wrote that a Superior firm advertised a sale of surplus muskets leftover from the Civil War to arm Superiorites against those “cliff dwellers” across the bay. The truth involved more lawyers than shovels. There were no heroic feats by man nor machine, and Wisconsin’s seven-year effort to close the canal never once stopped dredging and improvements.
But the legends make much more fun stories, and they also display another aspect of the city’s lore: the work ethic and determined self-sufficiency of Duluth’s pioneers.