Sheldon Aubut's Duluth History

The City Grows

With the opening of the canal at Sault Ste. Marie in 1855, Duluth was joined to the Atlantic Ocean by a highway of water. Jay Cooke, a Philadelphia land speculator, saw the value of this area just after the Civil War and constructed the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad and the Northern Pacific Railroads with their terminus at Duluth. With these routes open Duluth was ready to boom.

The first Newspaper published in Duluth, the "Duluth Minnesotian", April 24, 1869, contained a warning from the publisher, Dr. Thomas Preston Foster, to newcomers to Duluth. He said, "Newcomers should comprehend that Duluth is at present a small place, and hotel and boarding room accommodation is extremely limited. However, lumber is cheap and shanties can be built. Everyone should bring blankets and come prepared to rough it at first." Seemed to be the right thing to say at the time but things have changed. Lumber is no longer cheap although there still seems to be a shortage of hotel and boarding house rooms.

In 1860 there were only 80 Europeans living on Minnesota Point, but by 1873 the population had swelled to over 3000, and by 1890 to 30,000.

At a Fourth of July picnic on the Point in 1868, Dr. Foster made a speech which some have termed "historic". In that speech he called Duluth "The Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas" and went to say, "It would not be amiss to dwell mentally for a while upon the future of this region, which is even now looming up in the near distance, promising to pierce and lighten up these forests with roadways and farm homesteads, to mine these rocks into material wealth to whiten yon huge sea with clouds of canvas, or fret it with volumes of propelling steam, to cover the shores of these broad calm bays with mast-studded wharves and monster grain warehouses, and to erect within the sound of the surge of Superior’s waves a great city, which shall be the abode of commerce and manufacturers, and refinement and civilization, here nearly midway between the two main oceans of the world… The dawn comes; the daylight is really breaking in the east, in the west, in the south; and soon the sun of our progress, keeping pace with the steam railroad car, will shed it effulgence upon these pine and birch-clad and rock-bound shores."

Domains $7.49 - Why Pay More?At the time of this speech there were only fourteen families living at the start of Minnesota Point, but by July 4, only a year after his speech, there were 3500 people, and they were just beginning to stream in.

More and more immigrants arrived and those who came to town during 1869 called themselves the "Sixty-Niners". On June 16th 200 Swedish immigrants arrived and the whole town turned out to greet them. We built the Immigrant House below Michigan Street on Fifth Avenue West, and there were sometimes 700 men there in a day. There were so many people with no place to put them. There were no hotels built yet and every family took in as many as they could handle, yet thousands had no place to go. They were living in tents, put up shacks of boards and lived in the streets. Even before buildings were completed they were rented out for lodging. The building owner would mark a rectangle on the floor with chalk just big enough for a man to sleep in and number it. It was then rented before he would even go on to make the next mark. All tenants had to supply their own bedding and they would cook outside in the open air fires.

One of the immigrants gave this description of Duluth: "Superior Street was a continuous succession of hills and gullies, connected its entire length by a four foot plank sidewalk, with the planks laid endwise, bridging the ravines and tunneling the hills. To walk it was hazardous in the daytime, almost sure death after dark. To find a place for crossing the street was a question of great deliberation and caution, and to actually cross was an act of recklessness, forfeiting your life insurance... The haphazard, scraggly and repellent settlement, a mixed combination of Indian trading post, seaport, railroad construction camp, and gambling resort, altogether wild, rough, uncouth and frontier-like, bore not the remotest resemblance, physically or otherwise, to the city it now is. Nor did it seem within the range of the wildest imagination that a city could ever be built there. In only one particular did it then forecast its future — it was long and not wide — extending from the old Bay View House, then complete, on Fourth Avenue West, in a broken interval of buildings to Decker’s Brewery back on the creek about Eighth Avenue East."

Sound Bleak? Well, picture this: Lake Avenue was all Swamp and couldn’t be crossed. First Avenue East had a sidewalk that was made by driving stakes into the marsh and nailing planks to them. They were so uneven that a person walking them appeared to be drunk.

Books about Duluth and the region available from

Boomtown Landmarks (Discover Duluth) - by Laurie Hertzel

Sam Cook's "Campsightes"

Chronicles of Aunt Hilma and Other East Hillside Swedes - by Michael Fedo

Barton Sutter's "Cold Comfort:  Live at the Top of the Map"

Craig and Nadine Blacklock's "The Duluth Portfolio"

Destination Duluth (Port Cities of North America) by Martin Hintz

Duluth; The City and the People - by Chuck Frederick

Duluth/Superior Funbook - by Julie Ryan

Duluth Tour Book; An Illustrated Guide to Historic & Fun Places - by Jeff Cornelius

Friendship Fires - by Sam Cook

Ghostly Tales of Lake Superior - by Claire W. Schumacher

House of Stone : The Duluth Benedictines - Mary R. Boo

Just Keep Going North...You'll Know When You Get There! : Breath-Taking, Unforgivable Short & Tall Stories About Duluth & the Head-O-The Lakes - by Rick Eichert

Nina's North Shore Guide

The Raleigh Street Saga : Shattering the Legend - by Claire W. Schumacher

Trains of the Twin Ports Photo Archive : Duluth-Superior in the 1950s - by Marvin Nielsen

Up North - by Sam Cook


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Last modified: January 15, 2011
copyright 1986-2013 , Sheldon T. Aubut, all rights reserved

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