Ensign House

The 1884 Ensign House ca. 1887, photographer unknown. [Image: Duluth Public Library]

504 East 2nd Street | Architect: McMillen & Stebbins | Built: 1884 | Lost: 1933

The house built for Josiah Davis Ensign and his second wife Rose was one of the first opulent homes built in what would be called Ashtabula Heights for its many residents with connections to Ashtabula County, Ohio, along Lake Erie. Designed by architects Charles McMillen and Edward Stebbins, the Ensign home stood at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue East and Second Street, one of many Queen Anne Victorian stick structures that graced the tony neighborhood. The Ensign house featured a round turret with a conical roof, a third-story balcony, patterned brick chimneys, and windows topped with pointed pedimental hoods. The home’s grand entry pavilion was supported by columns with ornate capitals and its gable end featured an ornately carved entablature.

A native of New York, Ensign grew up in Ashtabula, passed the Ohio bar exam, and spent six years as Ashtabula County’s clerk of court. He married Catharine Jones and the couple had two daughters, Julia and Mary. But Catharine developed an illness in 1866, which brought them to Rochester, Minnesota, in search of a cure. The family made Rochester their permanent home in 1868, the year Catharine died. Business brought Ensign to Duluth in 1869 wearing “a light-colored coat and a low-crowned, broad-brimmed leghorn hat,” according to Duluth News Tribune founder Robert C. Mitchell. The case went on for a year, during which the nascent city charmed Ensign; he and his daughters moved to Duluth in 1870, the same year he was first elected St. Louis County attorney. Two years later he married Michigander Rose Watrous, who had many Ashtabula connections.

Ensign was instrumental in Duluth’s legal battle over the Duluth Ship Canal, which lasted from 1871 to 1877. His 1898 history of the Duluth Harbor development in the 1860s and 1870s is the seminal work on the topic. Ensign served as the president and then mayor of the Village of Duluth from 1880 to 1882 and was again elected mayor in 1884. He also served as St. Louis County attorney and spent from 1889 to 1921 as a district court judge.

Ensign served as Duluth’s first “juvenile judge,” and Ensign Elementary school in Piedmont Heights was named for him in recognition of his years on the school board. President William Howard Taft, after an encounter with Ensign, told friends, “It was worth crossing the continent to meet him.”

The Ensigns moved to 2244 Woodland Avenue in 1921. Josiah died in 1923, and Rose a year later. By the late 1920s, their 1884 home had become a boarding house operated by Frank P. Walter. The house was demolished to make room for Miller Memorial Hospital.