Rebuilding the Ship Canal & Its Piers, 1896-1902

The south pier of the Duluth Ship Canal in the mid 1890s, just before this old wooden pier was removed, the canal widened, and new concrete piers were built between 1896 and 1902. (Image: Lake Superior maritime Collection)

While Duluth officials had been stymied in its efforts to bridge the canal, the city was actually fortunate it did not build a bridge prior to 1898, when the canal was widened: Thereafter, any bridge would have been too short to span the canal, and a tunnel would have been in the way of new piers.

By the early 1890s, Duluth’s canal and harbor needed major improvements: The old fourteen-foot deep channel wasn’t up to par, not since the locks at Sault Ste. Marie (or “The Soo”) on the other end of the lake were enlarged back in 1881. And the iron ore industry had finally arrived in Duluth by way of mines on the Merritt brothers’ newly opened Mesaba Iron Range, creating more shipping traffic through Duluth. But the canal’s and the harbor’s shallow depth prevented bigger ships from carrying larger, more profitable loads.

Plans for the new piers of the Duluth Ship Canal. [image: LSMC]

So in 1893 Duluth’s Captain Alexander McDougall—inventor of the Whaleback Steamer, which revolutionized the Great Lakes shipping industry—went to work organizing the Duluth-Superior Harbor Improvement Committee, whose first task would be to petition Congress for funds. In 1896 Congress “appropriated $3 million . . . to make Duluth-Superior harbor the most modern in America.” The project called for twenty- foot channels throughout the bay, a connecting channel between the Duluth Bay and the Superior Bay, and an “immense anchorage basin” behind Park Point. Both the Superior Entry and the Duluth Ship Canal would receive new concrete piers. The appropriation also brought Duluth and Superior together: On June 3, 1896, the same act of Congress that appropriated the funds declared that “the harbors of Duluth and Superior [are] united.” The two separate towns—once bitter rivals—had come together; in 1910 the two cities became known collectively as the Twin Ports.

Plans drawn up in 1896 called for a major renovation of the canal. It would be widened to 300 feet and stretched 400 feet to a total length of 1,600 feet. Substantial concrete structures would replace the rickety, crooked wooden piers that lined the canal. The work would take almost a thousand men and seven years to complete.

The steam dredge Old Hickory set to work making the canal deeper and wider: It had to cut another one hundred foot swath out of Minnesota Point, dig a trench twenty-four feet deep where cribbing would be set atop wooden pilings to support the new piers, and clear the rest of the canal to a depth of twenty feet. To widen the canal, dredging would take place south of the south pier; the old wooden pier would remain in place until the new one was completed. While engaged in this digging, Old Hickory hit a submerged obstacle: the wreck of the two-hundred-foot, three-masted sailing schooner Guido Pfister, which had stranded on the point adjacent to the canal in 1885; it was then abandoned and sunk. Engineers used dynamite to extract the wreckage.

As the Old Hickory dredged the canal deeper and wider, contractors began driving more than 5,100 wooden pilings, made of fifty-foot Norway pines, into the lake bottom every four feet; these pilings were later cut to a uniform level at twenty-four feet below the waterline. Workers then set cribbing on top of the pilings. Each crib, assembled at various places around the harbor, measured twenty-four feet wide, one hundred feet long, and twenty-two feet tall. Constructed of twelve-inch square pine beams, each crib featured a one-inch band of iron across the top to prevent ice from damaging the wood. Contractors assembled sixteen cribs for each pier. Each was towed into place, aligned, and sunk onto the pilings with the weight of stones. Once properly aligned, the pier had a solid foundation one foot below the waterline. Engineers then sank nine thousand tons of rip-rap stone along the base of the new piers to prevent erosion.

Click to see a larger version of this image

Steam derricks placed concrete footing blocks atop the cribbing. After the footings were aligned, huge monolith concrete blocks— which would form the canal’s deck and parapet walls—were set atop them. Unlike the footings, these blocks, which measured ten by eighteen feet and weighed fourteen thousand pounds each, were molded and cast on site by “large gangs of men working around the clock.” These men, mostly Swedish and Finnish immigrants, received two dollars a day for their efforts. Thousands of tons of concrete were used to make the 334 monoliths used in the piers, 1,200 barrels of Portland cement for the South Pier alone. A center channel along the bottom of each monolith was left with a half-circle opening. When set in place, this opening formed a tunnel. A pulley-and-cable driven rail system was installed so that lighthouse keepers could reach their posts during treacherous conditions that would make walking atop the piers highly dangerous. Unfortunately, during storms the tunnel itself became half filled with water; it was little used for decades and later filled in as a safety measure. (With the old wooden pier, lighthouse keepers reached the South Pier Light by walking over a trestle walkway, so the keeper could reach the light even when the pier was submerged by large waves.)

Work began on the South Pier in 1898 and was completed in 1900. New South Breakwater and Rear Range Lights sat atop the South Pier by September of 1901. In 1902 workers finished the North Pier. Not once did the reconstruction of the canal interrupt shipping. The new century was still young, and Duluth had a brand new canal that would serve it far into the foreseeable future. But on the other side, Park Pointers still had no safe, reliable means of crossing the canal.

Detail of a photograph of the Duluth Ship Canal, Duluth, Minnesota, by W.H. Jackson, 1899. The concrete piers were constructed between 1896 and 1902; note that while the light poles are in place, their diffusion globes have yet to be installed. (Image: National Park Service)