Proctor Knott’s “On Duluth”

J. Proctor Knott. (Image: Public Domain)

The following speech, an apology for his “Untold Delights of Duluth” speech, was delivered by J. Proctor Knott July 1890 at the Spalding Hotel during a banquet in his honor.

A little less than twenty years ago, by one of those singular accidents which so frequently influence the destinies of men, my humble name became indissolubly associated with that of your splendid young city. From that day to this I have rarely, if ever, been introduced to a stranger who did not immediately make some pleasant allusion to Duluth; and it, is perhaps not too much to say that its most enthusiastic inhabitant has not watched its amazing progress with a profounder personal interest, or marked its marvelous prosperity with a more exultant pleasure than I have myself.

It requires no very extraordinary acquaintance with human nature to understand why such a sentiment on my part should not only be natural, but inevitable. I have never been vain enough to imagine that anything I might do would be worthy the stamp and esteem of ages, nor have I ever vexed my soul with the vain ambition to have my name sounded alone the corridors of coming time, when I knew that circumstances beyond my control would render it impossible for me to be there and hear it. On the contrary, I have always been of those serene, practical philosophers who preferred a bird on toast to a whole covey in the bush. Posthumous renown has always seemed to me a good deal like owning a diamond mine on the other side the moon. Nevertheless I cannot be unmindful of the fact that tho capricious goddess frequently withholds the gilded chaplet from the outstretched hand of the faithful toiler who has nobly earned it, while with prodigal partiality she decks the brow of the least deserving—that even the aspiring youth who fired the Ephesian dome outlives in fame the pious fool who raised it, and that possibly the mere mention of the name Duluth may bring my own to make the recollection of millions long after I shall have mouldered into dust, and everything else pertaining to my existence faded from the memory of man.

It has seemed to me therefore, in spite of myself, that the interests of this stalwart young city just bursting like an infant giant from its swaddling clothes, were in a certain sense peculiarly my own; that, however little I might merit such a magnificent mausoleum, fate had determined that in the future fortunes of Duluth I was to have my own enduring monument. Is it strange, then, that I have listened with rapt attention to every story I have heard of her wonderful development; that I have devoured with eager interest everything I have seen in print concerning her matchless prosperity and noted with emotions of interest pride and pleasure every step in her triumphant progress?

But there is another and, to me, far tenderer tie between us. The same sagacity which detected the embryo of what is destined to be one of the grandest commercial emporia of the world, in the little village nestling at the foot of these granite hills when the bright waters of yonder mighty lake were seldom fretted by the freighted keel—saw no malignant satire in the good-natured badinage which was accidentally instrumental in introducing the future city to the more general attention of mankind; but detected beneath a veil of playful irony a forecast of its grandness and glory, unseen by the seer himself who has lived to look in amazement upon the marvelous fulfillment of his unwitting prophesy. The enlightened and enterprising people of Duluth enjoyed the pleasantry, republished it in countless editions, scattered it broadcast over the civilized world and laughed at the heavy-headed plodder who mistook a serious argument against their prospective prosperity and undertook to refute it by an array of solemn statistics, which were, in fact, but a verification of the covert prophesy it contained. Wherever I have met them they have extended to me the warm palm of cordial friendship; and during the present, as well as the years that are gone t they have written me over and over again, the kindest letters inviting me to come among them, to share their wholehearted hospitality and enjoy with them the rich fruits of their well-won thrift.

If one could be found whose temperament is so rigid that his feelings toward such a people, under such circumstances, would not glow with generous fervor. He would be a fortune to any ice factory on the continent that would employ him as a refrigerator. He couldn’t come within a half mile of a thermometer at high noon, the hottest day in August without sending the mercury to zero if not clean down the bulb. That I might be able to avail myself of’ some of those friendly invitations has for many years been among the most pleasing anticipations of my life. I have wanted to meet you face to face, to take you by the hand as friend meets friend, to witness with my own eyes the manifold evidences of your enlightened enterprise, and to behold for myself the visible proofs of your unparalleled progress, and to rejoice with you in your well-earned prosperity.  And now, when I have realized that happiness, the facts so far transcend all that I have heard or read or dreamed of Duluth and its generous people, I feel completely dazed.

I am reminded of an incident in the life of my most excellent and esteemed friend, Senator Vance of North Carolina, which he is fond of relating of himself. He had been. requested to deliver a lecture in aid of some charity under the auspices of a Hebrew congregation, and, as he touches nothing that he does not adorn, his audience was delighted, especially the rabbi, an estimable, kindhearted old gentleman who, notwithstanding his eminent attainments in other respects, sometimes got a little mixed in the construction as well as his pronunciation of our vernacular. When the senator concluded his lecture the venerable rabbi seized him by the hand in a glow of enthusiastic admiration and said,

“Vell, Goufenor Wance, I haaf crate many dings heardt about you, but now dot I haaf seen you I moost say vot the Keveen of Shepa say to King Solomon; ‘beholdt I had not pelief more as von haf vot day been toldt apout you alretty!”

True, I had read the astounding story of your progress in all the essentials of social prosperity and commercial grandeur. but one-half of it seemed almost beyond the ordinary range of credulity.

In 1871 the eager question was, Where is Duluth? Ten years ago the census of the United States told us that it was a little town in Minnesota of less than 4,000  inhabitants. Today the glad voices of 50, 000 intelligent, enterprising, prosperous and happy people, amid the busy din of machinery and the rush and roar of commerce, respond Duluth is here! Twenty years ago it was suggested that it was precisely 3,900 miles from Liverpool but if necessary, Duluth might be moved back ten miles so as to make the distance an even 4,000; but if there is any moving back to be done now, Liverpool will have to do it, for Duluth is here to stay. Yes, she is here, and here she will remain as long as the bright waters of yonder inland sea, above whose limpid wave she rose like a matchless goddess, shall remain to bear the vast and  varied treasures of her boundless commerce to the people of other lands; aye, as long as her throne of eternal granite shall remain fixed to the sure and firm-set earth.

When I look around on a population of 50,000 souls where ten years ago there were but 3,470; when I see the sumptuous residences, the palatial hotels, the tremendous business houses, the splendid public edifices, the magnificent churches, the costly and commodious educational buildings, the extensive factories, the enormous elevators, they have reared within the last decade, besides the street improvements they have made, the wonderful roadways they have hewn in the picturesque hills around them, the wharves and docks they have constructed. and undertake to compute the thousands of millions of tons of freight they have received and forwarded within the same period, the reality seems to exceed the wildest dreams of Oriental fiction. I feel almost that I am in a land of enchantment, where mighty genii at the behest of some powerful magician perform the labors of a century in a single night. Twenty years ago, if I remember correctly, the railroad facilities of Duluth were limited to a single line just finished from St. Paul. Today I am told there are over 16,000 miles of railway tributary to her traffic, while she is marked as the objective, point of the entire railway development throughout the great Northwest.

Discussing this subject the other day with an intelligent but somewhat enthusiastic commercial evangelist recently returned from here whom I’d met in the mountains of Kentucky, he said:

“You see, Duluth is bound to get the bulge on Chicago; She can’t help it. She has it now in some respects. She already leads Chicago five or six millions of bushels every year in the wheat trade and it will not be long before she will have the inside track in almost every other branch of traffic. Just clear out the obstructions and give her a fair sweep through the Soo Canal and then see her forge ahead. And why? Because she has the advantage of position. She not only has one of the finest harbors in the world, but she is the gateway between the East and all that vast territory stretching from the great Lakes to Puget Sound and like the darkey’s coon trap, she’s got to catch traffic both coming and going. She is located directly at the western terminus of deep water transportation on the shortest line of trade between the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards right on the quickest and best route to eastern Asia and Oceanica, from Kamschatka to Tasmania, to the furs of Alaska, the spices of India and the teas of far Cathay.

“It used to be said that all roads led to Rome, but the time is not far off when all roads will lead to Duluth. Nearly 17,000 miles of railway teem with their tremendous tide of traffic through her gates today, and will not be long until she will practically control the great railway systems of the entire northwest.

“The fact is, sir, Duluth is located not only on the right side of Bannings line but on the most direct route to every other commercial point in the country. Take a map of North America and a two-foot rule, and you will see that she is on a perfect airline from every other important place on the continent. The locating engineer of the great inter-continental railway from New York by way of Bering strait to St. Petersburg, which is only a question of time, couldn’t miss Duluth if he were to try. Why my dear sir, she is right on the shortest, in fact the only practical route to the north pole, where all the rich possibilities of Symme’s Hole wait the daring exploration of the future Columbus of our country, and I haven’t a doubt in the world that when Virgil penned the cheering words ‘sicitur ad astra,’ which the average sophomore reads with such supreme satisfaction upon the imaginary guideboard that points his way to an inevitable immortality, he meant that the high road to eternal glory would ultimately lead directly through the Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.

“When you spoke years ago of Duluth as the center of a series of concentric circles a hundred miles apart, and some of them as much as four thousand miles in diameter, you had but a vague conception of the pregnant truth you uttered under the thin guise of good-natured raillery. She is a center, permanently a center, of vast commercial circle, whose mighty radius will at no distant day not only sweep the fragrant savannas of the sunlit south, and the eternal solitudes of snow that mantle the ice-bound north, but reach remotest abodes of human civilization everywhere. That sublime circle was indeed primordial. It was preordained when the earth was fashioned, and its center was immutably fixed by the configuration of the continent.”

I scarcely need say, especially in this enlightened presence, that there is far more fact than fancy underlying the enthusiastic opinion of this intelligent knight-errant of traffic. If, indeed, he has foretold one-half the truth. Duluth has the advantage of position—an advantage of far more importance in those titanic contests for commercial supremacy, which not only make and unmake cities but shape the destinies of nations, than in tremendous battles between mighty armies. It is located at least 300 miles nearer the inexhaustible treasure houses of the most extensive and richly endowed mineral and agricultural regions of the vast Northwest and the Pacific coast than any other port to be found on any of the other mighty links in our great chain of inland oceans.

That fact alone secures her future commercial supremacy and indicates with unerring accuracy her ultimate grandeur and power. It requires no gift of prophetic vision to foresee such a destiny. It may be anticipated by the commonest intelligence as surely as the rising of to-marrow’s sun. The growth of cities is not the result of magic, but of the immutable law of cause and effect; just as the rich, ripe harvest is the product of a generous soil, prudent planting and careful culture. The tendency of the great bulk of the heavier commodities of commerce to seek commodious water transportation at the nearest practical point, and to adhere to it as far as it is available, is as natural and as inevitable as for water to seek its level. The inflow of population and the rapid development of the vast agricultural and mineral regions lying between Lake Superior and the Pacific ocean which have followed the completion of the Northern Pacific and the Canadian Pacific systems and other enterprises of a similar character, are unprecedented in the annals of modern migrations. The nearest point at which the enormous eastern-bound commerce which has resulted from this tremendous movement, could find deep water transportation, and the farthest to which the returning tide could be borne by the same means as here at the stern extremity of Lake Superior.

That fact fixed the site and settled the supremacy of the future city. The advantage of position was recognized years ago by sagacious, clearheaded, quick-sighted men who could see a five cent piece farther with the naked eye than men like myself could see the full moon with a telescope. They came with their capital and their energy, and when the time was ripe for the gigantic birth, Duluth sprang from its granite bed, a young Titan, full panoplied for the grandest commercial contest of the ages. In less than a single decade its population has been multiplied more than eleven fold, its banking capital has grown from fifty thousand to more than three million dollars, its taxable valuation has increased from a little over six hundred thousand to twenty-three millions, its commerce has reached almost fabulous proportions, and its multitude of magnificent public and private buildings have reared their splendid fronts along the sterile and rock-bound shores, as if called into being under the potent spell of some mighty enchanter. Yet, as I have said, there has been no magic in all this, The only genii that have been employed in this wondrous transformation are sagacity, energy, and courage.

The same invincible agencies are still at work; the same auspicious circumstances still exist; the same causes which produced the unprecedented prosperity of your city during the past ten years, are still in operation, and will continue. to be, with constantly increasing activity and force, and with corresponding results, for ages and ages to come. Who, therefore, that is willing to assume her almost unrivaled career with the past decade just as criterion by which to determine the probabilities of her future destiny, can entertain a doubt that the time must come when Duluth will outvie even her great and powerful neighbor on the other lake in all the elements of material greatness and grandeur? Who, indeed, with a just appreciation of the facts to which I have alluded, will say that it is beyond the range of a reasonable probability that she may scow herself the successful rival of Chicago in all respects, even before the present generation shall have passed away?

That rivalry, however, I am sure will be of the most generous and friendly nature. This mighty wonderland of yours will never fail to furnish enough, and more than enough, for the unlimited prosperity of both, and may God speed them both in their grand careers!

It remains for me now to tender to the people of Duluth the grateful acknowledgement of myself and the friends who have done me the honor to accompany me here, for the cordiality with which we have been received and the prodigal hospitality with which we have been entertained, during our, brief but delightful sojourn in their midst. To do so in fitting terms, however far transcends the power of any poor words of mine. Leaving you with hearts brimming with the kindest emotions of friendship and gratitude I can only say for them and myself—we thank you and may God bless you!