1870: Duluth’s First Year as a City

Duluth in 1871, a year after first becoming a city, painted by Gilbert Munger. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

The following story—adapted from Tony Dierckins’s Duluth: An Urban Biography (Minnesota Historical Society Press, April 2020)—was first published in the Duluth News Tribune in March, 2020, in celebration of Duluth’s 150th anniversary of first becoming a city on March 6, 1870.

In 1870, its first year as a city, Duluth—destined to become the “Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas”—buzzed with activity. Immigrants poured in, swelling the population as construction transformed the landscape from wilderness to urban center. Consequently, that first year came with many firsts.

On April 4 Duluthians elected Joshua Culver their first mayor. The city’s Common Council first met on April 12, addressing two ordinances: “one for the licensing of saloons and the other for the suppression of dogs, of which there were said to be about 1,000 of all colors and breeds in and around Duluth.”

On April 21 Culver appointed Robert Bruce the city’s first police chief. Bruce, described as “a stranger…whose presence was an anomaly,” abruptly left town that July owing local merchants and contractors $3,000 and was never heard of again.

November 25 saw the organization of Duluth’s first volunteer fire department. Eleven months later its first fire house, and first fire engine, were destroyed by fire.

Two newspapers began publishing in 1870. May 3 brought the first edition of the Duluth Tribune, and the

Branch’s Hall, Duluth‘s first brick building, stands in front of Elevator A at the foot of Third Avenue East in 1871, a year after construction began on both building. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Duluth Morning Call issued its first on November 28 (it lasted until June, 1871).

On August 5, community leaders founded Duluth’s first Chamber of Commerce. They included William Branch of the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad (LS&M), who that summer built Branch’s Hall, the city’s first brick building, at 416 E. Fourth Street (it was demolished in 1986).

The hall was one of many construction firsts in 1870, including several churches. Catholics founded and built their first church, Sacred Heart, at 201 West Fourth Street (it burned in 1892).

The first First Methodist Church went up 301 West Second Street. In 1893 the building was dismantled, moved, and reassembled as Virginia, Minnesota’s first First Methodist Church.

Founders of Duluth’s First Presbyterian Church built their first church at 231 East Second Street. After a new church was built in 1891, the 1870 edifice served as a Catholic and later a Lutheran church until its 1971 demolition.

The 1870 First Methodist Church. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

And although it did not build a church in 1870, Duluth’s First Baptist Church was organized on August 2.

While Duluth’s first Jewish congregation, Temple Emanuel, did not build a temple until 1904, two of its 1891 founders, Bernard and Nettie Silberstein, arrived in 1870. Bernard, a successful merchant and civic leader, served as vice president of the city’s parks board for 20 years, often purchasing property and donating it to Duluth for park use.

Camille Poirer also arrived in 1870, earning his living hauling fresh water to homes and businesses. Twelve years later he received a patent for his “Pack-Strap,” which lead to the creation of the Duluth Pack—still made in Duluth today.

There were many more firsts that year, but most of the community’s activity centered on the coming of Jay Cooke’s railroads. On February 15 local representatives of Duluth, Superior, and Fond du Lac gathered near today’s Carlton for the groundbreaking of Cooke’s Northern Pacific Railroad.

On August 1, workers drove the last spike in Cooke’s LS&M. Regular daily passenger and freight service of the LS&M between Duluth and St. Paul began on August 22. Duluth’s original Union Depot was built that year and served until it was replaced by a new Union Depot in 1892.

Duluth’s 1870 First Presbyterian Church.
(Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

The first load of grain shipped from Duluth left on August 27. The grain was loaded from LS&M docks at the foot of Third Avenue East, as Duluth’s first grain storage facility, Elevator A, was under construction immediately east of the docks in 1870.

Fire destroyed Elevator A, and essentially put an end to Duluth’s outer harbor, in 1886. But thanks to the Duluth Ship Canal, the outer harbor was no longer needed. The canal’s construction, financed by the LS&M, also began in 1870.

When complete, the canal allowed ships safe harbor behind Minnesota Point, whereas the outer harbor facilities exposed them to Lake Superior’s often turbulent waters. The dredging tug Ishpeming first began digging on September 5, 1870, stopped in November, and finished the following April.

The importance of Cooke’s railroads and the ship canal to Duluth’s ultimate success cannot be overestimated. Together they provided Duluth with the infrastructure it needed to become a major shipping center, which allowed it to survive after Cooke’s 1873 financial failure lead to an economic depression that nearly destroyed the community.

Without the railroads and ship canal Superior, not Duluth, would have become the Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.

Happy 150th birthday, City of Duluth!