Sneak Peek: Duluth’s First “Union Depot”

The Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad’s 1870 Passenger Station, aka Duluth’s first “Union Station.” This photo was made in 1890 and shows the Spalding Hotel rising behind the station. (UMD Martin Library)

This week’s sneak peek from our forthcoming book Twin Ports Trains: The Historic Railroads of Duluth & Superior 1870–1970 takes us back to 1870 and the very first passenger train depot built at the Head of the Lakes, where people could board an LS&M or Northern Pacific passenger train and, briefly, trains on the Omaha Road. But while it served Duluth for over twenty years, by the 1880s the local press declared it “unbearable and disgraceful.”

LS&M Passenger Station: Duluth’s First “Union Depot”

When the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad built Duluth’s first passenger depot at the foot of Fifth Avenue West in 1870, it became the literal first impression of the Zenith City for everyone arriving by rail for the next twenty-two years. The Duluth Minnesotian mentioned that the building was located on “Banning Street (the street next south and parallel with Superior Street),” which is the path of Michigan Street—apparently the the newspaper thought that city officials had renamed Michigan Street in honor of LS&M president William president. The Minnesotian offered no description of the depot nor mention of its architect, and greeted its opening day with little fanfare. For the next twenty years, the local press had few kind words for the structure.

Fortunately, a few photos and insurance maps survive. The building actually sat well below Michigan Street and west of Fifth Avenue West along, naturally, the railroad track. The westernmost third of the modest thirty-by-eighty-foot wooden structure stood two stories high, with the agent’s and telegraph offices on the second floor and a baggage compartment below. The building’s eastern two-thirds were divided into two waiting rooms, one each for men and women, with the ticket office located between them. A wooden platform stretched east to the avenue. Construction was complete in October 1870.

The building has been known historically as Duluth’s first Union Depot, as it served passengers riding both the LS&M and Northern Pacific—but it was simply called the “passenger station” until the mid 1880s when the Omaha Road temporarily used it until its own passenger depot was complete. In fact, the first newspaper article referring to the station as the union depot was the announcement on July 10, 1885, that Duluth Bottling Works proprietor Thomas J. Monahan was “the first man to buy a ticket over the Omaha at the union depot. He went to Superior, the fare being 25 cents, the same as by ferries.” Monahan no doubt purchased his ticket from agent Fred V. Doty or perhaps his younger brother Harry who, according to the Duluth Weekly Tribune, worked as the “popular assistant ticket agent at the Union Depot.”

But it seemed that by then Duluth—or at least the editors at the Duluth Daily News—had grown tired of the 1870 structure. In mid-September, the newspaper ran a brief article on the “fine” Superior Union Depot’s construction progress, adding this commentary: “Somebody will please explain why West Superior should have accommodations like that, while Duluth puts up with an old barn floating in mud.” On October 30 the newspaper featured a sketch of the new Superior Union Depot. Its caption finished with a dismissive swipe at Duluth’s LS&M passenger depot: “It is unnecessary to give an illustration of the Duluth Union Depot. Everyone knows what that looks like.”

Duluth boomed throughout the 1880s, which meant not only more people but more railroads as well, and the 1870 structure became more and more inefficient to operate by the day, creeping toward obsoletion. In October 1885 the Duluth News Tribune reported that the station would undergo improvements to its ticket office and waiting room with the goal of getting the building “in shape to last a year or two.” The article explained that neither the LS&M nor the NP were ready to construct a new facility because “one put together now would be entirely inadequate two years hence and perhaps in a wrong location altogether.” By 1889 the original depot simply could not handle Duluth’s passenger traffic. That year a conglomerate of six railroads—the St.P&D, the NP, the Duluth South Shore & Atlantic, the Duluth & Iron Range, the Wisconsin Central, and the Duluth & Winnipeg—came together to create the Duluth Union Depot & Transfer Company.

A year later, with work yet to begin on a new depot, the News Tribune once again expressed its disgust, declaring that “[the old depot is] unbearable and disgraceful. The average Duluthian would prefer to receive twenty thousand visitors a few months hence in a circus tent rather than the ridiculous tumble-down shanty that at present serves as a very worrisome policy for a union depot.” The 1870 depot stood for two more years, continuing to serve Duluth even as the new depot’s train shed was raised directly above it. On October 15, 1891, the depot’s agents moved their equipment into the new depot, after which the 1870 structure was demolished.

The latest idea for the cover for Twin Ports Trains (like the book itself, it’s a work in progress…).