Duluth National Guard Armory (1915)

The city of Duluth had this postcard produced to promote its new state-of-the-art Armory in 1916. (Image: Zenith City)

Building progressed over the summer in anticipation of a November 22 grand opening. A story in the Duluth News Tribune in late October showed a photograph of the facility’s basement rifle range and observed that a 60 x 20-foot portion of the floor would be filled with sand so that Duluth militiamen could “indulge in the indoor sport of digging trenches” and pitching tents. Another portion of the basement was set aside for a swimming pool.

Meanwhile, a report on November 1 declared that the building’s final costs would come to $150,000, as the building would now be home to not only Duluth’s three infantry divisions and two naval militias, but also an additional naval militia, a hospital corp, and the Third Regiment Band. The 107,000+ square-foot  building would contain a 103 x 187-foot drill floor—the largest in Minnesota—and “65 rooms for lockers, paraphernalia, storage, and club quarters.” Its assembly hall—which doubled as performance space—was 45 x 90 feet, and the largest in the city at the time. Company quarters were located on the second floor, and all overlooked a balcony to the drill hall below. The third floor held an auditorium, dressing and lounging rooms, a kitchen, and quarters for the regimental band.

The building stood complete by November 10, its Classical Revival façade covered in variegated dark brown brick and trimmed in stone. According to its nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, “Its parapet has terra-cotta coping as well as stone details, such as square openings with starbursts…. The capitals of the facade’s central five pilasters are decorated with stone caps and roundels. The pilasters that sit on both sides of the central window are topped with recessed rectangular panels of buff-colored stone; one reads ‘MNG’ and the other, ‘MNM.’ Both are framed with egg-and-dart details and sit on brackets with shield motifs. Underneath the fourth-floor windows is a terra-cotta panel imprinted with ‘MINNESOTA.’”

By November 17 the various militias had begun moving into their new home, just as a new “rapid-fire rifle” was delivered to the armory. Cannon is more like it. The naval gun was 15 feet long, weighed six tons, and required eight men to operate it—and could throw three-foot-long 4-inch shells up to 5,000 yards. The infantry received a 3-inch field artillery piece as well. The News Tribune joked that Duluth “is about ready for any invader who dares plant mines under the Lester River bridge or dig trenches in the Northland Country Club links.”

The Armory’s opening, modeled after a traditional military ball, was touted as “one of the most brilliant social events of the year,” and was organized by Colonel Resche, Captain Eaton, and Lt. Colonel Hubert Eva. Minnesota Governor W. S. Hammond officially opened the Armory at 8:15 p.m. on November 22, 1915, following some drilling demonstrations by Duluth’s soldiers. Congressman C. B. Miller, namesake of Miller Trunk Highway, and Mayor Prince also gave speeches. More than 50 officers from other Minnesota regiments also attended. When the talking was over, all 28 members of the Third Regiment Band hit the stage, and the dancing began.

Soldiers would first mobilize from the new Armory in 1916, when they were sent to Texas to train for action against Mexican General Francisco “Pancho” Villa, but no Duluthian saw action. After the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Duluth began sending troops overseas. During America’s involvement in the first world war, groups of Duluth soldiers would muster at the Armory and parade down London Road and Superior Street to the Union Depot more than 20 blocks away, with the streets lined with well-wishers—and then board trains, many of them to never return. (Read more about Duluthians serving in World War I here, at the Veteran Memorial Hall’s website.) Many more would do the same during World War II.

While the troops were fighting in Europe, the Armory was pressed into service as a refuge center and hospital due to two major events in 1918. The Cloquet Fire erupted October 12, 1918. According to the building’s National Register nomination form, Duluth’s Guardsmen:

…rushed to fight the fire and rescue those in peril, transporting the injured back to Duluth for medical care. Meanwhile, the Duluth Armory became a command central for the rescue efforts. Cars and ambulances brought victims to the building to receive medical care from Red Cross nurses. The challenge of caring for the injured was exacerbated by the fatal Spanish Flu epidemic that was just reaching the Iron Range that autumn. Treatment of the fire victims tapped out medical supplies, and the risk of infection spread as people crowded into shelters.

The armory was soon bursting at the seams with the injured and attending medical staff. Frank Murphy, a volunteer driver, later wrote: ‘I will never forget the sight at the Armory. The main floor was filled with cots and people sleeping there[,] some of them not knowing where the rest of their families were or whether they were alive or not.’ Over the next few days, patients in critical condition were sent to hospitals. The others were moved elsewhere so that the Drill Hall could handle new arrivals and related activities. Over the next couple of days, refugees were asked to register at the armory to facilitate their reunion with relatives. In addition, the armory became the headquarters for donations, volunteers, clothing and food distribution, and adoption services. By the beginning of November, the armory and other Duluth facilities had served 761 people.

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