Boeing’s Claim on the Ship Canal

Wilhelm Boeing. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Eighteen years after the Duluth Ship Canal was dug, German immigrant and Michigan lumberman and financier Wilhelm Boeing claimed ownership of the land occupied by the canal. Following the Panic of 1857, Boeing had purchased fourteen lots on either side of Portage Street, which had been dug up beginning in 1870 to create the canal. Boeing wanted his land back or, better yet, financial reparation for what had been done to it.

On September 27, 1889, Boeing posted the following notice in Duluth newspapers: “To all boat and vessel owners—You are hereby notified that on and after the fifteenth day of October, 1889, the right of passing through the canal connecting the waters of Lake Superior and the bay of Duluth will be denied by me to all boats and vessels. A rope will be stretched across the canal on my property, which lies in and upon either side of said canal, and the owner or master of any boat or vessel breaking the same will be promptly proceeded against in the courts.” The notice was also printed as a circular and issued to captains of vessels passing through the Saulte Ste. Marie locks that were heading to Duluth.

Boeing then told the Duluth Evening Herald that the posting was “not intended to work hardship to any interests of Duluth, but simply to establish what rights I possess.” His goal was to prod the city into purchasing the property. Duluth Common Council President John J. Costello told the Herald that Duluth had considered paying a reasonable sum, but Boeing’s asking price of $100,000 was “preposterous.” Besides, Costello argued, the canal was already eighteen years old—why hadn’t Boeing made his claim earlier? And since the federal government took over ownership of the canal in the 1870s, how could Boeing sue Duluth for property it didn’t own?

Boeing left Duluth in September, leaving his friend Marshal Alworth to handle the matter. On October 14 Boeing telegraphed Alworth, telling him to “String the rope.” The next day Alworth hired Frank Jacobs, James Jones, and ferryman Charles Winters. At 12:15 a.m. they tied a half-inch rope to a piling on the north pier and brought it across the canal on the ferry, and then tied it off on another piling on the south pier. Police Officer Frank Horgan promptly cut the rope. When Horgan went home after his shift, Alworth’s men put the rope back up. When the steamer Winslow passed through the canal later that day, her captain yelled “to hell with you and your old clothesline” and steamed through, the ship itself cutting the rope. Alworth’s men promptly restored the rope, only to watch the tug Spirit break it a short time later.

The next time Alworth’s men tried to block the canal, they spiked eighteen feet of chain to the canal’s wooden piers hoping that its weight would lower the rope out of reach of any boat master’s knife. But they failed to properly connect the rope and chain. The next morning a Herald reporter retrieved the chain, and Police Chief Patrick Doran arrived and instructed officers to “arrest anyone attempting to put a rope across the canal.”

Boeing died from influenza in 1890, just months after the posting, and there is no evidence that Duluth ever compensated him for the property he had lost. But even without the $100,000 he demanded, Boeing had plenty of money. Most of his vast wealth went to his son William, who would eventually move to the Pacific Northwest and start building airplanes. Today Bill Boeing’s company is a leader in commercial aviation.