November 1, 1872: Lawsuit over Duluth Ship Canal moves to Supreme Court

On this day in 1872, the state of Wisconsin filed suit with the United States Supreme Court to shut down the Duluth Ship Canal. The canal was dug between the fall of 1870 and the spring of 1871, and was completed before Superior, Wisconsin, filed an injunction to stop its construction. Superior argued that the new canal would change the flow of the St. Louis River, and silt carried by the river would make it difficult to navigate the Superior entry, cutting the Wisconsin city off from shipping commerce. Judge S. F. Miller had agreed with Superior, but instead of closing the canal he ordered a dike be built between Duluth and Superior. But the dike did more harm to Superior than good, cutting off shipping traffic—and therefore business—between the two cities. In May 1872 Superior filed an injunction to stop construction of the dike, but that was dismissed. So they turned to the state, and on November 1 Wisconsin filed a suit against the dike. But Duluthians and Superiorites managed to come up with a solution, and the suit was dismissed. But after a report showing that while 290 ships arrived in Duluth in 1874, not a single vessel had docked in Superior that year. So Superior filed suit once again, demanding that Duluth actually remove the canal’s piers and completely fill it in. The whole mess wasn’t straightened out until 1877, and you can read about it here. (By the way, the ship canal was not dug by hand in two days as legends suggest.)

The Ishpeming, which cut the Duluth ship canal in the fall of 1870 and spring of 1871. (image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

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