A City is Born (1869–1870)

This sketch of Duluth appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1871. (Image: Zenith City Press)

By May 1869 Jay Cooke’s agents had arrived in Duluth and began spending his money as well as that of his associate E. W. Clark. Those agents—George Sargent, George C. Stone, and Luther Mendenhall—would become prominent figures in Duluth’s history. They opened the town’s first bank, which everyone called Jay Cooke’s Bank. They built one of Duluth’s first hotels, the Clark House, named for Clark. They financed the construction of Duluth’s first church building, named St. Paul’s Episcopal Church after Cooke’s home parish in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania—locals called it Jay Cooke’s Church. They spent not only Cooke’s and Clark’s money but their own as well, investing in early businesses. Eastern newspapers called Duluth Jay Cooke’s Town.

Cooke’s men weren’t the only newcomers. The population began growing dramatically after Cooke announced his railroad investment. Some had come for the gold rush and stayed, too broke to leave. Others came to get in on the ground floor. They included Col. Charles Graves of Massachusetts, a Union Army veteran who would become a civic, political, and business leader, as well as Connecticut native Roger Munger, who left a successful business in St. Paul to move to Duluth in early 1869 where he and his wife, Olive, became, as he later described, one of “fourteen families . . . all gathered together in a little hamlet at the base of Minnesota Point.” Graves, Munger, and others like them invested in just about every enterprise they could think to organize.

Another 1868 newcomer was Dr. Thomas Foster, a self-taught journalist and physician who moved his Minnesotian newspaper from St. Paul to Duluth after Culver and others offered him a free building. In 1868 Foster gave a grand oration during an Independence Day celebration on Minnesota Point, boasting of the future Duluth. His speech, which appeared in the Minnesotian’s inaugural issue in April, 1869, described a network of rail lines that would transform the townsite into a mecca for commerce, when, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, “all roads would lead to Duluth . . . our Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas”—a nickname Duluthians still use proudly today.

The spring of 1869 brought the arrival of immigrants, mostly Scandinavians, recruited to help build the railroads with the promise of inexpensive farmland. Railroad laborers also included about three hundred young men from Philadelphia’s slums who had followed Cooke’s money west. The Fish Eaters called the newcomers Sixty-Niners, and by midsummer they had swelled the town’s population to over two thousand. Construction of the LS&M west from Duluth began on May 4, 1869, at the foot of Third Avenue East, directly in front of Luce’s warehouse. The railroad built docks, a warehouse, and a freight depot along the lakeshore to transfer cargo between train cars and vessels.

In 1869 journalist John Trowbridge wrote that “civilization is attracted to the line of a railroad like steel-filings to a magnet; and [Duluth] appears to be the point of a magnet of more than ordinary power.” Indeed, by early 1870 Duluth’s population exceeded 3100. Most were immigrants, over a third of them Swedish. Norwegians made up 13 percent, about the same portion as recently arrived Germans, Irish, and Canadians. A bill passed by the Minnesota State Legislature on March 6 made the town of Duluth—officially including newly annexed Endion, Portland, and Rice’s Point—the City of Duluth.

Until this boom, more Ojibwe populated Duluth than did EuroAmericans. While all lived peacefully together, the Ojibwe were often feared by newly arrived European immigrants, an attitude fueled primarily by portrayals of Native Americans as savages in newspapers and books. Ojibwe were further marginalized by whites who refused to hire them for labor, relying instead on European immigrants. Consequently, the Ojibwe population declined dramatically over the years, as many relocated to reservations or became assimilated by marriage.

By the time Duluth became a city its newcomers had already caused some trouble. Many of the “Philadelphia Roughs” spent more time drinking than working, a factor which led to the community’s first murder that summer. Meanwhile Dr. Foster, brought to Duluth to herald its achievements, had become highly critical of his benefactors. He had come to consider many of them members of what he called “the Ring,” a group that included the city’s founders, a few well-heeled Sixty-Niners, Cooke’s agents, and LS&M investors.

Foster’s dislike for the Ring came from two simple issues: he felt they unfairly “ran” the community, and several were Democrats. Foster had helped organize Minnesota’s Republican Party and was instrumental to its Duluth founding. On March 19 his newspaper suggested the group would assume total control of Duluth “if the people were fool enough to let them succeed.” Foster failed to recognize that political affiliation mattered little to Duluth’s early power brokers, as Ring members ran for office on both tickets. Sidney Luce ran for alderman as a Democrat and his brother Orlando was the Republican nominee for comptroller.

Duluth held its first election on April 4, 1870. The Zenith City adapted a mayor-council system of government in which a common council, made up of two aldermen representing each of the city’s wards, advised a mayor who served only a one-year term but wielded considerable power, including appointing unelected city officials without council approval. Town-founder Joshua B. Culver was elected mayor; Cooke agent George Stone, treasurer; Fish Eater Orlando Luce, comptroller; and Sixty-Niner Walter Van Brunt, city clerk. Aldermen included Sidney Luce, Roger Munger, William Nettleton, James D. Ray, William Spalding, Luke Marvin, and Nick Decker, who had purchased the Luce-Busch brewery. Foster’s report on the election accused Ring supporters of bribing voters with cash and whiskey.

The Ring would indeed run Duluth during its first few years. Clinton Markell succeed Culver as mayor, followed by Sidney Luce, who won office while out of town and unaware of his nomination. Ring associates served as trustees of Duluth’s first churches and sat on its first school board. They organized the city’s first chamber of commerce and either lured industrial enterprises to town or organized and built them themselves: sawmills, coal docks, merchandise docks, grain terminals—even a factory to make rail cars for Cooke’s railroads and a blast furnace to supply the plant with steel. For the next twenty years these men essentially competed to see who could contribute most to the city’s development, and to their own fortunes along the way.