A Brief History of Superior, Wisconsin

This lithograph by John Bachmann, a copy of a painting by Eastman Johnson, was published by P. S. Duval & Sons of Philadelphia in 1857 and depicts the view of the fledgling village of Superior, Wisconsin, in November 1856 as seen from George Stuntz’s dock on Minnesota Point. The paddle wheeler shown is the Lady Elgin, which carried many pioneers of Superior and Duluth to the Head of the Lakes. [Image: Library of Congress]

While the French referred to Lake Superior’s far-western end as Fond du Lac (Bottom of the Lake), English-speaking explorers had an entirely different perspective. They called it the Head of the Lakes, a phrase later used to collectively identify Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin. The position of those communities on the opposite banks of the St. Louis River has tied them together physically, economically, and culturally; if not for the state line between them, Duluth and Superior would certainly have become one city. Consequently, their histories are profoundly intertwined.

In 1854 droves of immigrants began arriving at the Head of the Lakes, most from Michigan, Ohio, and New York, many aboard Great Lakes steamships that passed through the Soo locks. That year government surveyor George Riley Stuntz, who also operated a trading post at the far southern end of Minnesota Point, and others cut the Military Road from the convergence of the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers to the St. Louis River dalles. In September speculators incorporated the Village of Superior, platting it between the Nemadji River and Conner’s Point along the shore of Allouez Bay behind both Wisconsin and Minnesota Points. Soon thereafter the Military Road was extended to Superior, and more immigrants began arriving by way of the road that winter, when frozen mud made for easier travel. The quickly built path was so rough that early resident Edmund Ely advised, “if you love your family, do not attempt to bring them over the Military Road.”

By the time a census was taken in April 1855, Superior was home to 385 people—291 men and boys and 93 women and girls including Pennsylvanians, New Englanders, and 64 “foreign-born.” Those immigrants came from over a dozen countries, primarily Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany. Two years later the population had jumped to 585, including 329 men, 119 women, and 137 children. They called their village Superior City.

While Duluth first began booming in the late 1860s, Superior remained relatively stagnant, adding just 310 people between 1860 and 1870, which brought the population to 1,122 when Duluth had eclipsed 3000. A quarter of those Superiorites fled when the Panic of 1873 struck, and by 1880 just 655 people, including some Ojibwe families, lived in Douglas County.

Statistician Frank Flower later wrote that in the 1870s, “excitement, even of local character, [had] died out in Superior. Indeed, we may almost say that she was dead, and the grass growing over her grave. The great mystery to outsiders…was how the people managed to survive.”

Hope for a better future arrived in Superior when the reorganized Northern Pacific Railroad (NP) began expanding eastward in 1881. It ran a line from Carlton, Minnesota—where the NP converged with the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad—into Superior following the path of Newton Avenue (Twenty-Fifth Avenue East today) to the Bay of Superior, where it connected with track that hugged the shoreline beyond the village limits to the western end of Conner’s Point. As it did for Duluth, the railroad helped Superior boom. When the NP began service to and from Superior in 1882, the county’s population had already climbed to 2,500.

An 1883 perspective map of Superior, Wisconsin, by Henry Wellge. (Image: Zenith City Press)

In 1883, encouraged by the railroad construction, General John H. Hammond, Robert Belknap, and others established the Village of West Superior immediately adjacent to Superior at Conner’s Point, where it spread south along Superior’s western border and west along the St. Louis River. The investors’ Land and River Improvement Company began developing the village, laying out streets and constructing commercial buildings.

Hammond, who recognized that the shores along Duluth’s side of the river would soon be filled to capacity with industry, began luring new and expanding ventures to Superior, investing in many businesses himself. Soon West Superior hummed with industry of its own—coal docks, grain elevators, and lumber mills, all made possible by Hammond and Belknap.

(While Hammond’s name is remembered in Superior thanks to Hammond Avenue, his grandson became much more famous. Music producer and civil-rights activist John Hammond III is known for discovering such talents as Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and a shaggy-haired Duluth kid named Zimmerman who turned himself into Bob Dylan.)

The Village of Superior did not stand idly by and watch. it also bustled with similar construction projects along the shoreline, including something West Superior didn’t have: flour mills. Many of Superior’s enterprises were organized by citizens of both sides of the bay. In 1885 St. Paul “Empire Builder” James J. Hill’s Eastern Railway Company of Minnesota, predecessor to the Great Northern Railroad, built tracks to Superior as well.

By 1887 Superior was bigger than it had ever been, boasting 3,353 residents, and West Superior was estimated to house 3,000 more. On March 25, 1889, the Village of Superior (also known as Superior City) and the Village of West Superior joined to become the City of Superior. The following year’s census recorded its population at 11,983, an increase of over 1,700 percent in ten years. The city also had a new nickname: “The Eye of the Northwest,” coined by Superior statistician and historian Frank A. Flower. (it didn’t catch on.)

A perspective map of Superior, Wisconsin, in 1890. (Image: Library of Congress)

Ten year’s later Superior’s population had grown to over 31,091 people, making it the second largest city in Wisconsin. Superior was growing in stride with Duluth as the same industries served both cities. In 1910 it held on to its title as Wisconsin’s Second City with total of 40,384 people, an increase of 30 percent. But by 1940 the population had dropped to just over 35,000 due in part to the Great Depression.

As America entered World War II began, Minnesota’s Iron Range mines pulled ore from the earth as fast as they could, ore docks in Superior, Duluth, and Two Harbors set records loading boats with iron ore that made the steel that built bombs and tanks and ships, some right here in the Twin Ports. Shipbuilding facilities on both sides of St. Louis Bay employed over ten thousand men and women, averaging ten ships a month while producing a fleet of 230 vessels. Superior’s Butler Shipyards beat them all, producing seven cargo carriers, twelve frigates, and thirteen coastal freighters.

As the 1950s began Superior’s population remained stagnant as a .5 percent gain brought the Wisconsin city to 35,325 souls. But by then the rust was beginning to show on both sides of the St. Louis. The growing highway system reduced train and shipping traffic in the Twin Ports, and soon giant warehouses in both cities stood vacant. Marginal businesses failed, and even successful operations fell prey to larger companies who bought up competitors and closed down factories to consolidate production. Meanwhile, fluctuating iron-ore demand kept the region unstable and invasive species all but eliminated commercial fishing. Similar scenarios played out in other industrialized communities established along the Great Lakes. The Head of the Lakes was becoming the buckle of the Rust Belt.

By 1960 Superior’s population had declined 5 percent to 33,563, forcing it to close some public schools. As the city’s Northern Brewery, established in the 19890s, shuttered its doors in 1968, the city that surrounded it was in the midst of losing an- other 4 percent of its population, which dropped to 32,237 in 1970.

While Superior dropped another 8 percent in the 1980 census and thereafter stabilized at roughly 27,000 citizens. The 2020 census shows that population again in decline, dropping to 25,716

Superior, Wisconsin, Populations Since 1855

  • 1854: The Village of Superior established
  • 1855 = 385
  • 1857 = 585
  • 1860 = 812 (All of Douglas County
  • 1870 = 1,122
  • 1880 = 655 (All of Douglas County)
  • 1883: The Village of West Superior established
  • 1887 = 3,353 in Village of Superior
  • 1887 = 3,000 in Village of West Duluth
  • 1889: City of Superior established
  • 1890 = 11,983
  • 1900 = 31,091
  • 1910 = 40,384
  • 1920 = 39,671
  • 1930 = 36,133
  • 1940 = 35,136
  • 1950 = 35,325
  • 1960 = 33,563
  • 1970 = 32,237
  • 1980 = 29,571
  • 1990 = 27,134
  • 2000 = 27,368
  • 2010 = 27,244
  • 2020 = 25,716