February 12: 1939: Roof of Duluth’s Amphitheatre collapses

On this day in Duluth in 1939, the roof of the Duluth Amphitheatre collapsed during an exhibition hockey game between Duluth policemen and fireman from Virginia, Minnesota. A crowd of 3,000 gathered to watch, including about 2,000 children invited as special guests: local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, school police patrol members, and residents of children’s homes. Near the end of intermission between the second and third periods loud cracks “like a machine gun” were heard throughout the arena, and the roof began to sag at the northwest corner of the ceiling. Spectators panicked. Police and firefighters in attendance helped get people out of the building as large sections of the roof began collapsing. Even though he was positioned directly under the sagging portion of the roof, organist Leland McEwan continued to play throughout the evacuation in an attempt to keep the crowd calm. He and everyone else got out safely minutes before the entire roof crashed to the ice; only four people suffered minor injuries. At first it was thought that heavy snow alone caused the collapse, but it was later determined that the building included roof trusses too weak to bear the extra weight of snow; the original design, by renowned architect Frederick German, had apparently been compromised during a renovation that occurred after the building was first erected in in 1924 as the home of the Duluth Hornets hockey team. The Amphitheater was damaged beyond repair and left vacant until it was partially demolished in 1941. The Plaza Shopping Center was built on the location in 1951; two of its walls are part of the old Amphitheater.

The Duluth Amphitheater. Two of its walls are now part of the Plaza shopping complex between 12th and 13th Avenues East at Superior Street. (Image: Duluth Public Library)