Prohibition & an Ugly Influence (1918–1933)

A lithographic postcard of the Pickwick, ca. 1930. The Pickwick was named for a non-alchoholic beer brewed by Fitger’s during Prohibition. (Image: Zenith City Press)

More than the weather was dry in 1918. With the Temperance movement marching the nation toward Prohibition, the Twin Ports had opted to ban alcohol early. Superior did so first, closing all saloons on July 1, 1916. When Duluth followed suit exactly one year later, Superior returned to wetness the very same day. The Zenith City’s 148 saloons—down from their 1911 peak of 187—closed or became soda fountains, costing three hundred bartenders their jobs. In 1918 Superior dried out again. Each time one of the cities closed its saloons, newspapers reported throngs of drunken revelers celebrating “John Barleycorn’s last rites” as booze traveled back and forth across the Interstate Bridge. When national Prohibition took effect in January 1920, the Twin Ports’ four breweries—Duluth’s Fitger’s, People’s, and Duluth Brewing & Malting and Superior’s Northern—had already stopped production. Each began making near beer and nonalcoholic beverages to keep the companies alive and people employed.

A month into Prohibition the Duluth Herald boasted that “Duluth today stands as one of the leading cities of the Northwest, with prospects for the future which are unrivaled. Fifty years of steady growth have resulted in wonderful accomplishments for a city industrially, financially, and from a civic standpoint.” Nearly all of its 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.

Prohibition quickly caused problems. In July federal agents arrested Duluth Police Chief John Murphy and ten others, including a former US Marshal, for smuggling whiskey across the Canadian border. Public Safety Commissioner John Murnian had appointed Murphy chief in 1918, after previous chief Robert McKercher quit and left town ahead of an official probe into his behavior. Murphy had no previous law-enforcement experience, and both he and Murnian were already under pressure for their mishandling of a June riot that led to the lynchings of three innocent men, African American circus workers accused of rape.

During Murphy’s trial the evidence—ninety bottles of whiskey—disappeared from a vault in Duluth’s police headquarters. Murphy then testified that while on a fishing trip he had accidentally stumbled upon bottles of homemade beer and confiscated them. The next day his attorneys produced thirteen sacks of bottled beer to substantiate his testimony. While Murphy and his confederates were exonerated, the chief lost his job; his successor, former federal agent Warren Pugh, promptly fired eighteen patrolmen.

That was enough for Mayor Clarence Magney. After seeing the city through war, disease, fire, two lynchings, and scandals involving two police chiefs in just two years, he left office that fall to become a district court judge. Ever-popular former mayor Trevanion Hugo served out Magney’s term, and Duluthians elected Samuel F. Snively mayor in 1921. Like Magney, Snively was a Republican, an attorney, and a lover of parks. Unlike Magney, he remained in office for fifteen years, longer than any other Duluth mayor.

The Twin Ports bolstered their connection in 1927 with the opening of the Arrowhead Bridge between West Duluth and West Superior. As the twenties roared, both cities had continued reaping the benefits of their industrial infrastructures. Grain flowed from elevators on both sides of the river. Coal had reached its apex, with twenty-one docks serving Duluth alone. While commercial fishing had peaked in 1915, more than two hundred fishermen still worked the waters along the North Shore, feeding Duluth’s fisheries. The nation’s hunger for steel kept the ore docks and metal manufacturers busy, and Duluth’s waterfront remained one of the country’s busiest jobbing centers.

To top it off, Duluth was a pretty good place not only to live, but also to stay alive. In 1925 the Zenith City boasted the nation’s lowest death rate in cities of over one hundred thousand people. The Duluth News Tribune reported that Dr. L. A. Sukeforth, director of the Duluth Bureau of Health, credited “climate, water, beauty, and comfort, and the greatest of these is climate.”

The racial climate wasn’t nearly as healthy. Following the 1920 lynchings, most of Duluth’s few African Americans fled. Those who stayed did so in the shadow of the Ku Klux Klan. In July 1922 the Duluth Herald reported that a Klan chapter had organized in Duluth the previous year and boasted of having recruited 1500 members. The group said its goal was the “preservation of American ideals and institutions and the maintenance of white supremacy.”

Rosters of Duluth Klan members in 1925 and 1926 obtained by Catholic diocese Bishop Thomas Welch each list about 250 names. Historian Richard Hudelson describes the group as pro-Norse, anti-immigrant, and anti-Catholic, explaining that much of the Duluth chapter’s work “appears to have been focused on urging Catholics from public office and replacing them with KKK members and sympathizers.” The listed names were entirely “Anglo, German, and Scandinavian.” Members lived from West Duluth to Lester Park, but with “relatively high concentrations in Lakeside and eastern parts of the city.”

They included school teachers, school board members, a city clerk, a municipal judge, government officials, and a Methodist minister. More than half were war veterans, and several belonged to the police and fire departments, including future fire chief Sievert Hansen. Other prominent names included city commissioners Phillip Phillips and William McCormick; county commissioners Joseph Becks, namesake of Becks Road, and Arthur Cook, who ran the county poor farm. George W. Johnson, then representing Duluth in the Minnesota House of Representatives, later became the city’s mayor. Local activity dwindled after 1926, when the chapter’s central organizer absconded with its funds, and the Klan’s ugly influence in Duluth ended..

City Officials relocated into a new city hall in 1928, as population estimates reached 112,000. The following August Snively presided over a groundbreaking ceremony for the Williamson-Johnson Municipal Airport, predecessor to today’s Duluth International Airport. By then workers had begun converting the canal’s transfer bridge into a lift bridge. On October 19, 1929, thousands gathered to watch workers raise the bridge’s top span forty feet to rest on new towers. Ten days later the stock market crashed.