Digging the Canal: Duluth’s Defining Creation Myth

The Ishpeming, which cut the Duluth ship canal in the fall of 1870 and spring of 1871. (image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

The following story—adapted from Tony Dierckins’s Duluth: An Urban Biography (Minnesota Historical Society Press, April 2020)—was first published in the Duluth News Tribune in April, 2020, in celebration of Duluth’s 150th anniversary of first becoming a city on March 6, 1870.

The initial digging of Duluth’s ship canal was fairly simple. The steam-powered dredging tug Ishpeming began chewing through Minnesota Point in September 1870, stopped when the ground froze in November, and started again in late April 1871, finishing the initial cut on April 29.

Over the years those events have evolved into an extraordinarily tall tale that many still believe. Several versions of the legend exist, and most go something like this:

The cover art of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune Magazine for June 3, 1945, did little to dispel the myths that the Duluth Ship Canal was dug by hand or cleared with a single blast of dynamite—and neither did the story inside. (Image: Zenith City Press)

In winter 1871 Superiorites uncovered Duluth’s plot to dig a canal (in the legends, the digging had not yet begun), which they feared would reduce shipping traffic to Superior. Superior’s leaders filed for an injunction to stop the dredging, which the courts granted in April.

A telegram received on Friday, April 28, warned Duluthians that a government-dispatched courier was en route to deliver the injunction. So the call went out for every able-bodied man, woman, and child “who could handle a spade or shovel, or beg, borrow, or steal a bucket or a bushel basket” to converge on the canal site where they “dug, scratched, and burrowed ’till it was finished.”

By the break of dawn Monday, they had completed their task. The courier arrived at the moment the tug Frank C. Fero passed through the canal. Recognizing the hand-dug ditch as a navigable waterway, the courier decided that the injunction had been rendered invalid and tore up the document on the spot, ending the whole affair.

Some versions have the Ishpeming cutting the entire canal in two days. Many claim the courier arrived on horseback while others say he took the train. In perhaps the tallest version of the tale, recorded by the Duluth Evening Herald in 1929, the canal was created with one perfectly executed explosion.

William Sargent. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

A group led by William Sargent, “under the cover of darkness…worked frantically with pick and shovel…. As daylight approached and they realized they would not finish the task, leaders called for dynamite…. When the debris settled the dynamiters were rewarded by the water rushing through the ditch thus created.”

The story, however, fails to consider that William Sargent was eleven years old in April, 1871.

So how did these tales take root? Like all good myths, they contain some truth: a little hand digging and a couple kegs of blasting powder were used to break up a stubborn patch of frozen gravel on April 29. There was an injunction, but it did not arrive until nearly a week after the Ishpeming had finished its initial cut. The lawsuits dragged on until 1877, but never interfered with the canal’s operation.

The legends likely started as elaborations of true events told time and again, becoming canonical after they were set into type. The earliest version found in print comes from British author James Howard Bridge’s 1888 book “Uncle Sam at Home.”

Roger Munger and his family told versions of the legend to newspaper reporters beginning in the 1890s, and it was reprinted when he died in 1913. His recollection appeared in his son-in-law Dwight Woodbridge’s 1910 history of Duluth:

Roger Munger. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

“I was engaged by the citizens of Duluth to dig the channel. We began work on a Saturday and by night Superior knew what we were about. At once the people over there began to scurry around to get a federal injunction restraining us. I hired a gang of several hundred men…and we worked all that day and far into the night…. When the Superior people came over Monday morning there was the channel open and they couldn’t do anything.”

Perhaps the stories perpetuate because people just can’t resist telling them, facts be damned. Munger himself helped hire the Ishpeming—he knew full well his account was a fib. Bridges was fourteen years old in 1870 and did not live in the United States, let alone Duluth.

Jerome Cooley, who moved to Duluth in 1873, recorded his version in a 1922. Otto Wieland, born in 1871, told his tale to the Works Project Administration in 1942.

The Minneapolis Tribune featured its account in 1945. Duluth teacher Dora Mary MacDonald retold it in her 1949 book This Is Duluth, researched in part by her elementary school students. Even today several websites present the myth as fact.

Despite the tallness of the tale, the legend reinforces a central theme of Duluth’s formative years: the determined self-sufficiency of its founding generation, who never backed away from a challenge and stood up to confront every obstacle they encountered.

Happy 150th birthday, City of Duluth!