Why Duluth Dug Its Ship Canal

Duluth’s aerial bridge has been an iconic symbol of the Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas since it first began operating in April 1905. But Duluth would have no such bridge if it didn’t also have a canal to cross—and it wouldn’t have needed to dig a canal at all if Minnesota Point weren’t lying between Lake Superior and the St. Louis River.

Along with Wisconsin Point, Minnesota Point forms the world’s largest natural baymouth bar. Over the eons, silt carried by the St. Louis and Nemadji rivers collided with sand stirred up by the lake’s clockwise rotation, eventually creating the sandbars. This same process had also produced Rice’s and Conner’s points, which together formed the very western shore of the lake before the formation of Minnesota and Wisconsin points. Together, the four points created a natural harbor known today as Superior Bay. An opening between Minnesota and Wisconsin points where the St. Louis and Nemadji waters converged—now called the Superior Entry—provided access from the lake to the harbor.

That spot—the convergence of the St. Louis River and Lake Superior—has been home to humans for nearly 15,000 years, first to Paleo-Indians, then the Eastern-Archaic societies and on to the Woodland, mound-building cultures. By 1600 the area was populated by the Dakota, Assiniboine, and Cree, and soon thereafter those groups were forced north and west by the Ojibwe, who had migrated from today’s New Brunswick following a prophecy and had developed a fur-trading partnership with the French along the way. To avoid a fourteen-mile paddle to circumvent Minnesota Point to access the bay’s northern portion, Native Americans canoeing along the lake’s northern shore developed a trail to haul their canoes across Minnesota point roughly a half mile from where it connects with the mainland. The Ojibwe called it Onigamiinsing or “Little Portage.” More recently that word has been interpreted as “Place of the Little Portage,” the Ojibwe name for the land now occupied by the city of Duluth.

The fur trade essentially died in the late 1830s, devastating the Ojibwe economy and leaving them vulnerable to federal land grabs in their desperation to survive. Consequently, a series of treaties in the 1840s and 1850s placed the land surrounding Lake Superior into the hands of the United States. In 1854 Euro-Americans—who called the westernmost Lake Superior region the Head of the Lakes—established the Village of Superior between the Nemadji River and Conner’s Point along the shore of Superior Bay behind Minnesota Point.

In 1856 EuroAmericans established nearly a dozen towns in what is now Duluth, each hoping to become a great commercial shipping center, initially shipping tons of copper expected to be found along Lake Superior’s north shore. One town centered on the northern base of Minnesota Point. Its founders named it Duluth after a seventeenth-century French soldier named Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut, who, along with his party of French companions and Huron guides, purportedly crossed Onigamiinsing in September, 1679. When they platted the town that summer, town founders named the path of Onigamiinsing “Portage Street.” The following year four other adjacent towns joined Duluth and officially incorporated as the Town of Duluth. The community roughly covered today’s downtown and Minnesota Point down to Thirty-eighth Street South.

Early Euro-American residents expected a railroad and population boom to follow. Sidney Luce, later Duluth’s third mayor, built a warehouse and wharf at the very northwest corner of Lake Superior in anticipation of railroad construction, and Robert Jefferson constructed a modest hotel in which he expected to house, in part, traveling capitalists overseeing their investments. But prospectors found very little copper along the shore, and in the fall of 1857 the country’s economy took a blow when the Panic of 1857 set off a nationwide economic depression. With no way to make money, most of the Euro-American population fled within months. The population of the Minnesota towns dropped from 1,560 in 1857 to 406 in 1860, and more left in 1861 when the Civil War began. During the 1860s, the economy essentially worked on the barter system, and more Ojibwe lived in Duluth than did EuroAmericans, especially in the summer when Minnesota Point was said to be lined with temporary Ojibwe camps.

When EuroAmericans began returning following the end of the war, talk of a railroad resumed. The Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad was planned to run from St. Paul to the Head of the Lakes, terminating at either Superior or Duluth, and connect with the Northern Pacific Railroad at today’s Carlton, Minnesota. The NP would run all the way to Washington’s Puget Sound. By 1868 Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke had become heavily invested in both railroads.

This sketch of Duluth from the outer harbor appeared in a publication called Every Saturday in 1871. (Image: Zenith City Press

Cooke announced he had selected Duluth as the LS&M’s northern terminus in early 1869, setting off a construction and population boom. Cooke sent several agents to Duluth to finance the construction of the city’s early infrastructure, and the railroad recruited immigrants from northern Europe to help build the railroad. Its tracks terminated at Fourth Avenue West, adjacent to Luce’s warehouse. The LS&M built a freight depot and warehouse at the spot, and within a year a giant grain elevator had been constructed at the foot of Fourth Avenue West and the Union Depot passenger station stood along the tracks near Sixth Avenue West. In early 1870 the city began building Citizen’s Dock, which jutted into the lake from Minnesota Point at today’s Morse Street. In August, 1870, the LS&M began daily freight and passenger trains between St. Paul and Duluth. (Read about Duluth’s lost outer harbor here.)

Six months earlier Duluth had officially became a city, annexing the towns of Endion, Portland, and Rice’s Point at the same time. Its population had gone from fewer than 200 people in early 1869 to 3,131 in April, 1870. Sixty percent of the community was made up of northern European immigrants, many of whom refused to work with the Ojibwe because—based on their readings of false newspaper accounts and exploitative novels—they considered all Native Americans savages. Consequently, the construction of the railroad essentially displaced most of the Ojibwe who had, until recently, lived in relative harmony with their Euro-American neighbors. No Ojibway were recorded living in Duluth in the 1870 census.

The new city’s developing railroad infrastructure proved problematic in other ways as well. Built at the very northwest corner of Lake Superior, the outer harbor’s waters were often too turbulent for a large vessels to dock safely. So the city built a protective breakwater that extended into the lake from the foot of Fourth Avenue East next to Elevator A. But the breakwater proved ineffective. Most Duluthians recognized that the safest place for a commercial harbor was between Minnesota and Rice’s points. In fact, the LS&M had already constructed a line along the western side of Rice’s Point and at its southern terminus  built DeCosta’s Dock, named for the railroad’s chief engineer, to serve vessels entering Duluth from the Superior Entry. But if ships entered Superior Bay through the entry, they’d sail right past the Village of Superior and have to navigate several more miles to reach Duluth. When a railroad inevitably reached Superior, commercial vessels would likely find it easier, and perhaps even cheaper, to do business in Superior rather than Duluth.

So the new city’s original officials dusted off an idea first entertained in the 1850s: Dig a ship canal through Minnesota Point not far from the sandbar’s base to bypasss the Superior Entry. So in the summer of 1870, the alderman of Duluth’s Common Council (the equivalent to today’s City Council) voted to construct a ship canal and also dredge Superior Bay to create the inner harbor. To finance the work, the city accepted a loan of $50,000 from Jay Cooke via the LS&M in the form of one hundred $500 bonds. They chose to cut the canal along Portage Street, the ancient path of Onigamiinsing.

Number 90 of 100 $500 bonds issued to repay the $500 loan to the city of Duluth from Jay Cooke’s Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad for “harobr improvement” which included digging a ship canal through Minnesota Point. (Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)