Joshua Backus Culver was born in Tompkins, New York, on September 12, 1829. He and his wife Sarah arrived in Superior in 1855. The next year he co-founded the towns of Fond du Lac and Duluth and built a sawmill, and later a merchandise dock, on the bayside of South Lake Avenue near Morse Street. He also opened Duluth’s first general store and served as its first post master.
After the Civil War erupted Culver enlisted on November 9, 1861 and was commissioned as a first lieutenant with the Thirteenth Michigan Infantry. He fought in the battles of Shiloh, Chickamagua, Corinth, Perryville, Nashville, Gallatin, Stone River, Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, and Mission Ridge and mustered out as colonel on July 25, 1865.
Culver returned to Duluth where he and his fellow pioneers—with the help of Jay Cooke’s agents from Philadelphia—guided Duluth through its first boom period. Culver became involved in a variety of business enterprises, including real estate. When Duluth became a city in 1870, Culver was elected its first mayor. By then he and Sarah had seven children, including one who had died in infancy.
Sarah gave birth to three more children, including her namesake Sarah Woodman Culver on September 20, 1873; the elder Sarah died six days later. Two days before the younger Sarah’s birth, Duluth benefactor Jay Cooke ran out of money, ushering in the Panic of 1873—which nearly destroyed Duluth. Culver stood by the failing city and helped see it through reorganization, serving as mayor of the Village of Duluth in 1882.
Culver died in office on July 17, 1883, while visiting Buffalo, New York. He was just 53 years old. C. H. Graves finished out his second term as mayor. R. C. Mitchell, editor of the Duluth News Tribune, described as Culver’s “bitter political opponent,” wrote this tribute to the two-time mayor:
Our Mayor is dead. A hush, a death of silence comes over the excited scenes that are passing, arousing our village to unwonted agitation, and upon the instant the uproar of contrition subsides into the stilled and breathless quiet of the death chamber. Our mayor is dead; dead in a strange city; dead while yet a traveler and sojourner among strangers. As if painful stillness came hard upon the furious roar of a thunder-burst, as if in battle the quiet of the catacombs followed the awful flash of the artillery’s line and the shrieking musketry’s fierce volley, or as when at word of command the upheaved sea silenced its fury and its tempestuous alarm sank into a softer cadence than a lullaby, so fell a painful silence upon our village yesterday upon the instant it was made known our mayor had fallen by a shaft of death in a far-off city, across and beyond the wide expanse of lakes. It is painful to record the words.