July 21, 1909: Storm turns Duluth hillside into “Huge Waterfall”

On this day in 1909, a “terrible cloudburst” hit Duluth, causing $500,000 worth of damage (worth over $14 million today) and the death of two young children. A woman named Ginsberg was seeking shelter for herself and two of her sons when she was swept off her feet and lost her grip on her boys, both of whom drowned. She told reporters she and her husband—who was seeking work on the Iron Range and was unaware of the tragedy—had lost everything but their children in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Streetcars ground to a halt and most of Duluth’s streets became impassible. Ropes were stretched across Superior Street to aid pedestrian crossing, and hotels were choked with guests who could not reach their homes. Street damage was described as “enormous” as unpaved streets became chasms; the cedar blocks of the paved streets were “plowed up as though in a seismic disturbance.” A family living in the basement of 421 North First Avenue had to be rescued through a window, as mud and debris had blocked the door. The headline of the Duluth Herald screamed DULUTH’S HILLSIDE IS TURNED INTO ONE HUGE WATERFALL BY THE TERRIFIC CLOUDBURST.”At the Bijou Theatre, manager Joe Maitlan saved one panicked woman fleeing the theatre—water had entered the building and was cascading down the aisles, causing a panic.

The intersection of Lake Avenue and Superior Street following the storm of July 21, 1909. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)