Duluth’s Historic Outer Harbor

A detail from an idealized 1883 birds-eye perspective map of Duluth by Henry Wellge showing Duluth’s lost outer harbor. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The northwest corner of Lake Superior wasn’t always the tourist-welcoming center of Duluth it is today, but was once a working harbor and certainly not the part of town you’d spend time skipping stones during a family vacation.

Superior Entry, the only natural inlet from Lake Superior to St. Louis Bay, lies between Minnesota and Wisconsin Points seven miles south of where the town of Duluth was established in 1856. So before the Duluth Ship Canal was dug in 1871, allowing entry to the bay through Duluth, the town developed an outer harbor to receive commercial shipping traffic. Development of an out harbor at the northwest corner of Lake Superior began modestly in 1856, when Sidney Luce built a warehouse and dock at what was then the southeast corner of Portland townsite, where Third Avenue East meets Lake Superior. Luce’s warehouse stood three-stories tall, with half its foundation carved into rock on one side and the other perched atop cribbing submerged in the lake on the other. It had one window, and the Luce family lived on the top floor. Until the late 1860s, it was one of only a few buildings in what would become Duluth.

The Financial Panic of 1857 and the Civil War restricted development at the Head of the Lakes until 1869, when Jay Cooke chose to terminate his Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad in Duluth rather than Superior, Wisconsin, across the bay. The railroad built a freight depot, warehouse, and dock directly in front of Luce’s warehouse, which was removed a few years later. Cooke’s Union Improvement and Elevator Company purchased wood from Roger Munger’s sawmill on Lake Avenue to build Elevator A, a grain terminal that could hold 350,000 bushels of grain and came equipped with a steam-powered conveyance system. Cooke’s railroad brought grain from St. Paul (and later the Red River Valley between Minnesota and Dakota Territory) to Duluth and off-loaded it into Elevator A, which then loaded ships that carried it east along the Great Lakes.

The railroad also added docks along a timber-and-stone breakwater that protected vessels from Lake Superior’s often turbulent waters. The LS&M began operation in August, 1870, and the first shipment of grain—4,200 bushels of wheat—arrived at the LS&M freight dock on August 26. The next day,  the wheat began its journey east on the propeller steamer Winslow heading to Buffalo, New York—the first official shipment of grain from Duluth down the lakes. It was loaded from the dock using wheelbarrows, as  Elevator A would not be completed until nearly the end of September, but it wasn’t used until the following spring, when the steamer St. Paul took on its first load, 11,500 bushels of wheat, on May 30, 1871.

Three more grain elevators were later constructed adjacent to Elevator A.  The Lake Superior Elevator Company, owned by Munger and Clinton Markell (who had succeeded Culver as mayor) built Elevator No. 1at the foot of Second Avenue East in 1871. It burned in 1880 and was replaced by Elevator E, later renamed Elevator Q. Elevator D, a drying facility, was built behind Elevator A some time prior to 1886.

While Jay Cooke was investing in Duluth, Zenith City citizens stepped up as well. Duluth’s first mayor, J. B. Culver, financed the construction of Citizen’s Dock which reached into the lake from Morse Street, about two blocks south of the canal. Like the outer breakwater and docks along Elevator A, Citizen’s Dock was subjected to poundings by Lake Superior and was not a safe place for a vessel to tie up.

By June 1871 the outer breakwater had been extended to 950 feet and stood six feet above the waterline. A “great storm” on November 16, 1872, caused severe damage to the structure, leaving Elevator A, warehouses, and docks vulnerable. Workers had made repairs and added heavy stones to the breakwater’s exterior in an effort to fortify the structure. But by then the Duluth Ship Canal was in operation, allowing vessels to reach the safety of the bay without traveling more than a dozen extra miles to use the Superior Entry.

After the 1872 storm, Duluth spent no more time or money attempting to keep it in place. The canal was in full operation, and with access to the safety of the bay, the breakwater became more a burden than an asset. By the summer of 1873, traffic on the canal was in full swing and nearly all shipping commerce in Duluth had moved to the bay inside of Minnesota Point, rendering repair to the breakwater much less important. Lake Superior eventually claimed what remained of the breakwater.

The digging of the canal had rendered Citizen’s Dock unnecessary, and by 1880 it had been abandoned. The dock was reportedly destroyed in 1886, but was shown on insurance maps as late as 1902.

Early grain elevators were made of wood, and grain dust is highly combustible; elevators often went up in flames. Elevators A, D, and Q burned on November 27, 1886, taking with them about 500,000 bushels of grain and the lives of elevator foreman Edward Lee and fireman Charles Moore. The loss was so substantial it actually led to a rise in value of the Chicago grain market. The fire also consumed a saloon, a carriage factory, houses, and warehouses along the 400 block of East Superior Street.

The following year wheat from both burned elevators remained on the site, rotting away—and creating an awful smell. It was loaded onto barges dumped in Lake Superior. In January 1892, founders of the Duluth Curling Club used Elevator A’s foundation to build the club’s first rink, which was destroyed in a blizzard in March of the same year. With no grain elevator to serve, in 1890 the railroad leased its freight depot to Duluth Iron and Metal, a scrap iron business; the company continued to use the old depot until a fire on August 16, 1963, destroyed it.

In November 2006 a storm on Lake Superior washed up a large piece of wooden cribbing and left it beached at the corner of the lake. It is still there. It is most likely a remnant of some facility of the historic outer harbor: the LS&M docks, Elevator A’s dock, or the outer breakwater. The cribbing was examined by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society the following year, and you can read about their findings here.

The left half of Gilbert Munger’s 1871 oil painting of Duluth, showing Elevator A and the Breakwater (left) as well as a steam-powered sidewheeler tied up at Citizen’s Dock. (Image: Duluth Public Library)


Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.