The Suburb of Proctor

Beriah Magoffin III (1843–1932) would become the “Founder of Proctor.” (Image:

Magoffin’s Parley

Beriah Magoffin, Jr. was governor of Kentucky when the Civil War erupted. A Democrat and a states’-rights advocate, he nevertheless steered Kentucky toward neutrality and turned down requests for troops from both sides. Magoffin resigned in 1862 amid frustrations and mistrust over his exchanges with a Unionist legislature. Breckinridge, who became a senator after his term as vice president, joined the Confederacy, serving as a general and later secretary of war. He escaped to Cuba in 1865 and lived in exile in the UK and Canada until President Andrew Johnson’s 1868 pardon of Confederates.

When Magoffin Jr. and Breckinridge returned to Minnesota and Wisconsin in 1869, the St. Paul Press did not hold back its venom: “Among all the plotters and leaders of that gigantic conspiracy against the Union…none played a more despicable, and but few a more conspicuous, part than John C. Breckenridge [sic].” The Press’s view of Magoffin was not as harsh, but still exhibited restrained animosity: “Magoffin, who staid [sic] behind in Kentucky to cover Breckenridge’s [sic] Kentucky rebels with the shield of armed neutrality in the war upon the Union.” Breckinridge died in 1875 and Magoffin Jr. in 1885. The last vestige of Governor Magoffin’s real estate holdings in northwestern Wisconsin is a South Superior land tract called Magoffin’s Addition.

Beriah Magoffin III did not share his father’s qualms regarding loyalty. He joined Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry raiders. The entire troop was captured in 1863; Magoffin was eventually sent to Camp Douglas in Chicago. He managed to escape and fled to Canada, where he attended the University of Toronto and studied law. After the war he returned to Kentucky and completed his education at Centre College. He had become a jurist, but Magoffin preferred farming over lawyering.

He moved his family to a farm near St. Paul in 1873. Three years later he was elected to the Minnesota Legislature as a representative of Ramsey County. He then farmed in the Dakota Territory on land he said he “bought from the [Northern Pacific] railroad company several thousand acres for less than a dollar an acre.”

Magoffin made numerous trips to Duluth in the 1880s, where he found a city on the rise. Thanks to Cooke’s investments, Duluth had become a center of the grain and lumber trades, and the town was now a city of 30,000 people. In Duluth he negotiated real estate transactions and purchased large tracts of land in and around the city.

In July 1888, Magoffin told the Duluth Daily News he planned to spend summers in Duluth and winters in Kentucky. However, an illness forced the family back to Kentucky’s more-forgiving climate. Magoffin still frequented Duluth on business. One visit in 1890 was perhaps more of a social call, as he brought his wife and several others—including his famous friend and Duluth disparager J. Proctor Knott.

Knott sent a letter to the Duluth Chamber of Commerce prior to his visit, stating that he did not wish to arrive “amid the blowing of trumpets, etc.” By this time Knott was the namesake of Kentucky’s Knott County (established in 1884) and a racehorse foaled in 1886. The Kentuckians arrived in the Zenith City on August 13, 1890. His visit included a Tallyho party along the Boulevard—today’s Skyline Parkway—and a sailing tour of the harbor. A banquet was held in Knott’s honor at the Spalding Hotel on August 14, and the News Tribune called it “the greatest social event…of the season.” Knott gave a speech lavishing praise upon Duluth. It read in part:

“When the time was ripe for the gigantic birth, Duluth sprang from its granite bed, a young Titan, full panoplied for the grandest commercial contest of the ages. In less than a single decade its population has been multiplied more than eleven fold, its banking capital has grown from fifty thousand to more than three million dollars, its taxable valuation has increased from a little over six hundred thousand to twenty-three millions, its commerce has reached almost fabulous proportions, and its multitude of magnificent public and private buildings have reared their splendid fronts along the sterile and rock-bound shores, as if called into being under the potent spell of some mighty enchanter. Yet, as I have said, there has been no magic in all this, The only genii that have been employed in this wondrous transformation are sagacity, energy, and courage.”

[You can read Knott’s entire August 1890 speech here.]

Knott visited again in March 1892, this time on business. He was among a group of investors which sold 55,000 acres of Kentucky coal fields to Duluth’s Merritt family on the correct assumption that Duluth would become an iron-mining center. The Merritts were in the process of opening the Mesabi Iron Range and needed coal to power the railroad that would bring the ore from the range to docks in Duluth. That railroad—the Duluth, Missabe & Northern—would eventually create the community of Proctor, Minnesota.

Enter the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railway

Prospectors knew about ore deposits on what would become the Mesabi Range since the Lake Vermilion gold rush of the late 1860s. But Mesabi ore—a then-useless low-grade hard ore called taconite—initially had a poor reputation compared to the iron-rich hematite of the Vermillion Range east of the lake. Charlemagne Tower opened the Vermilion Range in the early 1880s, and Duluth began building an ore dock in 1884 in anticipation of becoming an ore-distribution center. But Tower chose to terminate his Duluth & Iron Range Railway (D&IR) at Agate Bay (Two Harbors), and so that’s where the D&IR built its docks.

When the Merritts discovered soft hematite ore at Mountain Iron in November 1890, they could elicit no interest from the D&IR, NP, nor the St. Paul and Duluth (St.P&D, formerly the LS&M) to build a branch rail line to their mining sites. So the Merritts were forced to finance their own railroad, which they named the Duluth, Missabe and Northern. The DM&N incorporated on June 23, 1891.

The DM&N then struck a deal with Duluth & Winnipeg, which at the time ran from Deer River to Cloquet and had built a line to Superior’s Allouez Bay, where it was building an ore dock. The DM&N and the D&W entered into an agreement in April 1892 whereby the DM&N would construct a line from the D&W’s Stoney Brook Junction (now Brookston) 48 miles directly north to Mountain Iron; in return the D&W promised to complete their ore dock and purchase 750 railroad cars to transport the cargo.

The first ore from the Mesabi was shipped from Mountain Iron to the Allouez ore docks in October 1892, but there were two problems: the dock was not complete and the D&W reneged on their promise to purchase 750 rail cars. The Merritts reluctantly used the D&W line while they built a line of their own from Stoney Brook to Proctor and on to the foot of 33rd Avenue West in Duluth, where they began building an ore dock of their own, not far from where Lewis Merritt had helped establish Oneota 35 years earlier.

According to historian David A. Walker, “For their part, the Merritt family possessed an almost fanatical devotion to Duluth, and their loyalty to the city where they had resided from its birth was to contribute to their downfall.” The Merritts were unhappy with the D&W arrangement. As Mesabi ore proved to be the most abundant, easiest to mine, and among the highest quality in the world, the Merritts seized on an opportunity to make the DM&N an all-Minnesota line. The D&W experienced financial hardship and did not provide adequate rolling stock—cars and locomotives—to move the volume of ore coming from the Merritt’s mines. But, as Walker suggests, “Perhaps the basic motivation for taking what proved to be a disastrous step was the intense rivalry between the cities of Duluth and Superior.”

The Merritts endeavored to construct a 26-mile line from Columbia Junction (now the town of Culver) on the DM&N mainline to a new ore dock in Duluth, but they needed capital. Walker states that Duluth’s Alexander McDougall—inventor of the whaleback ore carrier—was “an old and trusted friend” of the Merritts. McDougall put them in contact with Charles W. Wetmore of McDougall’s American Steel Barge Company. Wetmore entered into agreement with the Merritts in December 1892, for exclusive shipping rights on Mesabi ore from Duluth in exchange for financial assistance building the rail line to Duluth.

The Merritts first needed to steer the DM&N in the direction they wanted it to go, which would not be easy. DM&N President Kelsey D. Chase and Donald Grant, the contractor who built the road, together owned more stock in the DM&N than did the Merritts. Neither Chase nor Grant wanted to abandon the D&W just yet—until a Duluth dock was built, they needed the D&W. Besides that, Grant also owned stock in the D&W and Chase was in secret negotiations to sell over half of his DM&N stock to rival Minnesota Iron Company of the Vermilion Range, which was seeking to expand into the Mesabi.

Construction of the Duluth dock began—or rather resumed—in January 1893, as the dock was built using the same pilings first driven for the anticipation of the D&IR dock in 1884. In February the Merritts bought out the Chase-Grant faction for $250,000 (about $6.2 million today). This event, plus the Wetmore-influenced decision to consolidate all Merritt and Wetmore assets, paved the way for the DM&N’s mainline extension to Duluth in March. On July 22, 1893, the Duluth dock loaded its first whaleback. That year the dock at Allouez Bay handled just 20 percent of Mesabi ore; the rest went through Duluth.

Financing the extension to Duluth was the first time the Merritts borrowed on credit, and their timing was horrible. The Panic of 1893 resulted in the worst national economic crisis to date, only surpassed by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Investors dried up. Workers on the dock demanded payment at gunpoint. The Merritts only way out was to make a deal with a larger investor, and they found one in John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller absorbed the debts, saving the enterprise from collapsing. But in the process the Merritts were forced to consolidate their properties, and consequently Rockefeller took control of all they created.

Magoffin’s Bonanza

The DM&N continued without the Merritts. The railroad needed a sorting yard and maintenance facility near the ore docks, and Duluth’s previous development and topography prevented the railroad from selecting a spot adjacent to the docks. So the DM&N purchased a large piece of flat land overlooking the St. Louis River just beyond Duluth’s border, on property which happened to be owned by Magoffin III, who purchased the land during a visit in 1886 at $12 an acre. Workers soon erected a town of canvas tents surrounding the railyards, called “White City” after the color of the canvas; it was soon renamed Missabe Yard.

By then Magoffin was a resident of Duluth. Induced by the potential of his real estate holdings, Magoffin sold his 157-acre estate in Lexington in June, 1892, and moved his family to Duluth. The family briefly lived at Duluth’s newly constructed Piedmont Terrace—known today as Munger Terrace—before establishing an estate located, according to city directories, at “Piedmont av W on the Hill.”

According to Labor World, Magoffin “…platted nearly a hundred acres into lots 25×125 feet in size,” and established a village on the site of Missabe Yard he called Proctorknott. Magoffin later told the Duluth News Tribune how he chose the new name. “I…was an intimate friend of J. Proctor Knott. When I secured a townsite for the village, I named it after the great Kentuckian,” The townspeople voted to incorporate as the village of Proctorknott on November 6, 1894.

Magoffin then established a real estate office, divided the land into lots, and sold them for between $1,000 to $1,200 each—a profit of more than $8,000 an acre (about $210,000 per acre today). By 1907 he had sold all lots east of the rail yard and established a second division on the west side. To this day Proctor’s plats are called “Proctorknott” and “Magoffin’s Second Division of Proctorknott.”

The village’s name was officially shortened to Proctor by the U. S. Postal Service in 1904. No one caused a fuss, as it was already being called Proctor in conversation and in official DM&N usage.

In 1905 the Magoffins moved to McAlester, Oklahoma, where two of their sons worked as coal mining engineers. Magoffin died in McAlester in 1932, at age 86. By refusing to name the village surrounding the DM&N’s rail yards after himself, the humble Magoffin not only diminished his own place in the community’s history but also elevated that of a man who had nothing to do with it. That man, J. Proctor Knott, died at his home in Lebanon, Kentucky, in 1911, never once having seen the town that still bears his name.

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Story by Anthony Bush. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Anthony Bush.