Henry & Sara Wheeler Family

A drawing of the house Henry Wheeler built along Grand Avenue in 1893. (Image: Tom Wheeler)

When the canal was dug, Superior people feared that the current of the river would be deflected through the ship canal and that would allow the natural entry to fill up with sand, hence they insisted that a dike be built between Rice’s Point and Minnesota Point about half a mile below the canal. My father claimed that he had made the first hole in the dike the year after it was completed. He threw a tow line over one of the piled and then pulled it out with the tug. Then he hitched on again until he had made a hole big enough for the tug to pass through. It was senseless to travel out through the lake, down to the entry and then back from Superior to get up to Oneota. He applied direct action and obtained results.

He built his own log house, frame house and barn. He made his own sleighs for both logging uses and general purposes. He even did the blacksmith work in connection with these sleighs. He built an iceboat, fashioning the iron runners himself. He also built a revolving churn. He established the first shipyard at the Head of the Lakes and built his own floating dry dock. He re-built the wrecked tug Amethyst on the North Shore of Lake Superior, 9 miles beyond Beaver Boy. He repaired the engine and broken steam pipes and brought her into Duluth under her own steam. He brought the first carload of grad Jersey cows to Duluth and owned the first registered full-blooded Jersey sire. He also helped to establish Duluth as a flour milling center, acting as Director and Treasurer of the Duluth Imperial Milling Company for many years and was closely associated with B. C. Church in the operation of that company. He also helped to organize the Old Settler’s Association, was at one time its President and brought about the action which eliminated the use of champagne and other alcoholic liquor at its banquets. He organized the Oneota Cemetery Association and personally supervised the building of its vault.

Henry W. Wheeler helped to organize the Republican Party in St. Paul in 1853 and signed the charter for the first Presbyterian Church in Superior in 1855 or ’56, and ran for the State Legislature in 1860 and received every vote in St. Louis County (just twelve), but was defeated by the Western end of the District in which St. Cloud was located. He was town assessor of Oneota, a member of the School Board of School District No. 1 (the first school district organized in St. Louis County), Town Supervisor, Treasurer of the Village of West Duluth and Treasurer of St. Louis County.


Henry W. Wheeler was a Congregationalist by birth and training; he was a Presbyterian by marriage and for years was an Elder in the Presbyterian Church; yet he was Superintendent of a Methodist Sunday School and always entertained the Methodist presiding Elder when he came to town, for the Wheelers had the only spare room in town in those early days. He conducted the family worship every Sunday morning and his voice was always heard in prayer. He was a just man, possessed of Yankee thrift, a clear thinker, endowed with a wonderful memory and his word was as good as his bond.

Sarah C. Wheeler, his wife, was born in Broome County, New York, August 17, 1828. She was the oldest of five sisters, daughters of James Brewster and Hester Christopher Brewster. Mother was a deeply religious woman of serious demeanor, but kind-hearted and sympathetic to a wonderful degree. Never have I heard her utter a disparaging remark about any of her neighbors, and she would always try to find something good to be said in favor of anyone under discussion. She would say grace at the table when father was absent and would lead in the devotions on Sunday morning. She superintended Sunday Schools where men could not be found and waged a real war against alcohol and tobacco among her Sunday School boys. She went to sleep June 9, 1910 in her 82nd year, tired out, yes worn out, in service to her family and friends.


The following is a brief record of the children of Henry W. Wheeler and Sarah C. Wheeler and their families:

Martyn Wheeler, steamboat captain, born May 13, 1849; married Mary C. Ely, niece of Edmund F. Ely, May 1870; five children in the family, three of whom grew to womanhood, Miss Winnifred, a school teacher; Ethel, now Mrs. Fred Webster, and Mable, now Mrs. Edward Abeling of Goldendale, Washington.

Elizabeth Wheeler Merritt, born August 27, 1851, died July 28, 1902. She married Leonidas Merritt in 1872; four children in the family, three of whom grew to maturity. They are: Ruth Merritt, Lucien Merritt, mechanical engineer, and Harry Merritt, Secretary of the Northern Dredge & Dock Company.

Etta Wheeler Merritt, born April 3, 1854. She married John E. Merritt (son of Rev. Lucien T. Merritt) Thanksgiving Day, 1887; four children in the family, two grown to maturity. They are: Miss Callie Merritt, teacher of English in the Irving Junior High School and Miss Edna, teacher at Lawler, Minnesota.

Julia A. Wheeler, born September 2, 1856, unmarried, probably the first white child born within the present boundaries of the city of Duluth.

John James Wheeler (missing information). He married Ellen Brown, daughter of Martin Brown; one child, Henry W. Wheeler, Jr.; now living in Seattle, Washington.

Susie May Wheeler, born may 2, 1861, died November 11, 1864.

Harry Wheeler, steam shovel engineer, born March 2, 1863, died August 2, 1913. He married Jennie Clinch. The children are: Ruben Henry and Brewster Wakeman, both of whom served overseas in the World War, Douglass, Paul, Wallace, Carol and Myra. This family is now living in Oregon.

Duane Wheeler, civil engineer, born July 15, 1866. He married Althea Richardson, daughter of Ira k. Richardson, former Duluth Alderman; three children in the family, two of whom grew to maturity. They are: James and Roger, the former is a geologist now in charge of a party in South Africa and the latter, a freshman at the State University.

Carrie L. Wheeler, unmarried, born August 26, 1868, the brightest, happiest of the entire family, honor graduate of the Duluth Central High School Class of ’89 in spite of ill health. She died March 1, 1900.

Bert N. Wheeler, realtor, formerly County Superintendent of Schools, was born August 31, 1870. He married May Whitmore of Montevideo September 12, 1905; two children, Isabelle, a Senior in the Duluth Central High School and Hubert, eleven years old.

Father’s Last Years

The last years of Father’s life were spent at 3407 West Third Street in a house he had planned and built in 1894, surrounded by his children and grandchildren and without any serious regret in his long, useful life. Just a few weeks before he died, while sitting on the chopping block near his wood pile (he split mill wood for exercise and pleasure) he said to me, “Bert, these last years have been the happiest years of my life—with nothing to worry about, a good home and enough money to keep us as long as we live, having raised a family without a black sheep among them and with no serious regret in my life, I’m just having a good time.”

He died on his birthday, March 19, 1906, having completed 85 years of honest service, leaving the world better and brighter for his living in it.

Henry W. Wheeler and Sarah C. Wheeler are buried yonder on the hill they often climbed, now the cemetery Father organized.

They lived a life of upright usefulness,
They were just, true and neighborly,
They raised a family in the fear of God,
They carried on.
Who can do more?

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