Morris Thomas

Morris Thomas, from a facsimile of his 1911 Duluth News Tribune obituary. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The timber industry arrived in Duluth in the 1880s and quickly became as important as the growing grain trade. We’ve all seen the old photos of nameless lumberjacks standing in front of an impossibly overloaded sleigh with logs bigger around than any tree we’ve ever seen outside of California’s redwood forests. We can imagine the brave timber beasts releasing logjams in rushing rivers, the great rafts of logs in the harbor. We know that Duluth’s east end is filled with the grand homes of timber barons who made a killing denuding the country of its pines.

However, most of us probably have no idea just how little we the people were paid for the harvesting of one of our greatest natural resources. The story of timber baron Morris Thomas—namesake of Morris Thomas Road—illustrates how this all went down.

Morris Thomas was born in 1847 in New Brunswick, Canada. He immigrated to the United States when he was 12 years old and came to Duluth in 1880 with his wife Angie and young son Frank. His employment was variously listed as logging contractor, pine lands broker, and lumberman.

In the middle of the 19th century, the United States government had acquired vast tracts of land, and it wanted that land to be settled by white farmers. To that end, it passed the Preemption Act of 1841, which permitted “squatters” who were living on federal lands to purchase up to 160 acres at $1.25 per acre before the land would be offered to the general public. To qualify under this law, the settler had to be the head of a household, a single man over age 21, or a widow, a citizen, and a resident of the claimed land for a minimum of 14 months.

The Homestead Act of 1862 was a similar law, actually a reform of the Preemption Act. The 1862 act made things even easier: if you’d never taken up arms against the U.S. Government, even if you were a freed slave or a woman, as long as you were an adult, you could file for a federal land grant. The result of this act was illustrated in the film Far and Away in a scene that showed hopeful settlers racing across the prairie to grab the best land. The hard part was that you had to settle the land—prove up your claim. In other words, you had to clear the land and build a house. This was no mean feat for former city folks who had no idea how to go about such things, but then, that’s the story of many of our ancestors. They had a hard go of it, but many of them made it.

Instead of prairie waiting for agricultural development, St. Louis County—and indeed most of Northeastern Minnesota—had acres and acres of beautiful big pines. If you were a timber baron after the Civil War, you wanted those trees, but the last thing you wanted to do was have to pay for them by the board foot. The Preemption and later Homestead Acts were your tickets to cheap land and cheap trees.

However, the point of these acts was to democratize land ownership, not to enrich a few lumber barons. The government specified that the land grants were designed for individual use and benefit, not to sell or speculate on. Land sharks were not—ostensibly anyway—who preemption was meant to benefit.

But timber barons like Morris Thomas weren’t going to let a government—let alone one that must have seemed ridiculously far away—stand in the way of making profits. Thus a massive and widely practiced fraud was born. Gangs of men would get off the boats in Duluth, and an employer like Thomas would “set them up” on desirable land, paying them $150–$225 per claim once they “proved up.” The men would be provided a living and paid to build cabins on the land. Then they’d return to the Duluth land office and make their entries, with an affidavit signed by someone either in the know or willing to turn a blind eye, and fake the claim. Then two things could happen: either a lumberman would go in and remove all the trees and the fraudulent claimant could then abandon the land, or the claimant would turn around and sell the land to his employer, typically a lumberman like Thomas.

Duluth became so notorious for fraudulent filings that the U.S. Land Office sent a detective named William R. Marshall to investigate. He first proved how easy it was to make claims under fictitious names by making some of his own. He then investigated all preempted lands in Duluth from July 1, 1881 to February 15, 1882. Marshall found that more than a hundred of them were transferred to other parties immediately after their final entry. Of 56 tracts of land he investigated in the county, only one had a legitimate building on it. The rest had fake log cabins—built without floors or windows and looked as though they had obviously never been lived in. Another investigator opined that 90 percent of the entries in the Duluth Land Office were fraudulent.

So what were the consequences for defrauding the U.S. government of land and lumber? According to an indignant letter from another accused lumberman, H. L. Gordon, to the Duluth News Tribune in 1883, Detective Marshall made deals with Thomas and others so they could “keep all the land they had proved up and entered and Marshall agrees not to interfere with their entries […] On the other hand, they promise to be good boys and not do so any more.” Gordon also pointed out that Marshall had been in the employ of Minnesota Iron while supposedly investigating the mining company’s dodgy land acquisitions on what would become the Iron Range, and had never reported his findings.

It seems that Morris Thomas ran his lumber business on the straight and narrow from that point on. He became involved in local politics, serving on the Duluth City Council from 1891–92. After that he ran for various posts but failed to gain them, not only because he was a Democrat in a county that was then a Republican stronghold but also because he was found ineligible for state office because he was in debt to the state.

As a result of those debts, Thomas sold off his holdings and was reduced to small-scale logging operations as a family business with his brother and son. Unfortunately for him, he lived long enough to see that the lands he’d had to sell off on the Iron Range become billion-dollar mining properties. He died of heart disease in 1911; his obituary states, “both in his public and business life he enjoyed a reputation for probity and straightforward conduct.”

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