Great Northern Power Distribution Station

The Great Northern Power Distribution Station photographed ca. 1914 by Hugh McKenzie. The concrete structure at left was used to store oil. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

1431 W. Michigan St. | Architects: Albert H. Albertson | Built: 1906 | Extant

Before 1907, Duluth businesses used coal-powered boilers to produce steam to turn the wheels of industry and, later, the turbines of electric generators. Many early Duluth industrial facilities, as well as commercial and public buildings, produced their own electricity in the late nineteenth century. Too mammoth to remove, the turbines that first powered Duluth Central High School remain in the 1892 building’s basement. A company that eventually became Duluth Edison Electric began providing commercial electricity in 1888, generating much of it from a coal-fired power plant built in 1893 at 202–410 Commerce Street.

Hydroelectricity arrived in the Zenith City in 1907 with the completion of the Great Northern Power Company’s Thomson Dam and Hydroelectric Station along the St. Louis River above Fond du Lac. Jay Cooke had purchased the land in the 1860s, envisioning the river’s dalles as a powerful source to create hydroelectricity. Construction of the massive dam and power station and other facilities was overseen by former Wall Street trader Charles Cokefair and his son Frank, a civil and hydraulic engineer.

Electricity generated by the dam flows along power lines stretched between poles (originally made of concrete) from the station to a point along the border between Proctor and Bay View Heights. From there the poles continue toward downtown along a path on what was then mostly undeveloped land above today’s Skyline Parkway. Today the line crosses Skyline just west of Enger Tower and runs downhill through undeveloped Central Park, with the last tower placed at Fifteenth Avenue West and Superior Street.

Two years earlier Great Northern had begun building a distribution station across Superior Street from the final tower. Once connected to the line, the facility distributes electricity throughout the city. It stretches 114 feet along Superior and Michigan Streets, and 72 feet along its Fifteenth Avenue West entrance façade. Plans by architect Abraham H. Albertson, who also designed the dam itself and its main power station, called for an eclectic two-story Classical Revival building faced in red brick and trimmed with stone. The structure’s most striking feature is its stone work, including heavy keystones atop the windows and entrances, large quoins along the corners, and massive dentils below the roofline. Plans included an octagonal concrete oil storage facility built adjacent to the distribution station.

The building’s first floor contained a machine shop as well as transformers and generators, which adapted currents to suit the various needs of its customers before delivery of electricity was standardized. The second floor held a testing laboratory and a suite of offices. Great Northern Power later merged with Duluth Edison Electric to form Minnesota Power & Light. Today the company is known as the Allete Corporation, and the substation continues to help distribute Duluth’s electricity.