Reorganization, War, Fire & Flu (1911–1919)

Duluth’s Homecroft School was destroyed by the Cloquet Fire of 1918. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

In 1911 Duluth mayor Marcus Cullum proposed changing the political system hat had thrice elected him mayor. Cullum felt the mayor-council government gave the mayor too much power. Instead, he had become a proponent of government by a city commission, a new, nationally popular system then considered more efficient and better for the laboring class. The city council consisted of five elected commissioners, each in charge of a department: public affairs, public works, public safety, public utilities, and finance. The mayor was the commissioner of public affairs and otherwise played a procedural and ceremonial role, but held no additional powers.

Republican mayoral candidate John A. “Doc” McCuen, the county coroner and popular co-owner of the Duluth White Sox baseball team, opposed the plan. While McCuen defeated Cullum, the incumbent’s radical reform passed. But McCuen didn’t want to be mayor under the new system, and so he did not seek re-election. Banker William Prince, the former three-time Republican mayor of Bessemer, Michigan, won a hotly contested 1913 election by just six of the 12,323 votes cast.

As its government reorganized, Duluth kept growing. The construction of United States Steel’s Minnesota Steel Company plant, which began operating in 1915, created three new communities. Morgan Park, a carefully planned company town named for J. P. Morgan, was originally intended strictly for families of the steel firm’s managers, foremen, and skilled laborers—Germans, Scandinavians, and native-born European Americans. (Technically, Morgan Park did not become a Duluth neighborhood until 1930, when USS transferred ownership to the city.)

South of the plant, Gary—named for USS cofounder Elbert Gary—offered humble accommodations occupied primarily by families of unskilled laborers, many recent Eastern and southern European immigrants and African Americans. Across the river, more unskilled immigrants lived in Oliver, Wisconsin, named for Henry Oliver. Immigrants also found jobs at USS’s Universal Portland Cement plant, which used slag from the blast furnaces to make cement.

Duluth’s industrial abundance made labor strife common. The Finnish People’s College opened in Smithville (formerly Spirit Lake Park) in 1907 and operated until 1941. Established by the Finnish Socialist Federation of the Socialist Party of America, the school made Duluth a hotbed for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). By 1911 its students were staging free-speech demonstrations. A 1912 streetcar employees strike resulted in a riot involving some 15,000 people. An ore-dock workers strike in 1913 was settled with a dime-a-day pay raise, but only if owners didn’t have to rehire any Finns. In 1917, one hundred unauthorized national guardsmen marched to the downtown Duluth’s IWW headquarters and destroyed everything inside.

By 1915 news of the war in Europe consumed Duluthians. As fighting escalated, so too did the demand for steel. The USS plant was retooled to make plate steel, and the docks of Duluth, Superior, and Two Harbors worked overtime loading ore from Minnesota’s iron ranges. The demand forced Duluth to build its sixth ore dock in 1918—and like each of its predecessors, it was the largest in the world. (Docks five and six still stand.)

Much of that metal would go into ships, many built in the Twin Ports. Barnes and Alexander McDougall formed McDougall-Duluth Shipbuilding Company and started building vessels at Ironton, which they converted into a company town and renamed Riverside. Three outfits built ships in Superior, and together the Twin Ports’ facilities produced over one hundred vessels for the war effort, over half in Riverside. Barnes also served as the president of the US Food Administration’s Grain Corporation, which helped feed US troops and their allies in Europe. He gained a national reputation as an astute businessman, and in 1922 he was appointment president of the US Chamber of Commerce.

Attorney Clarence Magney, another Republican, replaced Prince in 1917. Magney had helped establish Jay Cooke State Park and as mayor acquired more park land than anyone before or since, but mostly he fought fires both literal and figurative: the war was just one of several conflagrations that confronted the city.

Many Duluthians volunteered. They mustered at the new National Guard Armory and paraded along Superior Street to the Union Depot and Omaha Station, where thousands of loved ones provided celebratory send-offs. The Duluth News Tribune estimated some five thousand “Duluth sons” had enlisted by Memorial Day 1918; fifty-five of them would not come home alive. Neither would Lydia Whiteside, a surgical nurse who served in a field hospital.

At home the war created other casualties. Anti-German fervor ran rampant. Duluth schools banned German history and language and forced teachers to take a loyalty oath. Finnish immigrant Olli Kinkkonen, a logger and dock worker, had emigrated to America to avoid war. Not registering for the draft made him a “slacker” in the eyes of a local group calling themselves the Knights of Liberty. In September 1918 the Knights abducted Kinkkonen and tarred and feathered him as a warning to others. His body was found hanging from a tree in Lester Park. Authorities never charged his assailants, writing off his death as suicide.

Another conflagration brought more death to Duluth. Following two hot, dry summers, train sparks set off several small fires that combined and erupted on October 12 near Cloquet, twenty miles west of Duluth. Pushed by strong winds, the fire raced north as fast as sixty-five miles an hour, ravaging communities along the way. The flames mostly swept around the city before dropping into eastern Duluth around 7 pm, destroying the Northland Country Club clubhouse, Homecroft Elementary School, and other buildings. Duluth became a refugee center, with thousands of displaced people finding shelter in the Armory, the St. Louis County Courthouse, and other public buildings. The fire, considered the worst natural disaster in Minnesota history, burned for three days. It left 453 people dead, including 85 in Duluth and the immediately surrounding area; 52,000 more were injured or displaced. The blaze damaged 250,000 acres of land in thirty-eight communities, destroying most of Cloquet and all of Moose Lake, Brookston, and Arnold. Property damage estimated reached $73 million, over $1.2 billion today.

In 1918 the Spanish flu claimed more lives than flames, bombs, and bullets, both at home and abroad. As the war approached its end, the flu epidemic arrived in Duluth. Boarding houses and residential hotels were pressed into service to house the infirm, and an October city council resolution closed all public buildings—including churches, schools, and theaters—for six weeks. Between October 1918 and January 1919, the flu claimed the lives of 325 Duluthians. Public Safety Commissioner Bernard Silberstein explained to reporters that the city was fortunate, as its per capita death rate sat well below the national average. “If we had the same percentage as in some eastern cities,” Silberstein told newspapers, “more than 700 deaths would have resulted.”