August 16, 1861: Sidney Luce writes about life in nascent Duluth

On this day in the town of Duluth in 1861, Sidney Luce wrote to fellow pioneer Luke Marvin, who was in St. Paul representing St. Louis County in the state legislature, that “Mrs. Luce started in a rowboat [with substitute postmaster John Smith] for Burlington bay [Two Harbors today] last Saturday. I hear they were forced by a northeaster to camp on the beach for three nights about six miles below here at the mouth of Lester river. I expect her home in a few days.” It may have been a simple aside when written, but that statement helps paint a vivid picture of life at the Head of the Lakes in the wake of the Panic of 1857 and the first stirrings of the Civil War. Luce was the registrar of the United States Land Office and built Duluth’s first commercial building, a warehouse, at the foot of Third Avenue East along the lake shore, where the townsites of Duluth and Portland met. There he and his wife Harriet lived on the top floor, figuratively keeping the light on in Duluth and Portland were while their fellow pioneers were off to war or trying their hand in some other city. The letter illustrates just how scarcely populated the Head of the Lakes had become: “There has been no business in the office here. I have been haying this week and feel pretty old.” A week later Luce wrote to Marvin report in that “John Smith has not arrived with the mail yet. The business of the office for the last week has been the delivery of two patents, one of which I had to record. It has been a long week to me. Mrs. Luce has not returned. Minnesota Point is lined with Indian wigwams…. Squaws and pappooses by the hundred are there, as this is the huckleberry season and they are very plentiful.” Mrs. Luce did return, but few people came to live at what would become Duluth until after the Civil War. In June of 1863 he wrote Marvin, who was again in St. Paul to champion legislation to bring a railroad to Duluth, “I am lonesome enough, but stay as long as you can do any good.” Learn more about Sidney Luce, who later served as Duluth’s mayor, here, and read about the early history of the North Shore here.

Sidney Luce’s 1857 warehouse photographed in 1871, four years before it was demolished. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)


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