October 11, 1887: Duluth barber and real estate investor Alexander Miles receives elevator patent

On this day in Duluth in 1887, Duluthian Alexander Miles was  awarded a patent for an automatically opening and closing elevator door design (U.S. Patent 371,207). Miles was a unique figure in nineteenth-century Duluth: He was an African-American business leader during a time when society generally looked down on African Americans. Born in Ohio in 1837, Miles later relocated to Waukesha, Wisconsin, and learned the barbering trade. He later moved to Winona, Minnesota, where he met and married New Yorker Candace Dunlap, described as “a white woman.” They moved to Duluth soon after their daughter Grace was born in 1879. In the Zenith City Miles opened a barbershop in the St. Louis Hotel, where many of Duluth’s early promoters engaged in land sales. Miles soon became involved in real estate and owned several rental homes and an office building—the Miles Block—in downtown Duluth. Duluth designed by Oliver Traphagen. He was also very civic-minded and was the first person of African descent to join the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. Before the century closed he and his family moved to Chicago, where he began an insurance company that catered to African Americans, because he felt that the insurance companies of the day “persist in holding out discriminative rates to these colored people.” At that time he was considered the wealthiest black man in the “Northwest.” He died in Seattle on May 7, 1918. In 2007 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Alexander Miles. (Image: Duluth Public Library)