Morgan Park

A row of multiplexes both with gabled and jerkinhead roofs looking North along Ninety-First Avenue West in western Morgan Park ca. 1920, photographer unknown [Image: UMD Martin Library]

After corporate financier John Pierpont Morgan organized United States Steel in 1901, Minnesota legislators began promoting the idea of luring a major steel plant to the state, a topic fiercely debated during the 1907 session. Lawmakers proposed a two-part bill designed to force the creation of a plant: first, a tonnage tax would be added to all iron ore shipped out of the state; second, that tax could be avoided by any company that owned a steel plant in the Minnesota. As the nation’s largest steel maker, USS relied on Minnesota-mined ore, but neither idea was attractive to the the company. After initial resistance, the company relented, announcing in April 1907 that it would “build [a] monster plant in Duluth.” Construction did not begin until 1913, and its two blast furnaces—each capable of producing 1,000 tons of pig iron a day—first fired in December 1915.

The steel giant purchased a large swath of property along the St. Louis River, including Spirit Lake Park and the northern portion of New Duluth, on which to build its plant. The company planned to employ thousands for the steel plant and its subsidiary, Atlas Cement, whose mixing process used steel-making byproducts. But few people lived in the area in 1907, and the closest streetcar line ended in West Duluth, four miles from the plant entrance. So USS also developed three communities: Morgan Park, named for Morgan; Gary, named for USS vice-president Elbert H. Gary; and Oliver, Wisconsin, named for Henry Oliver, founder of USS subsidiary Oliver Mining Company, cofounded by Chester Congdon.

The Gary neighborhood would occupy much of the former New Duluth property and become home to many of the plant’s unskilled laborers, including Serbians and African Americans, who lived in boarding houses and barracks-like structures constructed by the steel firm. Oliver, located just across the St. Louis River from Gary, also became home to employees at the lower end of the company ladder. Much of the Spirit Lake property would become Morgan Park, a community originally intended for company officials, managers, administrators, and skilled workers that would be planned to the smallest detail and built mostly of concrete made at Atlas. The entire community, which would provide everything a family needed, would be owned by a USS subsidiary named the Morgan Park Company.

The company hired Chicago architects George and Arthur Dean, who had designed many homes in the USS company town of Gary, Indiana, and played an active role in shaping the nation’s Prairie School architectural movement led by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1916 Larry Franklin Robinson left Wright’s offices to work for Dean & Dean, where he was put in charge of Morgan Park. So Robinson, not one of the Dean brothers, likely drew the actual plans for many of the community’s homes and buildings attributed to the firm. The community’s mix of linear, curved, and radial streets were laid out by Anthony Morell and Arthur Nichols, adding to their Duluth portfolio as they continued on their way to becoming Minnesota’s premier landscape architects.

Morell & Nichols set aside the community’s eastern portion for the well-paid families of the steel company’s executives, managers, and highly skilled employees. The west—adjacent to the steel plant gates—contained homes for lesser-skilled, clerical, and technical workers, including a cluster of boarding houses for single men known as the Nenovan Club. According to Morgan Park historian Arnold Alanen, those in the east called the west side “Hunkeyville,” a pejorative of “Bohunk” (despite its lack of eastern-European residents); those in the west, for reasons yet undetermined, called the eastern half the “Pig Pen.” Single family homes dominated the east side while multiplexes filled the west. The somewhat harsh look of concrete was softened by the architect’s use of gables, eaves, and a variety of rooflines that concealed the appearance of monotonous regularity. The majority of Morgan Park’s buildings were constructed by Duluth’s George Lounsberry Company, perhaps the premier Duluth contracting firm throughout its late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century building booms.

On March 30, 1914, as Alanen reports, brickworks superintendent John McLimans, his wife, Emmy, and their four daughters became Morgan Park’s first residents. By May 14 between 200 and 300 people occupied sixty houses. Fifty families arrived the next month, and 100 more in October. At the end of the year, nearly 600 people lived in Morgan Park. The following year Morgan Park was home to 350 families. During World War I, more than 3,500 workers were employed at the facility, but the plant struggled during the early years of the Great Depression, operating at losses and laying off workers. The Morgan Park Company approached Duluth officials in March 1933, asking the Zenith City to accept the deed to Morgan Park—and responsibility for its utility services. The company retained ownership of office buildings, but thereafter anyone, regardless of whether they worked for USS, could live in and purchase a house in Morgan Park.

World War II brought the steel plant roaring back to life, increasing employment to over 5,000. The Minnesota Steel Plant thrived until the 1960s. By then, anywhere from 1,700 to 3,000 people worked at the Duluth facility. During that time the plant’s aging steel-making facilities—and the water and air pollution they produced—became major concerns. By 1971 only one blast furnace remained in operation and 1,600 employees were discharged, leaving less than 1,000 workers to operate the plant. The facility held on for eight more years, but in 1979 the coke plant closed and the last employees left. The final remnant of the plant was razed in 1988. The Morgan Park neighborhood survives as a thriving historic Duluth residential district.

A cul-de-sac at Arbor Street and Eighty-Seventh Avenue West in eastern Morgan Park ca. 1922, photographer unknown. [Image: UMD Martin Library]