Duluth’s Immigrant Patterns 1869–1920

Immigrant workers recruited from Finland are shown here providing much of the manual labor that built the concrete piers along the Duluth Ship Canal in the late 1890s. (Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

Duluth’s first wave of immigrants began arriving in 1869, recruited to help build  the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad. The April 1870 census described the city’s populations: 80% men, 20% women; fewer than 150 children; 1,865 immigrants (60% of population); Over 33% Swedish; Norwegians, Germans, Irish, and Canadians each made up about bout 13% of the population. The remaining 15% were English, Danish, Scottish, Swiss, French, Belgians, Luxembourgers, Austrians—and one Australian. The city was also home to two men of Jewish extraction and eleven African American men (all employed as waiters or barbers). Despite Ojibwe dominating the local population until 1869, no Ojibwe were recorded on this census.

During the 1880s waves of immigrants began to pour into Duluth and would continue doing so for the next thirty years. Some were recruited for specific skilled jobs, such as Norwegian and Swedish fisherman. Some were well-educated western Europeans—Protestant English, Scots, and Germans, mostly—and came to Duluth, as did Yankees from the eastern U.S., with letters of introduction to help establish them in their professions.

But most of Duluth’s immigrants were unskilled laborers, escaping the problems of their home lands, from famine to poverty to political strife. During the 1880s Duluth saw mostly Scandinavian (Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish) immigrants, along with Irish, German, Austrian, and Canadians with a few French and Italians mixed in. Over seven hundred Russians had arrived by 1890.

The 1890s saw more of these same groups arrive, along with a smattering of others: Belgian, Bohemian, Dutch, Hungarian, Spanish, Turkish, and even a few Asian immigrants. The French and Swedish populations increased while the Russian was cut in half. Most new arrivals were immigrants, including more Scandinavians, Irish, Germans, Austrians, Canadians, and French. They were joined by Belgians, Bohemians, Dutch, Hungarians, Spaniards, Turks, southern Italians, and a few Asians. While many skilled and professional transplants found homes over the hill and east of downtown, families of unskilled laborers continued to settle close to industry.

Finnish immigrants first arrived in Duluth in 1868. During the boom-and-bust 1870s, Minnesota Point from its base to the canal was called No Man’s Land. While its western half industrialized, property along St. Croix Avenue (today’s Canal Park Drive) east to the lake contained an enclave of shanties and boarding houses primarily occupied by Finns. By the 1890s the community included a Finnish church and school and a large bathhouse; locals called it Finn Town. Due to the vermin living beneath their outhouses, the Finns called St. Croix Avenue Rottakatu (Rat Street). Beginning in 1896 Finns were recruited to build the concrete piers along the Duluth Ship Canal; by the turn of the century, they were here in large numbers. After 1900 the population of Italians, Germans, Turks, and Russians took a significant leap upward.

The Russian population included a number of Orthodox Jews. Duluth had long included Jewish residents, but the majority of them were considered “German” Jews, those from Germany, or Hungarians and Bohemians who spoke German. Most lived on the East Hillside—close to their synagogue, Temple Emanuel—and practiced Reform Judaism. The Russians were Orthodox and lived further west on the Hillside, near Tifereth Israel, which was first located at Third Avenue East and Fifth Street. A group of Lithuanian Jews lived on St. Croix Avenue, between Buchanan Street and the ship canal. They relocated to the Hillside after building Adas Israel Congregation in 1899, just down the hill from Tifereth Israel. The area became known as “Little Jerusalem.” By 1900 Duluth had four synagogues; the Jewish population peaked in the 1930s at 4,000.

While many skilled and professional transplants to Duluth mostly found a place to live north and east of downtown, families of unskilled laborers settled in undeveloped areas, mostly found in the West End, close to the mills and docks where they would find work. The Finns took over “No Man’s Land,” the shanty town along Minnesota Point in today’s Canal Park Business District. Swedish-speaking Finns found a home on Grass Island near Rice’s Point and along Garfield Avenue; the community was referred to as Swede Town. The French first inhabited The Glenn below Point of Rocks, and after they moved deeper into the West End the Italians turned The Glenn into the lower half of Little Italy. A portion of today’s West End business district was once called Corktown because of its heavy Irish population. Many Poles, who farmed on their properties and raised geese, lived in a corner of the West End called Goosetown (many also lived on the Central Hillside). By 1910 Third Street in the West End had a French Catholic Church, a German Catholic Church, and a Polish Catholic Church all within the space of a few blocks. Despite this, the West End has been called “heavily Scandinavian,” as Norwegians and Swedes still dominated the landscape throughout Duluth.

Between Finn Town and the canal lived a group of Orthodox, Lithuanian Jews. Russian immigrants in the 1880s included a number of Orthodox Jews who had settled above downtown, building Tifereth Israel Synagogue at Third Avenue East and Fifth Street. The Lithuanian Jews moved to the same area in 1899, worshipping nearby at Adas Israel Synagogue; the area became known as Little Jerusalem. In 1891 German-speaking Jews from Germany, Hungary, and Bohemia established the Temple Emanuel congregation in Endion, where they practiced Reform Judaism.

The French built homes in the Glenn (also known as Skunk Hollow) amidst Point of Rocks. They were joined by southern Italians in the 1890s, after which the area between Tenth and Fourteenth Avenues West became known as Little Italy. On Rice’s Point, Swedish-speaking Finns established Swede Town, called the Garfield Avenue district after other groups moved in. In the West End, German, Polish, and French Catholic churches clustered within a few blocks of one another. Still, the neighborhood remained heavily Scandinavian, as Norwegians and Swedes dominated Duluth’s landscape. The portion of Little Italy above Third Street housed more Norwegians than Italians.

After the turn of the century immigrant populations began to level off or even decline. Outside of a jump in Austrians and Romanians (and a continued flow of Finns) in 1900, existing immigrant populations stabilized. A wave of Serbs arrived in 1905 to build Thomson Dam. 1910, the same year Duluth’s population surpassed 78,000. The census declared that the Zenith City was home to 2,772 Finns, more than in any other US community (which perhaps gave rise to another Duluth nickname, the Finnish Riveria). Duluth also led Minnesota cities in its population of Belgians, with 141, but not Scandinavians, an honor that fell to Minneapolis. Duluth held 29,633 foreign-born citizens, including 7,281 Swedes, 5,009 Norwegians, 4,418 non-French Canadians, 1,423 French Canadians, 2,595 Germans, 1,367 Russians, 1,165 Austrians, 961 English, 648 Italians, 620 Irish, 554 Scots, 405 Danes, 79 Romanians, 76 Hungarians, 69 French, 62 Asian Turks, 57 Greeks, 49 Dutch, 48 Swiss, 31 Welsh, and 363 others from “unspecified countries.”

Another wave of Serbs arrived in 1913 to build U.S. Steel and Atlas Cement, where many of them would find steady work as unskilled laborers. But they could not live in Morgan Park, which was reserved for families of management, foremen, and skilled laborers. Instead, they lived in Gary and New Duluth in substandard housing.

The 1920 census showed that nearly all of Duluth’s 98,917 residents—99.3 percent—were of European descent. Thirty percent were immigrants: 7455 Swedes, 4708 Canadians (including 1093 French-Canadians), 4283 Norwegians, 3210 Finns, 1566 Russians, 1315 Germans, 1444 Poles, 878 English, 836 Italians, 731 Jugo-Slavs, 541 Irish, 510 Scotts, 473 Austrians, 417 Danes, 230 Greeks, 131 Czech-Slovakians, 74 Hungarians, 65 Romanians, 54 Dutch, 58 Swiss, and 549 from other countries. Meanwhile, the local Ojibwe population had mostly either moved out of the city or avoided enumeration; just eighteen Duluthians identified themselves as Native Americans. The census counted just 495 African Americans.