Oneota Elementary

A sketch of Onetoa School ca. 1888. [Image: Zenith City Press]

4420 West 1st Street | Architect: Oliver G. Traphagen | Built: 1888 | Lost: 1973

Oneota Elementary was constructed to replace the Oneota Town School, which had been built in 1857 at 4300 Oneota Street (pictured on page 3). The town of Oneota was just a year old when its citizens built their first schoolhouse to teach the children of the founding Merritt, Ely, and Wheeler families. The one-room, wood-frame building was constructed with lumber milled at Henry Wheeler’s sawmill—considered the first in what is now Duluth—and Jerome Merritt first performed teaching duties within its walls. Four of his pupils were his brothers. The small, rustic building had few windows, its single door faced the bay, and historic photos indicate it may not ever have been painted. It had no furnace, electricity, or plumbing, but it did have a belfry. Early Oneota residents noted that the bell rang for school classes and Methodist church services, which were held in the building until 1869. The Oneota Town Council also met at the school. No records indicate when the building was demolished; the building’s site is now an empty lot adjacent to an industrial park south of Interstate 35.

The 1888 Oneota Elementary School, a three-story Romanesque Revival building constructed of red brick and trimmed with locally quarried brownstone, featured a tall, square tower with a pyramidal cap and a smaller, round tower crowned by a conical or “witch’s hat” roof; both were adorned with iron finials that served as lightning arrestors. The new school was one of the first projects Oliver Traphagen would work on independently, marking the beginning of his transition from George Wirth’s building superintendent into the Zenith City’s most popular architect.

The school held six classrooms, three on each floor, when it opened for students on November 26, 1888. Built by
the newly incorporated Village of West Duluth, it became part of the Duluth School District in 1894 after Duluth annexed West Duluth. Just as the Oneota Village Council had done with the first Oneota School, the West Duluth Village Council met in Oneota School until its village hall—also designed by Traphagen—was erected in 1887. In 1901 a seventh classroom was added to better fit the school’s 159 students. It closed in 1946 and was thereafter used by the school district for storage. By then its towers had been removed and several of its window openings bricked over. In 1973 the school was demolished to make room for an industrial park; an annex for Essentia Health now occupies its site.

The 1888 Oneota Elementary School photographed by Hugh McKenzie ca. 1946. [Image: UMD Martin Library]