Early Tourism & Environmental Efforts (1960–1975)

An architect’s depiction of the Duluth Arena Auditorium in the 1960s. The facility has evolved into the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

In 1960 Clifford Mork replaced Lambert, who had chosen to not run for re-election, as mayor. Mork was a native son and longtime school board member who, with his wife Evelyn, operated a wholesale grocery business at 605 West First Street. As mayor, the Democrat spearheaded the Gateway Urban Renewal Project—which demolished the Mork Food Supply building—and helped Duluth turn its attention toward tourism. Thanks to the postwar baby boom, in 1960 Mork oversaw a population of 106,884, the largest recorded for Duluth in a national census. But as more babies arrived, more jobs departed—and even more were on their way out. Tourism might help ease the loss of manufacturing jobs.

It wasn’t exactly a new idea. In the days before antihistamines, the relatively pollen-free air along Lake Superior’s shores made the region an ideal retreat for hay fever sufferers, and those who could afford it spent summers in Duluth or at resorts along the North Shore. Postcards promoted Minnesota Point as a “Hay Fever Haven” and in 1900 the city became home to the Hay Fever Club of America. The aerial bridge had attracted curiosity seekers since its 1905 construction as a transfer bridge, and its popularity continued after it became a lift bridge in 1930. Since 1927 the Leif Erikson, a replica of a Viking ship, was second only to the aerial bridge as an attraction. Auto tourism, introduced in the early 1920s, took off after the North Shore’s Highway 1 and Skyline Parkway were completed later that decade. But in 1960 Duluth did not identify itself as a tourist town.

With support from business leaders including Paulucci, Mork appointed a committee that eventually developed the Duluth Arena Auditorium on the site of abandoned industrial facilities between Minnesota Slip and Fifth Avenue West. The $6.1 million project—financed by a city bond, federal funds, and many private donations—opened in 1966 and has since gone through several expansions, evolving into today’s Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.

Mork never saw the project completed; he died of a heart attack in August 1962. Congressman John Blatnik was one of Mork’s pallbearers. Just a year earlier they had together celebrated the opening of the Duluth–Superior Bridge between Rice’s and Conner’s Points. The new structure not only replaced the Interstate Bridge but also displaced the residents of the Garfield Avenue district, which was cleared to make room for approach ramps. While the bridge was later renamed for Blatnik, because of its height most locals called it the High Bridge.

Former mayor George D. Johnson finished out Mork’s term and won the 1963 mayoral race. He found the city just as he had left it, facing mounting financial problems. City council president Clifford Johnson even suggested saving money by reducing the city’s park system, which by then contained over 120 green spaces and roadways, to just six parks. He found little support.

Meanwhile the city slowly embraced tourism, offering aerial-bridge rides beginning in 1965. For a small fee throughout the summer, the curious could stand inside a chain-link enclosure as the bridge was raised and lowered. Bridge operators despised the practice as a distraction and safety hazard, but tourists loved it and the practice continued for nearly a decade. A successful 1966 fundraising effort purchased lights to show off the bridge at night. Unfortunately, the bridge’s deep green paint did not reflect the light.

St. Louis County purchasing agent Ben Boo, a Republican, defeated Johnson in the 1966 election. During Ben Boo’s tenure as mayor the city continued its march toward tourism. A big financial boost came in 1967 when Minnesota introduced state and city sales taxes. Two years later, Duluth first established its tourism tax, which has since been increased several times. But its local tax base was beginning to wane. The 1970 census showed Duluth was home to 100,578 citizens, down nearly 6 percent since 1960. As jobs left town, so had people.

Those who remained had a new place to play following the 1973 effort to create the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area, an alpine ski hill intended to boost winter tourism. While initially hailed as a success, like the zoo it became a political headache and financial burden. The next year the city finished shining up the accidental attraction that had drawn tourists for decades, completing a four-year effort to paint the aerial bridge silver so that its 1968 lighting system actually illuminated the structure.

None of these efforts kept jobs, or people, from leaving town. Then Miller Hill Mall opened in Duluth Heights in 1973, further damaging the already declining downtown commercial center as longtime retailers packed up their goods and headed over the hill for brighter horizons and more convenient parking.

While Boo was mayor the city, like the rest of the country, shifted its attention to environmentalism. A year after the passage of the Water Quality Act in 1965, the National Water Quality Standards Laboratory opened along Lake Superior’s shore north of the Lester River. It was one of just two such labs in the nation, and the country’s only freshwater laboratory.

The lab played a key role in Minnesota’s fight against the Reserve Mining Company, whose facility in Silver Bay discharged forty-seven tons of waste rock into Lake Superior every minute. This both muddied the lake’s waters and created an unnatural “delta” that destroyed spawning grounds for herring, further damaging the fishing industry. Further, asbestos-like fibers released in this process eventually made their way into Duluth’s drinking water. A decades-long legal battle brought by the brand-new Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) ultimately forced Reserve Mining to stop dumping, a landmark decision that established a government’s right to force industry to clean up its pollution. That battle was led by the MPCA’s first commissioner, Grant Merritt, a native Duluthian whose family opened the Mesabi Iron Range in the early 1890s. Today the lab operates under the aegis of the Environmental Protection Agency as the Mid-Continent Ecology Division Laboratory.

While Reserve Mining was polluting Lake Superior, a century of industrial use had caught up with the St. Louis River, which had become so polluted that people had stopped fishing below Fond du Lac. Motel owner Willard Munger, who served western Duluth in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1955 to his death in 1999, became known as Mr. Environment for the legislation he supported. His efforts included establishing the Energy Task Force to Develop Alternative Energy Resources, which brought in millions of dollars in state and federal funding used to clean up the river.

Citizen demands led to the creation in 1974 of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) to address problems in the lower St. Louis River Basin. A year later the national Clean Water Act provided $100 million to build the WLSSD’s wastewater collection and treatment facilities, which today serves Duluth and sixteen other communities in a 530-square-mile region surrounding the city. With the treatment system in operation and most pollution-causing industry gone, the water quality quickly improved. People returned to fishing and playing on the St. Louis by the early 1980s, but toxic materials remain in river sediments and cleanup efforts continue.