Digging the Duluth Ship Canal

The Ishpeming, which cut the Duluth ship canal in the fall of 1870 and spring of 1871. (image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

When Jay Cooke was deciding in which city to terminate his railroad at the Head of the Lakes, Superiorites had campaigned aggressively to get the LS&M to come to their city—at one time even suggesting that Cooke drop the word “Lake” from the railroad’s name. In 1867 Superior’s backers sent a letter to LS&M president William Banning “circulating rumors that it is not possible to find room on the North Shore either on the lake or bays, to build a railroad, lay out and build a town, or do any kind of commercial business.” When Cooke chose Duluth over Superior, many Superiorites felt that the Philadelphia financier had snubbed their town.

Cooke’s railroads and his other projects indeed brought prosperity to Duluth. But slighted Superior still had one great advantage over the Minnesota city: the Superior Entry kept the majority of region’s fledgling industries on the Wisconsin side of the bay. A canal in Duluth would change everything—and Superior would do all it could to stop its construction.
The Duluth Common Council determined the canal through Minnesota Point along Onigamminsing/Portage Street would be 150 feet wide and 16 feet deep and protected by piers on each side stretching 18 feet into the lake. The council hired W. W. Williams & Co., who sent a fleet of steam-powered dredging barges to Duluth to both cut the canal and deepen the natural harbor. That summer Cooke’s Northern Pacific Railroad began constructing docks, wharves, and a rail line on the swampy land between Minnesota Point and Rice’s Point north of the canal site, creating a massive commercial district.

Major John Upham took the controls of the steam dredger Ishpeming, whose shovel took its first bite out of Minnesota Point on September 5, 1870. The dredger chewed up sand and gravel until mid-November, when the ground had frozen. The Ishpeming  returned to work on April 24, 1871, digging continuously during daylight hours until Saturday, April 29. By then she had cut a swath thirty feet wide and eight feet deep to within a few feet of the lake side when, as the Duluth Minnesotian reported, her shovel struck a vein of impenetrably frozen gravel. A group of “determined” men quickly assembled and with “shovels and picks and drills and powder (two kegs)” they scooped, smashed, bored, and blasted through the rock, allowing the Ishpeming to continue her work. At 1 p.m. that day the first cut was complete, connecting the lake and river within Duluth’s borders—or, in the words of the often-verbose Dr. Foster, “the union of the waters became forthwith an accomplished fact.”

Foster’s paper reported that the waters of the Bay, a few inches higher and a few degrees warmer than the lake’s waters, cut and thawed through the ditch. The next morning, Sunday, April 30, a channel five feet deep and twenty wide flowed with a six-mile-an-hour current from the bayside into the lake. That afternoon the small steamer ferry-tug Frank C. Fero, piloted by Captain George W. Sherwood, became the first vessel to navigate the canal. The Ishpeming returned to work the next day, and kept cutting throughout the summer, making the canal deeper and wider to accommodate large commercial vessels.

Foster didn’t report the news of the completion of the canal’s initial cut until May 6. Seth Wilbur Payne’s Morning Call scooped him as the first newspaper to report the completion of the canal, at the same time bemoaning the lack of pomp and circumstance surrounding the event: “An event occurred yesterday of greater importance than would have been the commencement of the [Northern Pacific] docks. We refer to the opening of the canal across Minnesota Point. Why did not our capitalists and real estate criers not show their love for Duluth by some appropriate public demonstration?” Payne was right about the importance of the canal: Once the canal and NP facilities were complete, the only thing barring the way of Duluth’s future as the premier city at the Head of the Lakes was its neighbor across the bay—and Superior’s citizens were not happy about the canal. On April 24, 1871, village attorneys filed for an injunction against Duluth and the dredging company to “be enjoined and restrained from constructing said canal,” setting off a seven-year legal battle.