War & Post-War Boom (1940–1955)

Launching a vessel at the McDougall Shipbuilding in Duluth’s Riverside neighborhood, ca 1942. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Incumbent Rudy Berghult lost the 1941 mayoral election to Republican Edward Hatch, a mining chemist from Devonshire, England, who emigrated in 1902. A former mayor of Eveleth, Minnesota, Hatch moved to Duluth as Prohibition began. While he later became chairman of the St. Louis County Republican Party, he first found popularity as the president of the Duluth Dukes, a minor league baseball team. Meanwhile, Berghult joined other Duluth men between twenty-one and thirty-five years old and registered for the draft, as war had erupted in Europe and the nation’s entry seemed inevitable.
In some ways, Duluth had entered the fight before the attack on Pearl Harbor, as the city’s factories began helping the nation and its allies prepare for war after Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland. As elsewhere, the war effort essentially ended the Depression in Duluth. Duluth Brewing & Malting produced industrial alcohol, used to make smokeless gun powder.

Refrigerator manufacturer Coolerator built ammunition containers, mess tables, and refrigeration units for the army. Clyde Iron Works’ Whirly Cranes—which had helped build the Empire State Building and Golden Gate Bridge—became an essential tool for military engineers. The firm’s four hundred employees worked around the clock, as did those at the Minnesota Steel and Interlake Iron plants, producing pig iron and steel. Ore docks in Duluth, Superior, and Two Harbors—practically dormant throughout the Depression—burst back to life as miners returned to work on the iron range. It took a lot of steel to fight the war, and two-thirds of it came from northeastern Minnesota mines. Shipbuilding quickly became the biggest industry in the Twin Ports. Six facilities employed over ten thousand people—including over 3500 women—to produce an average of ten ships a month while assembling a fleet of 230 vessels.

The Twin Ports also participated in the home front activities familiar to the rest of the nation, from rationing to planting victory gardens to newspaper, rubber, and scrap-metal drives. The Zenith City surpassed its quota for selling war bonds and victory bonds by an average of 151 percent each drive. By 1942 Duluth boasted 2500 air raid wardens and the Coast Guard had begun a Harbor Patrol—the Twin Ports were considered invaluable to the nation’s war effort, and great measures were taken to prevent sabotage. When the city participated in blackout tests designed to “hide” it from Axis bombers, officials even turned off the green beacon atop Enger Tower.

About fourteen thousand Duluth men served in the war, and about six hundred never returned. Pvt. Michael “Mike” Colallilo and Maj. Henry Courtney each received the Congressional Medal of Honor, Courtney posthumously; former mayor Berghult was awarded a bronze star. Numbers are not available for the likely thousands of local women who joined the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and the United States Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPAR), or served as nurses.

By the time the war ended, printer and former Minnesota Steel Plant paymaster George W. Johnson had replaced Hatch as mayor. The Republican, another West Duluthian, had served as the district’s congressman from 1925 to 1937, including two years as Speaker of the House. He is also listed on the Duluth Ku Klux Klan’s 1926 membership roster. Johnson held the mayor’s seat for two terms, and his time in office was prosperous for the city, which was profiled in the Saturday Evening Post in 1949.

The author, Arthur W. Baum, painted a fun and fascinating portrait of Duluth as the thriving city it then was (you can read the entire piece here). Baum’s story humorously depict the thriving city Duluth then was. The local economy remained strong. Bolstered by the continued need for iron ore, grain, and coal, and the ongoing success of the city’s hardware wholesalers, the Twin Ports remained the largest inland harbor in the world and second in tonnage only to New York Harbor. Servicemen had returned home with the opportunity to go to college on the G.I. Bill, and in 1947 efforts led by banker Richard Griggs paid off when the Duluth State Teachers’ College, previously the Duluth Normal School, became the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). The next year Griggs himself purchased former dairy land for a new, 160-acre campus not far from the College of St. Scholastica, which had evolved from Sacred Heart Institute.

The G.I. Bill also came in handy for building homes, which were in short supply as the city’s population increased with the postwar baby boom. Driveways and garages sprung up between homes built before automobiles became affordable. Modern and relatively modest houses were built among East End mansions whose owners could no longer afford to operate grand estates. Neighborhoods, particularly Piedmont Heights, Duluth Heights, Woodland, Lakeside, and Lester Park, pushed beyond their borders. The Chamber of Commerce declared 1949 the best building year in the city’s history. Duluth in 1950 was home to 104,511 people, and East Junior High became East High School to accommodate the increasing size of the student body. But things were not good for everyone: Redlining kept African American families from making homes in Duluth’s eastern neighborhoods.

While the world war was over, the Cold War had already begun, and Duluth’s potential as a military target remained. In 1948 the municipal airport had become home to a Minnesota Air National Guard fighter-interceptor squadron, and three years later the US Air Force announced it would spend $10 million creating a base for the 515th Air Defense Command. The facility would later include a Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) Direction Center, designed to guide twenty-eight Bomarc missiles housed just north of Duluth along the French River. (The SAGE facility and missile base closed in 1966 and the missiles were removed by 1972; while the Air Force is gone, the Minnesota Air National Guard remains, represented today by the 148th Fighter Wing.)

Television arrived in the Zenith City in 1953, just in time to share the news that the Korean War—which claimed the lives of twenty-five Duluthians—had ended. That year Duluth voters decided they’d had enough of George Johnson so they elected . . . George Johnson. Democrat George D. Johnson had grown up in Morgan Park and found work, as had his immigrant father—and his mayoral predecessor—at the adjacent steel plant. He rose to a management position and served as president of two local unions. Rumors following the election whispered that local DFL officials selected George D. as their candidate because of his name, hoping to confuse voters and perhaps get their candidate’s name a more favorable slot on the era’s mechanical voting machines.

By the time George D. took office, commission governments were regarded as outdated, inefficient, and prone to political influence. An advisory committee suggested a mayor-council system, with a mayor acting as the executive branch and a city council—made up of nine members, five representing geographic districts and four at large—as the legislative branch. Johnson later remembered that two of his fellow commissioners “violently opposed” the idea while the other two had little or no opinion. The mayor admitted to begrudgingly supporting the idea because he felt the low pay commissioners received rendered them vulnerable to corruption. But by backing the new system, Johnson was essentially throwing himself out of office.