Duluth: Legendary City of the Unsalted Seas

Duluth’s Aerial Transfer Bridge’s gondola car ca. 1907. (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 legend of the digging of Duluth’s ship canal, that 100 stout men shoveled it out in 48 hours, is just one of many myths surrounding the Zenith City. At the risk of angering advertising copy writers and civic boosters, let’s cast some light on some of those claims.

Duluth’s iconic aerial bridge over that infamous ship canal wasn’t the world’s first lift bridge as many believe. The first was designed for Duluth but built in Chicago in 1893. Duluth’s bridge, however, is unique: It is the planet’s only lift bridge with a top span.

The span is a leftover from its days as a transfer bridge (1905–1929), which many say was the first of its kind. It wasn’t. The first was built in Spain, also in 1893. But Duluth’s bridge was the world’s only transfer bridge made of stiff-girded steel, and the only such bridge ever built in North America.

Some have even tried to create their own myths regarding Duluth’s transfer bridge. In 2005 a woman told a reporter she had been conceived on the bridge’s gondola car as it crossed the canal (she called herself “Aerial”).

If true her conception would have been a remarkable feat, but perhaps not one worth boasting about: The gondola always had an operator on board, was often crowded, and included no private spaces—and its passage took less than a minute.

Another person claimed that he was born on the gondola the first week of September, 1927. It was a stormy night, and his parents were on the gondola—rushing from their Park Point home to a hospital—when lightning struck, stalling the car. He came into the world “right there on the bucket of the bridge.”

But records show clear skies over Duluth that night. And in case of a power failure the gondola could be moved across the canal using a hand crank.

Further, in 1927 Duluth was debating how to replace the increasingly obsolete bridge, and newspapers reported its every malfunction. Certainly if a woman had been forced to give birth on a derelict gondola it would have been front page news. Yet no corroborating stories exist.

Samuel Clemons, aka Mark Twain. He never said “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in Duluth.” (Image: Public Domain)

One popular Duluth myth attributes the quote “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in Duluth” to Mark Twain. He never said it.

The joke dates back to 1879, when London actor James Quinn, after being asked if he had ever seen so bad a winter, allegedly replied, “Yes, just such an one last summer!” While in Paris in 1880, Twain repeated Quinn’s quip, but he did not mention Duluth.

Twain never spent an entire summer in Duluth, but he did stay a day or two in the Zenith City in June 1886 on his way from Buffalo, New York, to visit his mother in Iowa. Twain also visited for a week in July 1895 and delivered several lectures at First Methodist Church. None of the newspaper coverage of his visits mentioned the quote.

The Duluth Herald first made reference to the joke on March 15, 1900, while responding to a Life Magazine story calling Duluth the “Meanest City in the World.” The Life article quoted an unnamed Swede who allegedly said, ‘Da vorst vinter a effe spen en may life bean von sommor vat a leve en Dulute, Manasouta,” [The worst winter I ever spent in my life being one summer that I lived in Duluth, Minnesota.]

By then, at least according to the Herald, the statement was old news and “unworthy of comment, for it is stale and decayed. Every new [Duluth] resident has heard that joke before he learned the streets.”

Three months later a Duluth News Tribune article warned that “One of these days someone will tell that moldy old chestnut about the finest winter he ever spent being the summer he spent in Duluth, and one of these husky commercial travelers, who have been here and know all about our climate, will smite him with an uppercut and break his slanderous jaw. The truth shall come out in time.”

Neither article mentioned Twain. [Twain did write about Duluth in one of his books.]

Oh, and that other “moldy old chestnut” about Duluth? The one that goes “Duluth was once home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the U.S.”? It is a claim no statistical report has ever supported. The “millionaire” concept was then rather new when that one got started, around 1905. Duluth was among at least a half-dozen U.S. cities making the same claim.

Happy 150th birthday, City of Duluth!

[Read about other myths about the city of Duluth—including the one about World War II “Ace of Aces” Richard I. Bong flying his P-38 through the aerial lift bridge, here.]