Duluth Ship Canal Dig Legends

Over the years the events surrounding the digging of the Duluth Ship Canal evolved into an extraordinarily tall tale that many still believe. Several versions of the legend exist, and most go something like this:

In January 1871 Superiorites uncovered Duluth’s plot to dig a canal (in the legends, the digging had not yet begun), which would reduce shipping traffic to Superior. Superior’s leaders filed for an injunction to stop the dredging, which the courts granted in April. A telegram received on Friday, April 28, warned Duluthians that a government-dispatched courier was in route to deliver the injunction. So the call went out for every able-bodied man, woman, and child in town “who could handle a spade or shovel, or beg, borrow, or steal a bucket or a bushel basket” to converge on the canal site where they “dug, scratched, and burrowed ’till it was finished.” By the break of dawn Monday, they had cleared a canal. The courier arrived at the exact moment the tug Frank C. Fero passed through the canal. Recognizing the hand-dug ditch as a navigable waterway, the courier decided then and there that the injunction had been rendered invalid and immediately tore up the document, ending the whole affair.

Some versions have the Ishpeming cutting the entire canal in two days. Many claim the courier arrived on horseback while others say he took the train. In perhaps the tallest version of the tale, recorded by the Duluth Evening Herald in 1929, the canal was created with one perfectly executed explosion: “Leading Duluthians of the time . . . led by [William] Sargent . . . formed the ‘Dynamite Club.’ Under the cover of darkness . . . bankers, clerks, professional men and laborers worked frantically with pick and shovel . . . . As daylight approached and they realized they would not finish the task, leaders called for dynamite. . . . When the debris settled the dynamiters were rewarded by the water rushing through the ditch thus created.” This story, which notes that the blast also destroyed every window within several miles of the canal, fails to consider that William Sargent was only eleven years old in 1871, hardly the person city leaders would look to organize and lead such a dangerous task.

So how did these tales take root? Like all good myths, they contain some truth: A little hand digging and a couple kegs of blasting powder were used to break up a stubborn patch of frozen gravel on April 29 (see page 6). An injunction was filed, but it did not arrive until nearly a week after the Ishpeming had finished its initial cut. The lawsuits dragged on until 1877, but they never once interfered with the canal’s construction nor operation.

Like other legends, the canal myth likely began as elaborations of true events told repeatedly, becoming canonical after they were set into type. The first version of the story found in print—including the “dug, scratched, and burrowed” passage—comes from British author James H. Bridge’s 1888 book Uncle Sam at Home. Bridge’s source may well have been early Duluth resident Roger Munger (pictured above ca. 1900). Munger told versions of the legend to newspaper reporters beginning in the 1890s, and they were reprinted when he died in 1913. His recollection appeared in his son-in-law Dwight Woodbridge’s 1910 history of Duluth: “I was engaged by the citizens of Duluth to dig the channel. We began work on a Saturday and by night Superior knew what we were about. At once the people over there began to scurry around to get a federal injunction restraining us. I hired a gang of several hundred men . . . and we worked all that day and far into the night. . . . When the Superior people came over Monday morning there was the channel open and they couldn’t do anything.”

Other versions of the tale further embellish the drama. Some include mention of Superiorites arriving in rowboats to heckle the men digging away at the point. At least one historian wrote that a Superior hardware store advertised the sale of surplus muskets from the Civil War to arm Superiorites against those “cliff dwellers” across the bay.

Perhaps the stories perpetuate because people can’t resist telling them, facts be damned. As one of Duluth’s first city aldermen, Munger himself helped hire the Ishpeming and knew full well his account was a fib. Author Bridge was fourteen years old in 1870 and did not live in the United States, let alone Duluth. Jerome Cooley, who moved to Duluth in 1873, recorded his version in a 1922 book of his “recollections.” Otto Wieland, born in 1871, told his tale to the Works Project Administration in 1942. The Minneapolis Tribune Sunday Magizine featured its account, based primarily on the 1929 William Sargent story, in 1945. Duluth teacher Dora Mary MacDonald retold it in her 1949 book This Is Duluth, researched in part by her elementary school students. Even today several websites present the myth as fact.

The cover art of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune for June 3, 1945, did little to dispel the myths that the Duluth Ship Canal was dug by hand or cleared with a single blast of dynamite—and neither did the story inside. (Image: Zenith City Press)