Freeman Keen

This grainy photo of Freeman Keen appeared in the Duluth News Tribune in 1902. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Keene Creek has seen its share of drama over the years. Thieves hid loot under its rocks. Moonshine-addled drunks died on its banks. Neighbors complained about nude bathers in its waters. Its rickety bridges of old were fought over in city council chambers. The creek even suffered the indignity of being used as a sewer. As for Keene Creek’s namesake—well, let’s just say that if he was looking for a literary hero to identify with, the Bible’s Job would have been a great choice.

When 22-year-old Freeman Keen arrived in Oneota in 1854, life must have seemed full of promise. Son of a fairly successful Maine farmer, he’d already spent three years working in a shoe factory. When Minnesota opened up to non-native settlement, he was right there, ready to clear a place from the wilderness.

And where Freeman Keen landed, his name stuck (though as it often happens, later generations managed to add an extra “e” to his last name—and that stuck as well). He was the first to erect a building in Oneota—and the first to leave the community, selling his log cabin and staking a claim along a creek further west. He accumulated land and earned his living by logging. Like many of the Duluth’s creeks, the one that ran along his homestead was named Keene Creek after him.

In 1860, Keen traveled home to Maine to visit family, and on his return trip spent a winter in Michigan working in a lumber camp. He was still there when the Civil War broke out, and so he enlisted in Michigan’s First Regiment, joining what became known as Loomis’ Battery. Contemporary accounts make much of the Battery’s bravery and accomplishments, saying that rebel forces would excuse defeats and magnify their victories by saying they’d dealt with their punishing guns. The Loomis Battery lost a total of forty men during the war in battles like Chickamauga and Perryville. But Freeman Keen emerged, as far as can be determined, physically unscathed.

Keen returned to Duluth in 1865. The following year he helped Oneota pioneers Lewis Merritt and future St. Louis County judge John Carey cut a channel through the swamp to the rock bluff at what is now 10th Avenue West, so scows could get closer to the rock quarry. This is the same location where Joseph Manheim later reportedly shot gold dust into the rock to salt a gold mine and fool investors into thinking there was “gold in them thar hills!”

Like many of the earliest settlers, Keen became a politician as well as a farmer, logger and miner. He served many years as chairman of the Oneota Town Board, eventually serving on the West Duluth town board of supervisors. He was also active in veterans’ affairs and served as director of the local agricultural society. He even sat on the board that created Oneota Cemetery.

In 1873, forty-one-year-old Keen married a widow, Mrs. Annie Randall, and eventually added five children to the four she and her first husband had produced. Fifteen years later they were wealthy and their children were healthy. They had a fine new house and many friends.

The Worm Turns

Trouble began in flames. In February, 1891, a commercial building owned by Keen at 1704 W. Superior Street burned. No one was hurt, but the building was a total loss.

Six months later, while Freeman was in Superior attending a veterans’ reunion, the Keens’ 17-year-old-daughter Abbie went swimming with two of her girlfriends, walked out too far, sank into St. Louis Bay and drowned. The other girls were rescued, but it took hours to find Abbie’s body, which was then carried to her parents’ home.

Another Keen child, 13-year-old John, was known to be “bright, amiable and courageous…a general favorite among his schoolmates.” His courage, however, might be read as the sort of recklessness that brings admiration from peers and admonishment from parents. A month after his older sister’s death, he broke his arm in the family barn. Less than a year later—March 20, 1892—in a fit of springtime exuberance, John jumped off a bridge near the family home into a snowbank, where he was impaled by a sharp stick hidden under the snow. It struck him in the chest, killing him almost instantly.

After these twin tragedies, Annie Keen succumbed to an illness that left her an invalid. For eight years she suffered from “nervous prostration” accompanied by “slight mental trouble” and had to be attended by a trained nurse at all times. She died on April 4, 1900, leaving Freeman a 67-year-old single father of three teenagers and one adult child still living at home.

Meanwhile, financial losses compounded on all sides due to unspecified “ill-advised business deals.” Luckily Keen had friends in high places who got him work in public service, first as a public health officer and eventually as city sidewalk inspector, a position he held until his death.

On August 22, 1902, at 8:45 in the evening, Freeman Keen stepped off a West Duluth and East End streetcar a mere stone’s throw from his home and literally ran headlong into an oncoming streetcar. Witnesses saw him “stagger backward, half hurled, half of his own volition, and fall…on the rails, the life blood from his crushed skull flowing out over the pavement.” He was immediately attended to by a doctor and taken to the hospital, but died a few hours later. His fifteen-year-old daughter Mary, who’d been “keeping house” for him since her mother died, was so distraught by his accident she was confined to bed with neurasthenia.

Upon Keen’s death the Duluth Herald reported that, “He went through enough hardships in those early days to kill fifty ordinary men, fought through some of the most dashing battles of the civil war, and yet lived through it all to be killed by a streetcar within a few hundred yards of the spot where he first located in the wilderness nearly fifty years ago.”

The abominable Keen bad luck didn’t end there, however. On the stormy night of April 24, 1906, 22-year-old Daniel Keen—recently married and newly hired as a night car checker on Duluth’s ore docks—disappeared while on the job. His supervisor looked for him for hours. When morning came, they dragged the bay alongside the dock and found his body, uninjured except for bruising on his face and hands. The speculation was that he was blinded by dust and stumbled into an ore pocket, which swept him into the water where he drowned.

After that, the curse riding the Keen family seemed to lift. In 1910, Freeman Keen’s thirteen-year-old grandson went on a hunting expedition with some of his friends and was accidentally shot in the thigh. The bullet missed his femoral artery by half an inch. Some would call that luck. He and the other descendants of Freeman Keen apparently went on to live relatively uneventful and quiet lives.

In 1912, W. B. Hartley proposed that one of the two newly built schools in West Duluth should bear the name of Freeman Keene (with the extra E). This honor never happened, but Duluth still has Freeman Keen’s Keene Creek—now sewage-free for the pleasure of everyone—as well as Keene Creek Park, which recently became Duluth’s first official dog park.

Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.