How the Twin Ports became the Twin Ports

This editorial cartoon appeared in the Duluth News Tribune February 10, 1910. (Image: Zenith City Press)

[Note: This article was originally published by the Duluth News Tribune on January 6, 2021 as part of its “Northlandia” series. Readers of our ”This Day in Duluth“ column will no-doubt recall that this story was also the subject of the “This Day” story this past February 7.]


This month’s Northlandia answers a question from Tim in Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood: “When and how did Duluth and Superior become known as the ‘Twin Ports?’”

Answering the when is easy, and, it turns out, timely: Feb. 7, 1910, 111 years ago last Sunday.

Answering the “how” is much more fun.

Apparently, in early 1910, the Duluth News Tribune’s reporters (and typesetters?) had grown tired of referring to the western-most communities on Lake Superior as “The Head of the Lakes” (as in “Great Lakes”). That name had been used since the fur trade, coined by the British perhaps in opposition of their French rivals’ term for the region: Fond du Lac or “Bottom of the Lake.”

Like the fur trade, by 1910 the rivalry between Duluth and Superior — sparked by the digging of the Duluth Ship Canal in 1870 — was history. During the 1880s commerce on both sides of the bay had become profoundly intertwined, and in many ways the only thing separating the two communities was an imaginary state line. Further, in the 1890s the federal government declared that it officially considered the Duluth and Superior harbors “one large port.”

The News Tribune felt that one large port needed one small, catchy name. “The Head of the Lakes,” it argued, was too much of a mouthful and a bit vague to those outside the region: What lakes? Business leaders on both sides of the bay agreed, and together with Duluth’s and Superior’s commercial clubs, the newspaper held a contest to find a new nickname.

Hundreds of entries poured in, some good and others so bad, the newspaper wrote, they “move gratingly along a cloven tongue like a piece of sandpaper.” Dozens of ideas played on the “twins” theme, including North Star Twin Cities, Lake Superior Twins, Heavenly Twins, Zenith Twins, Rail and Sail Twins, North Port Twins, Mecca Twins, Commercial Twins, Imperial Twins, Iron Twins and Siamese Twins (because “we can’t be separated”).

Like Iron Twins, several options reflected local industry, such as Iron Cities and Grain Cities while others, like Spliced Cities and Grafted Cities, suggested the profound physical connection as did Siamese Twins. Several suggested marriage: Wedding Cities, Marriage Cities, Mated Cities.

Many found inspiration in geography: Interstate Cities, Harbor Cities, Bay Cities, Point Cities (for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Rice’s and Connor’s Points), Center Cities (center of nation) and Duolouis because the two cities sit on either side of the St. Louis River.

Someone even suggested Duluth and Superior “swipe” Two Harbors and that residents of Two Harbors should be content calling their town “One Harbor.” Other larcenous suggestions included taking Windy Cities from Chicago, stealing Crescent Cities from New Orleans, and showing up Minneapolis and St. Paul with Greater Twin Cities.

Then came the superlatives: Ideal Cities, Empire Cities, Golden Cities, Peerless Cities, Popular Cities, Queen Cities, Wonder Cities, Zion Cities, Two Winner Cities, and, for the classically educated, Nulli Secundus Cities (Latin for “second to none”).

A few others used then-popular slang terms, like Chum Cities, Beat All Cities and Two Hummers back when a hummer meant an “excellent person or thing” (or someone who forgot the lyrics, but not an oversized SUV — or anything else).

Some were simply senseless, like Old Maids or Iron Bound Sisters. The worst? Perhaps Colon Cities. While a colon joins two parts of a sentence, the writer didn’t consider the word’s secondary definition, which would likely inspire scatological jokes.

Finally, contestant William Leavitt stood among many who missed the point of a short, catchy name when he suggested “Lillies of the Biggest Freshwater Pond in the World.”

A pencil sketch of A.D. Vinje, chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court from 1922 to 1929 and the man credited for naming Duluth and Superior the Twin Ports. (Photo courtesy of Zenith City Press)

In his winning submission, Judge Aad J. Vinje of Superior, later Supreme Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, got the point: “In my judgement the common name for Duluth-Superior should be short, easily pronounceable, descriptive and distinctive. As such a name I suggest ‘The Twin Ports.’”

Despite Vinge’s judgement, and the contest’s purpose, the judging committee added back the entire phrase it was trying to eliminate, making the official winner “The Twin Ports at the Head of the Lakes.”

Why? Because, the committee explained: “It has been so generally used in speaking of Duluth and Superior heretofore … (so) general use makes the longer name preferable for the present.” They prophesied that the longer name would soon become shortened by usage, first to “the Twin Ports” and eventually just “The Ports.”

They were right, in part, as “Twin Ports” remains in use today.

By the way, no one suggested “Northland,” which has been used for decades to refer to Northeastern Minnesota, Northwestern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (and supplies this column with its name). When did Northland come into vogue, and how about Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region? Tune in to future Northlandia columns to find out.