A City Reborn (1885–1887)

A relative newcomer, Vermont lumberman Horace Moore replaced Ensign as mayor in 1885. Moore ran unopposed—and reluctantly, pressed into his nomination by petition. The Duluth News Tribune reported that Moore’s priorities would be “the introduction of a sewer system, the further improvement of our streets, [and] gas and water.”

Hardly glamorous, Moore’s goals signaled a growing population that would exceed 18,000 during his watch. Some were like Moore, Yankees who took to heart the edict “Go West, Young Man.” Many more were immigrants. They included well-educated Western Europeans—chiefly Protestant English, Scots, and Germans—who like the Yankees came to Duluth with letters of introduction to help establish them professionally. Others were recruited for specific skilled jobs, such as Norwegian and Swedish fishermen, lured to Lake Superior by the A. Booth Company to operate fishing villages along the North Shore.

But most of Duluth’s immigrants were unskilled laborers escaping the problems of their homelands: famine, poverty, and religious or political strife. During the 1880s Duluth saw mostly Protestant Scandinavian immigrants (Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish), along with Catholic Irish, Germans, Austrians, and Canadians, with a few French and Italians mixed in. Over seven hundred Russians had arrived by the decade’s end. The first Italians were mostly skilled stonemasons from northern Italy, who constructed retaining walls and building foundations throughout the growing metropolis.

Homes soon popped up above Rice’s Point and downtown and along the east hillside, increasing the need for a sewer system. Many people kept livestock—chickens, pigs, and perhaps a cow or even a horse if one had the means—and creeks carried waste from both humans and animals into Lake Superior and the St. Louis Bay. By the mid 1880s the “pure mountain stream” that supplied the water for Duluth’s first brewery had essentially become an open sewer, and the brewery closed.

Unable to speak English, and often illiterate and unskilled, most newly arrived immigrants moved into enclaves populated by their compatriots west of Point of Rocks, where they could walk to work at the coal docks, lumber mills, and later flour mills and ore docks along the St. Louis River and Rice’s Point. The French hunkered down in an area known as the Glenn at Point of Rocks, and the rest filled in the West End—the portion of the former Rice’s Point townsite located above the railroad tracks roughly between Piedmont Avenue West and Thirtieth Avenue West.

One subsection of the West End lay below the tracks and housed poor immigrant families from varied ethnic backgrounds, including Finns, Norwegians, Germans, Swedes, and Poles. The neighborhood sat roughly between Twenty-Sixth and Thirtieth Avenues West from Michigan Street to St. Louis Bay, wedged among the lumber mills. Turning trees into boards involved stripping logs of bark that came off in “slabs” that workers discarded in the bay. Local residents gathered the slabs, burning them to heat their homes and giving the impoverished neighborhood its name, “Slabtown.”

Immigrants kept the population rising, and in 1886 it closed in on 26,000. That November the outer harbor’s elevator A burned, taking nearby elevator Q with it. Soon thereafter the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad sold its dock and warehouse at the foot of Third Avenue East. Citizen’s Dock had been abandoned years earlier and was stripped to its pilings after the elevators burned, marking the end of Duluth’s outer harbor. More grain elevators rose on Rice’s Point to replace those lost in the fire.

New Jersey native John Sutphin had been elected mayor earlier in 1886—the reluctant Mr. Moore happily avoiding re-election. Sutphin first arrived in Duluth in 1868 and operated a meat-packing plant between Lake Avenue South and Minnesota Slip—nearby Sutphin Street is named for him. Sutphin would be the last mayor of the Village of Duluth and the first of a new City of Duluth.

As Duluth’s population swelled between 1881 and 1886, so had the village coffers. Duluth steadily paid off its creditors and was ready to completely pay off its debt by early 1887. Senator Alanzo J. Whiteman of Duluth introduced a bill to that year’s legislative session changing Duluth’s status from village to city. It also allowed the community to create a new charter and return to its original 1870 borders, including the Village of Park Point south of the canal, and Endion, whose eastern border was extended to Twenty-Sixth Avenue East. At about this time the northern borders of the former townsites of Endion, Portland, Duluth, and Rice’s Point (including the West End) began expanding toward the top of the hillside along what was once the shoreline of glacial Lake Duluth, creating new neighborhoods—including Chester Park— along the way.

Many of Park Point’s residents didn’t rejoin Duluth willingly—some, in fact, considered the annexation attempt an act of aggression. Duluth’s industrialists wanted to develop the bay side of the point as they had the eastern shore of Rice’s Point, building a system of wharves and warehouses. They calculated they could create twenty-two linear miles of dock space to serve factories operating all along Minnesota Point. Most Pointers opposed the idea.

So they took the matter to court, calling the annexation unconstitutional. They argued in part that the mouth of the St. Louis River had shifted from the Superior Entry to the Duluth Ship Canal, moving the state line and thereby making Park Point part of Wisconsin. The Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed, settling the case in Duluth’s favor in January 1890. Van Brunt suggests Pointers weren’t satisfied until a deal was struck addressing the central reason the community left Duluth in the first place: “Finally, being promised a bridge, rather informally and not truly officially perhaps, [the Pointers] surrendered.” Park Point rejoined the city, but the canal kept the community an island unto itself, as it would take Duluth fifteen years to make good on its “promise.”

Whiteman’s bill returning Duluth to city status was signed into law on March 4, 1887. Sutphin was retained as mayor; the city’s first official election would be held the following February. On April 11, Judge Stearns delivered the last of the old city bonds, an act historian Dwight Woodbridge described as wiping out “the old disgrace to the city.”