“Fort Corcoran” (Water Reservoir Ruins)

The ruins of Duluth’s first water reservoir, aka “Fort Corcoran,” photographed in 2012. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Above First Street near Duluth’s Point of Rocks stands a ruin of a 19th-century structure once nicknamed “Fort Corcoran.”

The ruins, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues west, are the remains of Duluth’s first water reservoir, built over a natural spring from which eight barrels of water flowed every day.

The reservoir was constructed in 1884 by the privately owned Duluth Gas & Water Company when the area was known as “The Glenn” and populated mostly by French immigrants, who built St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church at Eleventh Avenue West and Superior Street in 1885.

(The church later became the first St. Peter’s Catholic Church after French Catholics built a second Jean Baptiste in the West End and the Glenn became known as the lower portion of “Little Italy;” it was torn down in 1925 when parishioners built a new, stone St. Peter’s at 818 West Third Street.)

In 1898 the city acquired the reservoir as it began constructing its present water system, which draws fresh water from Lake Superior at the Lakewood Pumping Station and delivers it to reservoirs throughout much of the city. (The far western portion of the city is supplied through Artesian wells.) The city did not incorporate the 1884 facility into its new system. A Duluth News Tribune story on August 12, 1940, states that “there is no written information available concerning the use of the reservoir.” At one point the facility was used to grow mushrooms, an enterprise that failed. At some point its original flat wooden roof was reportedly destroyed by fire.

In 1909 the property was sold to J. M. Corcoran and became known to locals as “Fort Corcoran.” Corocoran was born in Ireland in 1875. He had previously lived in Hibbing and is listed as a widower in the 1910 census. He made his home at 118 East Superior Street prior to purchasing the reservoir.

A photo of “Fort Corcoran” from the May 7, 1910 Duluth Evening Herald. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Corcoran described himself as “a dealer in everything that lives” and planned to convert the reservoir into a “miniature Noah’s Ark” where he would breed birds, “fancy dogs,” pedigree cats and “many other things that purr, bark, scratch or bite.” An article on his business in the May 7, 1910 Duluth Evening Herald called it the “strangest industry Duluth boasts of.”

His plans for the building included a roller rink on the second floor—after he built the second floor. Bui he was also considering turning that space into “thirty-two commodious rooms for lodgers.” He would locate the kitchen above the spring so the structure would have its own water supply. He even toyed with the idea of adding a third floor for more lodgers.

While he never did develop his grand plans for a hotel and/or roller rink, Corcoran did have an opening cut in the reservoir for a doorway and built a set of wooden stairs leading to it from First Street. Workers had to burrow through more than 14 feet of solid rock to make the entrance. He also put on a new roof in 1909.

Duluth city directories’ business index in 1910, 1911, and 1912 listed under the heading “Birds & Animals” at 101 West First Street, the location of the reservoir. In the newspaper classifieds, his ad read “Live birds and animals; anything that lives can be obtained by calling or writing the Duluth Bird Store. J. M. Corcoran, 1013-1015 West First Street.” Another ad called him “The Birdman.”

The classified advertisements, and our research trail on Mr. Corcoran, goes cold after 1912.


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