Battling Depression (1930–1940)

Workers hired by Duluth’s City Works Administration clear land for Lester Park Golf Course in 1931 as part of Duluth’s efforts to keep people employed during the Great Depression. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Two months before the economy collapsed, Duluth’s two largest banks, the American Exchange National Bank and the First National Bank of Duluth, merged. For two days fifteen armed guards escorted bank employees carrying $20 million in cash, about $285 million today, from the Exchange across Superior Street to First National. The merger likely saved both banks—in fact, not a single Duluth bank failed during the Great Depression. Other businesses weren’t nearly as fortunate.

The depression affected every Twin Ports business, and by 1930 one-third of all Duluthians had lost their jobs. The 1930 census shows the city’s population at 101,463, so if the 1928 estimate of 112,000 was accurate, roughly 10,500 people—over 9 percent—had left Duluth within six months of the crash. (Superior dropped almost 12 percent, to 36,133.) Snively and his fellow commissioners joined with civic groups and business leaders to help end the exodus and take care of those who remained.

One measure created the City Works Administration, which operated much like the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) but predated Franklin D. Roosevelt’s initiative by three years. Early projects put unemployed men to work building a toboggan run and ski jump in Lincoln Park and clearing the land that became Lester Park Golf Course. Another built Miller Memorial Hospital, financed in part by a trust established by former village president Andreas Miller, who recognized the need for a free, public, secular hospital among Catholic St. Mary’s, Protestant St. Luke’s, and the city’s small, private hospitals.

Construction of the Medical Arts Building, Duluth’s art deco masterpiece at 324 West Superior Street, created six hundred jobs in 1932, the Depression’s economic low point. By the time the building opened in May 1933, Prohibition was reaching its end and brewers returned to making beer. Of the Twin Ports’ four breweries, only Fitger’s had remained in business throughout Prohibition, and it never made a profit.

Duluth took full advantage of Roosevelt’s relief programs, financing projects from park improvements to downtown storm sewers to keep people employed. Young Duluthians joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, and in 1933 the Civil Works Administration found jobs for 3345 on projects including a sewage disposal plant and the municipal airport. Author Dora Mary MacDonald reports that by the time the WPA closed in 1943, it had paid nearly $9.5 million in wages for Duluth projects including “installation of sewers and water and gas mains, farm work, streets, viaducts, parks . . . and historical and archeological research surveys.”

The Zenith City also finally completed its downtown Civic Center along Fifth Avenue West above First Street, first envisioned in 1909 by renowned architect Daniel Burnham. A cluster of neoclassical municipal buildings designed to boost the population’s civic pride, the center is the quintessential example of Burnham’s City Beautiful movement. Burnham himself designed the 1910 St. Louis County Court House. An adjacent county jail was added to the plans in 1923, but it had taken until 1929 to get the city hall and federal building standing. In 1935 the city and county—using federal Public Works Administration funds—put the finishing touches on the project, creating an oval driveway and public grounds facing the three originally planned buildings. At its center stands Duluth’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument, designed in 1918 by noted Minnesota architect Cass Gilbert to memorialize Duluth’s war dead; it features a statue of a knight sculpted by Paul Wayland Bartlett titled Patriotism Guards the Flag.

After fifteen years as mayor, seventy-eight-year-old Samuel Snively left office in 1937, defeated by C. Rudolph “Rudy” Berghult. At thirty-one, Berghult was not just the youngest mayor elected in Duluth, but the youngest elected in a US city of over 100,000 people. He was also the city’s first chief executive born in Duluth, the first to live west of Point of Rocks, and the first Democrat elected in nearly thirty years. Newspapers called him a “student of municipal government and economics.” One of Berghult’s first actions was replacing parks superintendent F. Rodney Paine and zoo director Bert Onsgaard. Berghult and his parks superintendent, Earl Sherman, oversaw the completion of WPA projects put in motion by Snively and Paine, but following his administration, city officials all but ignored Duluth’s parks for decades.

Snively’s departure marked the end of an era further symbolized by two 1939 events. In June, Norway’s Crown Prince Olav and Princess Märtha visited Duluth to take part in the dedication of Enger Memorial Tower, built in honor of Norwegian immigrant Bert Enger, who donated much of his fortune to the city’s parks. Enger represented the spirit of early Duluthians who shared the fruits of their labor and good fortune by giving back to the city. Just months later the Seventh Avenue West Incline—the last piece of Duluth’s street railway system, which had been replaced by buses—was dismantled. It had been built fifty years earlier to serve a booming Duluth, and was removed at the point when the city essentially stopped growing.

Duluth’s Depression-era efforts helped retain most of its population, which by 1940 had dropped by less than half a percent to 101,065. (Superior, at 35,136, had lost almost 3 percent.) The city encompassed sixty-seven square miles. More than twenty thousand students attended its three colleges, forty-four public schools, and fourteen parochial schools. Five hospitals, 80 parks, and 105 churches and temples served the city. Eight major railroads brought goods and people to and from Duluth. The city offered jobs with 151 manufacturers, 206 wholesalers, 1420 retailers, and a dozen banks, while coal, grain, and iron ore continued to flow through the ship canal. Citizens got their news from three radio stations, five weekly newspapers, and three dailies—one published in Finnish.

But while most of Duluth had weathered the Depression, some industry failed. The F. A. Patrick woolen mills closed in 1931 following its founder’s death. American Carbolite—which once employed three hundred people making its namesake compound that, when burned, produced acetylene gas—closed in 1943. The fishing industry’s annual catch dropped 60 percent and, thanks to invasive species and overharvesting, never recovered as a major employer.

The wholesale food industry also took a hit. The McDougall Terminal, served by its “Poker Fleet” of five refrigerated cargo ships named for the cards in a royal flush, fell into receivership in 1930. The Gowan-Lenning-Brown Company, once the region’s premier wholesale grocer, closed in 1933. Four years later, Stone-Ordean-Wells—whose history reached back to 1872—also shut down. The Rust-Parker Company held on until 1947.