Legal Battle of the Duluth Ship Canal

The very day the Ishpeming had resumed dredging, April 24, 1871, the U.S. Attorney General’s office filed for an injunction against the city of the Duluth and W. W. Williams & Co. It claimed that unless the dredging ended or a dike was built between Minnesota Point and Rice’s Point, the current of the St. Louis River would be diverted; the silt carried by the river would deposit at Superior Entry, rendering navigation through the entry impossible. The suit asked that the defendants “be enjoined and restrained from constructing said canal.”

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Freeman Miller allowed the canal construction to continue on the condition that Duluth build the dike, and that if the dike is constructed to the government’s specifications, the injunction “may be modified or dissolved.” The injunction was served on June 13, 1871. Pleading a lack of finances, Duluth city attorney James Egan convinced the U.S. attorney general to not only dissolve the injunction, but for the federal government to issue the city a $100,000 bond to build the dike. Meanwhile, Cooke’s Northern Pacific Railroad began constructing more harbor infrastructure. By winter it was building docks on Rice’s Point and along the shoreline inside the bay and had also arranged with the city to help pay to complete the canal and widen it to 250 feet. The NP would also help construct the dike to satisfy the injunction’s dissolution.

The dike proved a problem from the start, for both Duluth and Superior. The structure, designed with no gates, blocked shipping traffic between the towns. Feeling the barrier would be temporary, Duluth took construction shortcuts that essentially rendered the dike useless. Wisconsinites were divided: Its governor warned that Duluth must build a better dike or fill in its canal while Superiorites wanted the dike gone so they could conduct business in Duluth. In 1872 Wisconsin’s new governor, Cadwallader Washburn, called on the federal government to either close the canal, replace the dike with another located closer to the canal that would provide greater access to the bay, or rebuild the damaged dike to include gates.

By April a ten-foot wide rock-and-timber dike stretched 4,490 feet from Rice’s Point toward Minnesota Point. A rail line sat atop the dike, not for passage but to carry material to fill the cribs and secure the dike. The work was dangerous. The Minnesotian reported that one laborer had been severely injured when another accidentally struck him with an axe, and another had been thrown to the tracks from one of the gravel train’s dump cars, where “eleven cars passed over him, killing him instantly.” The paper blamed the death on “the men or jealous rivals who made that unnecessary Dyke [sic] a necessity.”  Saboteurs also tried to stop the dike. On May 4, 1872, the Minnesotian reported an unsuccessful attempt by “sacrilegious scamps” to blow a hole in the dike. The newspaper taunted the attackers: “Children! Babes! When you come again with your powder in tin tubes, with your water-proof fuse inserted at the middle, bury it deep in the centre [sic] of the Dyke [sic] and then stand on top and touch it off….”

The dike that stretched from Rice’s Point to Minnesota Point in the 1870s, created to resolve a legal dispute between Duluth and Superior over the digging of the Duluth Ship Canal. (Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

Despite these incidents, work continued until June of that year, but it was never completed. Further, the bay’s depth varied greatly, and the dike began settling in deeper waters. After a July storm, the receding waters created a current the dike couldn’t handle, and it broke near Minnesota Point. Knowing that their Wisconsin neighbors would take their failed injunction to a higher court, Duluth decided to invest no more time or labor—or money—into the dike.

That’s when the NP stepped in to end the dike debacle. The railroad said that if Wisconsin would abandon its efforts to force Duluth to build a dike, the NP would extend its rail line from Rice’s Point to Conner’s Point in Superior and run it along the shoreline to the mouth of the Nemadji River and to connect the railroad to future wharves and docks. Northern Pacific would even build a bridge between the points and a grain elevator in Superior. The railroad’s intention was to “place Duluth and Superior on equal footing as to leave the commercial world to elect for itself where to do business without any discrimination in favor of either place, delivering passengers and freight both at Superior and Duluth.” Both sides agreed to the resolution. It looked like the towns had found a way to come together. The St. Louis River had already demonstrated that it was folly to try to keep them apart.

In the fall of 1873 Jay Cooke himself ran out of money, setting off the Panic of 1873, an economic depression that would last nearly a decode. Almost all industry in Duluth came to a screeching halt. Still, thanks to the railroad infrastructure, in 1874 290 commercial ships arrived at Duluth, while not a single vessel passed through the Superior Entry, giving Superiorites good reason to feel that the lack of rail cost them commerce. In the wake of the panic, the NP didn’t have the money to keep its promise to Superior. In December 1874, Superior and the state of Wisconsin filed complaints against Duluth and the NP demanding that they fill in the canal to “restore the current of [the St. Louis] river to its accustomed and natural channel.” Duluth would argue that federal funds had been used to improve the canal and build its wooden piers—why would the government order the destruction of infrastructure it had paid for? But extensions and other issues delayed the lawsuit for several years.

The U.S. Supreme Court finally heard the complaint in October 1877. Unexpectedly, Wisconsin dismissed the NP as a defendant. Then Associate Justice S. F. Miller—whose 1871 decision called for the dike’s construction—surprised everyone with his decision: He couldn’t care less about the St. Louis River’s current. He considered the very points of contention Wisconsin and Duluth had argued over for seven years “immaterial.” All that mattered to him was that the federal government had not only approved of the canal’s construction, but by virtue of its financial investments in it had also “taken possession and control of the work” on it. And just like that, the legal battle ended—and the federal government had taken ownership of the canal.