Duluth’s Coal Docks

Duluth’s Clarkson Coal Dock along the east side of Rice’s Point, ca. 1915. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Duluth received its first cargo of coal in June 1871, much to the confusion of local residents. Why, they asked themselves, would anyone in Duluth need coal for fuel—after all, you could cut all the firewood you want for free, or pay someone just a few dollars for an entire winter’s supply.

Officials from the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company didn’t see it that way when they sent that first shipment of coal from its deposits in Pennsylvania. They were thinking about the arrival of Jay Cooke’s Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad and the sprouting of commercial buildings in Duluth and indeed the entire region: coal would drive the locomotives and heat those buildings. Soon Duluth was supplying coal, most of it a high-sulfur grade mined in Pennsylvania and Ohio, to Minneapolis, St. Paul, and cities in at least seven other states.

Jack Lewis received the first contract for unloading coal in the Zenith City. Lewis had no modern machinery, and his crew shoveled coal from the ships’ holds into baskets, which were hoisted to a tramway by horse, where their load was transferred to wheelbarrows. Later giant cranes were used to unload the ore boats. Eventually steam replaced horsepower, and bigger baskets were employed. Between 8,000 and 20,000 tons were shipped to Duluth that first year.

In 1875 Northwestern Fuel built Duluth’s first dedicated coal dock; it remained Duluth’s only coal company until 1881, bringing in 60,000 tons of coal for use in the Twin Ports in 1880. Eventually, a system of giant coal docks and their support machinery lined the waterfront from Rice’s Point to Seventh Avenue West; another cluster of docks later rose around Grassy Point between Fiftieth and Fifty-Sixth Avenues West. Beginning in 1881 docks were built for use by the Lake Superior Coal and Iron Company, New Pittsburgh, Clarkston Coal, Ohio Central Coal, St. Paul & Pacific Coal and Iron, Pioneer Coal, Little and Company, and Lehigh Coal. In 1886 over 735,000 tons were brought to the Twin Ports for use in homes and businesses in Duluth and Superior—and that doesn’t include coal loaded onto rail for other destinations.

As the century turned, Duluth received more than 2.5 million tons of coal; ten years later, 8.3 million tons. By 1921 Duluth alone was home to twenty-two coal docks with the capacity of 11,305,000 tons of coal. Dozens of coal docks operated out of Superior as well. Coal shipments hit their peak just two years later when 12.6 million tons passed through the Duluth-Superior Harbor. At this time the coal industry provided 3,600 full-time jobs, 5,000 during peak periods.

As people and businesses turned to cleaner-burning oil and gas to heat their homes and offices, the demand for coal dropped dramatically. Half as much coal passed through the Twin Ports in 1936 than did in 1923; by 1972 tonnage had dropped below 100,000. Then the market reversed. Montana and Wyoming began mining cleaner-burning low-sulfur coal in the 1970s. Instead of loading it from ships onto trains bound elsewhere, Duluth’s coal now arrived on trains from the west and was loaded onto ships bound for the east—and beyond. The first load shipped out of Duluth in 1973, aboard the British ship Gloxinia, bound for Scotland. Duluth has no more coal docks, and Superior’s Midwest Energy Resources is the only functioning coal dock in the Twin Ports.