Industrial Decline (1956–1993)

A postcard of Duluth’s Marshall-Wells Hardware facility. Once the largest hardware distributor on the planet, Marshall-Wells liquidated in 1958. (Image: Zenith City Press)

In August 1956 Duluth’s Armory hosted the largest funeral in the city’s history, that of Albert Woolson, the Civil War’s last surviving Union or Confederate soldier, who died at age 109. Earlier that year Duluthians voted nearly two to one to toss out the commission system. Months later they elected a new city council, which included Lucile Roemer, the first woman voted into public office in Duluth. Eugene Lambert, a native of Cloquet and a labor relations specialist, defeated Johnson for the mayor’s seat. Lambert, executive secretary of the Duluth Builders Exchange, focused on the government reorganization. With the city struggling financially and its municipal services compromised, he established two goals: coordinate city functions to make the city run more efficiently and, he told local newspapers, “restore confidence of the ‘man on the street’ in Duluth’s municipal government.”

Two months into his job Lambert told the Duluth Herald that his biggest irritation so far was his new mustache. Like nearly every other adult male in the city, Lambert had grown out his facial hair as part of the city’s Centennial Celebration of the 1856 founding of the original Duluth townsite. That summer featured pageants and parades as the city blossomed with beards.

Those with fuzzy faces included the few remaining brewers and bottlers of West Duluth’s People’s Brewing Company. Thanks to the growing national highway system and the advent of refrigerated semitrailers, several large breweries had gone national, offering their well-advertised brands at prices small-market breweries couldn’t match. People’s shut down a year later, one of the many large manufacturing plants the city would lose between 1950 and the 1980s. As the population grew with the postwar baby boom, the nation was changing. Larger firms began buying up their smaller competitors, consolidating manufacturing and closing redundant facilities. And every new mile of interstate highway made the Duluth–Superior Harbor less vital.

Duluth’s Union Match Company, established in 1903, could make enough wooden matches in a day to fill two railroad cars, but by 1950 the demand significantly decreased and the company closed. Klearflax, which used flax straw to manufacture linen rugs, employed three hundred people before the war; a larger competitor bought the company in 1953 and shuttered the Duluth facility. Coolerator employed 1700 workers at two plants after the war, shipping refrigerators as far away as Sweden, but after changing hands both plants closed by 1955. Duluth’s only flour mill, Duluth Universal Milling Company, shut down in 1957. Hardware wholesaling began to wane before the war and by 1950 sales had declined significantly. Marshall-Wells and Kelley-How-Thomson merged in 1955 in an attempt to keep both firms afloat, but they sank into liquidation within three years. Bridgeman-Russell, a dairy dating back to 1888, was sold twice before new owners shuttered its massive West Michigan Street facility in 1963. The Interlake Iron Company, the country’s largest producer of pig iron in 1955, closed in 1962 after demand for its product dramatically dropped.

There was some good news. In 1950 Jeno Paulucci, Duluth’s self-described “incurable entrepreneur,” remodeled the Union Match Company plant to process his Chun King line of Chinese foods. Eight years later he expanded operations, retrofitting Coolerator’s New Duluth facility, and by 1960 Chun King sold over half the nation’s prepared Chinese food. In 1966 more grain passed through the Twin Ports than in any previous year.

Iron ore shipments had remained high through the early 1950s, in part because of the conflict in Korea—but northeastern Minnesota was running out of high-grade ore. The Vermilion Iron Range closed by 1960, and the Cuyuna held on for roughly another fifteen years. The Mesabi survived because of taconite, a flint-like rock with high silica and magnetite ore content, considered a waste product. University of Minnesota scientists developed the process that made it a valuable resource: the mineral is processed to isolate its iron, which is mixed with limestone and bentonite clay, rolled into pellets, and then subjected to extremely high temperatures that turn magnetite into hematite—ideal for making steel. In 1956 ore docks in the Twin Ports, Two Harbors, and up the shore at Silver Bay’s new Reserve Mining facility began loading ore boats with taconite pellets.

Duluth’s long-awaited dream of a direct link with the Atlantic Ocean came true on May 4, 1959, when some 3,500 Duluthians lined the Duluth Ship Canal’s piers to witness the arrival of the freighter Ramon de Larrinaga out of Liverpool, England—the first saltwater vessel to pass through the canal, marking the symbolic completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway. While it had been possible for ocean-going vessels to reach Duluth, the earlier limitations of the Welland Canal connecting Lake Ontario and Lake Erie restricted passage to vessels shorter than 250 feet. Duluth civic and business leaders—particularly Julius Barnes—had lobbied for the larger seaway since the end of World War I.

But the world had changed significantly since 1920, and the increased commerce promised by the seaway never reached its perceived potential. The expansion of highways and consolidation of industry would continue to decrease industry in Duluth for the next thirty years.

The state’s plans to push Interstate 35 (I-35) through Duluth further shaped the city’s landscape, as struggling manufacturers in the highway’s path were forced to close. Moreover, the highway expansion signaled the continuing decline of railroads. The Omaha Road stopped Duluth service in 1958; the Milwaukee Road in about 1960. The Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic stopped shipping ore in 1962, and Twin Ports passenger service ended in 1969 when the Soo Line shuttered its depots. The following year the Northern Pacific and Great Northern were absorbed by Burlington Northern. (Amtrak later provided passenger service to Chicago, from 1978 to 1981, and St. Paul, from 1978 to 1985.)

As the expansion of I-35 through western Duluth took away much of its abandoned industrial past, it also forced other manufacturers out of business, include Duluth Brewing & Malting, established in Duluth’s West End in 1896. In 1966, most of it was demolished to make room for the highway. Jobs continues to take hits as more and more factories closed or their operations were moved to another city. In 1971 USS announced hat it would phase the Minnesota Steel Company plant out of operation. While the plant employed five thousand people at its peak during World War II, by 1970 that number had been cut in half. Meanwhile, its aging steelmaking facilities—and the pollution they produced—became major concerns. In 1971 operation was reduced to one blast furnace, cutting 1600 jobs. The facility held on for eight more years before closing. Soon thereafter the MPCA pressured USS to arrest the air pollutants emitted by its Atlas Cement facility. Instead USS closed the plant, taking two hundred more jobs.

The MPCA also brought an early end to the Fitger’s Brewing Company, whose brewery had been dumping wastewater into Lake Superior since 1881. Concurrently, the Minnesota Highway Department’s further extension of I-35 threatened to demolish the brewery. Its 1972 closing marked the end of the city’s longest-surviving manufacturer and longest-lived industry, whose roots reached back to 1859.

The following year Chun King left town after Paulucci sold the company for $63 million. He then purchased the former Duluth Terminal facility at the foot of Eighth Avenue West to make Jeno’s frozen pizzas. The company’s biggest success was the pizza roll, developed for Jeno’s by Duluth chef Bea Ojakangas, later the author of several highly acclaimed cookbooks. Jeno’s left the building—and Duluth—in 1983, but Paulucci and his wife, Lois, would remain influential in the Zenith City.

By then Duluth’s decline had peaked. Beaudin lost his 1979 re-election bid, finishing third in Duluth’s nonpartisan primary behind Boo and city councilor John Fedo, who won the general election. The twenty-nine-year-old Fedo, who operated an automobile refurbishing business, replaced Rudy Berghult as Duluth’s youngest mayor.

By the time Fedo took office in 1980 Duluth’s population sat at 92,811, a 7.7 percent drop over ten years. Fedo’s second term began in 1985, just in time for the completion of the Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge (named for the World War II flying ace from nearby Poplar, Wisconsin), which replaced the Arrowhead Bridge. Coupled with the Blatnik Bridge, also known as the High Bridge, the new span spawned a bad joke: The best way to get from Duluth to Superior and back again is to go over on the Bong and come back on the High.

Between Fedo’s first and second terms the continued loss of industry—and jobs—sparked another joke that few found funny. Duluth’s disappearing manufacturers included National Iron, shuttered in 1983 during a mining-industry downturn. Two years later a merger moved Clyde Iron’s operations to St. Paul. In 1984 the city’s unemployment rate approached 20 percent, and Fedo announced Duluth was one of the nation’s ten most distressed cities. Sometime in the early 1980s—the precise date is no longer known—Skoglund Outdoor Advertising raised a billboard along I-35 heading south out of town reading, “Will the last one leaving Duluth please turn out the light?” Outrage swiftly followed, and Skoglund reportedly removed the sign within hours. Despite its short life, the billboard lives in infamy. Nine years later Duluth lost one of its oldest major employers as operation of Diamond Tools, founded in 1907 as Diamond Calk Horseshoe, moved out of state. it was a symbolic final blow to Duluth’s once vaunted industrial past.