Duluth City Hall = Prison and Prohibition-era Fun House?

Duluth’s 1889 City Hall. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Since a restaurant first opened in Duluth’s 1889 City Hall in 2012, stories have been floated about the restaurant’s “Rathskeller,” actually the building’s subbasement that has been converted into a bar. There were stories of abused prisoners and that the space may be haunted by the tormented souls of those imprisoned there. There was also mention of illegal booze operations during Prohibition.

It’s all hogwash, perhaps started by a business owner trying to drum up business—like “Grandma Rosa Brochi,” nothing more than a marketing maneuver.

So how did the idea of the “jail” get started? An old family story told by Duluth attorney Jim Balmer’s grandfather is the likely source. The elder Balmer, also named Jim, was 20 years old in 1889. He was a hard worker who, according to his grandson, “also liked to have fun and so had occasional run-ins with the police.” One such run-in led to his brief incarceration: he was tossed in the holding cell in City Hall’s subbasement “for a few hours until his maternal uncle, a city councilor, obtained his release.” Balmer’s grandfather told him that while he was inside, he scratched his name into a wall. Curious, Balmer stopped into the Rathskeller when it first opened to see if he could find his grandfather’s scratchings. The staff kindly obliged, but Balmer could not find his grandfather’s name.The rumors started after that.

Why would his grandfather say he was jailed at city hall, where there was no lock-up? The building’s main entrance was on the Michigan Street level, which held Duluth’s municipal court and, for its first year, the temporary home of the police department. At the time, Duluth had several small city jails spread throughout the city, necessitated by both Duluth’s unique shape (three miles wide and 28 miles long) and the limitations of horse-powered transportation. That system would end in 1890, when the police headquarters and jail next door at 126 E. Superior St. was completed. But from 1889 to 1890, prisoners were taken from those old jails to City Hall for their day in court. They waited in a makeshift holding cell housed in the sub-basement, today’s “Rathskeller.” So for less than one year the Rathskeller was home to a holding cell, not an official jail. It is likely no one spent a night in the space.

The rumor of a jail inside old city hall has since evolved into tales of prisoners forced to labor in the dank subbasement, shoveling coal into the furnace that heated the building. Further rumors have surfaced as well, including claims of Prohibition-era (1919–1933) activity such as moonshining and bootlegging. The 1889 Duluth City Hall was the seat of municipal government until 1928, when it moved to today’s City Hall. That same year the 1889 building became home to a variety of county, state, and federal social service organizations, such as the St. Louis County Poor Commission, the Minnesota Association for Crippled Children and Disabled Adults, and later the American Red Cross. It is extremely unlikely that a bootlegging operation or a distillery operated within a building filled with government offices.

We’ve heard even more stories, including those of so-called “secret societies” gathering in the building to plot their domination of Duluth—nevermind that Duluth’s Masons constructed their own headquarter across the street from City Hall the same year Duluth’s municipal headquarters was built. There has even been a claim that a cell-phone photograph taken in the subterranean cocktail lounge is proof of “the ghost of the Rathskeller.” In the days when digital photo editing software is available to everyone, those readers who believe in ghosts will have to forgive the rest of us for being highly skeptical of a specter in the subbasement.

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