U.S. Life Saving Station

The 1894 U.S. Life Saving Station ca. 1895, photographer unknown. [Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection]

Franklin Square, Park Point | George R. Tolman, Architect | Lost, ca. 1955

In the 1850s, Duluth’s town founders platted an Ojibwe cemetery on Minnesota Point as Franklin Square, and during the 1860s and 1870s, the burial site housed the graves of both Ojibwe and Euro-Americans. The bodies were moved to new cemeteries in the 1880s, and in 1894 the city deeded the public square to the federal government for the site of the Duluth Life Saving Station of the U.S. Life Saving Service. Federal architect George R. Tolman’s new design for the station, essentially a Dutch Colonial Revival with attached boat house and distinctive watch tower, soon became the standard model for U. S. life-saving stations built along the East Coast. It was called the Duluth style.

Donald McKenzie was appointed the station’s first keeper in 1895, with Captain Murdoch McLennan taking over in 1898 and serving until 1924. The station’s crew maintained a visual watch of Lake Superior and the Duluth harbor from the station’s tower and also by regularly walking the beach nearly seven miles to the southern end of the point. Always ready to launch their boats to assist any ship that appeared to be in trouble, crew members followed a regular schedule of daily practice exercises, including gun and beach apparatus practice on Mondays and Thursdays, boat practice on Tuesdays, signal practice on Wednesdays, and “resuscitation of the apparently drowned” on Fridays. During its first six years, the Duluth station assisted in sixty-five rescue operations, nearly eleven each year.

During the 1905 Mataafa Storm—which wrecked or damaged twenty-six vessels on Lake Superior, stranded seventeen others, and left thirty-three sailors dead—the crew successfully assisted the R. W. England, which beached along the point about two miles south of the ship canal. But waters were too rough to launch lifeboats to reach the crew of the Mataafa, which had split in half just a few hundred yards outside the ship canal after striking its north pier broadside. McLennan and his crew were forced to wait until the next day, and by then nine sailors trapped in the vessel’s aft section had frozen to death.

Between 1901 and 1915, the station was called on to assist only ten times. The following year the Life Saving Service merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Minnesota Point facility became the Duluth Lifeboat Station.

In 1953 the Coast Guard moved into a new facility adjacent to Franklin Square. Ownership of Franklin Square reverted to the City of Duluth, which demolished the old lifeboat station in 1955. The city then connected Lake Avenue South to Minnesota Avenue, creating Minnesota Point’s “S-Curve”—a roadway slicing through the middle of the park to improve traffic flow. Since the early 1970s, the square has been known as the Franklin Tot Lot.