Anishinaabe and Dakota tribes are the first known inhabitants of the Western Lake Superior region, and it wasn’t until around the 1650s or 1660s that Pierre Esprit Radisson of France explored the area. Named “Duluth” in 1856, the city’s name recognizes Frenchman Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, who came in 1679 to set up fur trade routes.
Duluth had a shaky start: an 1857 economic crash and an 1859 scarlet fever epidemic. However, resources – first, copper, and later, iron ore and lumber – helped greatly. So did financier Jay Cooke’s persuasion of the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad to make Duluth its northern terminus, which, combined with the port, easily enabled efficient transportation.
In 1871, workers dug a canal in Duluth so ships could easily enter the harbor; and in the 1900s, Duluth’s port handled more tons yearly than New York City. The canal separated Minnesota Point (Park Point) from the rest of the city, so people originally accessed Park Point by ferry ride. In 1904 and 1905, the Aerial Ferry Bridge was constructed. People were carried across via a heavy-duty gondola, which also bore their transportation vehicles. The Ferry Bridge was a unique bridge, only resembling one other in the world, in Rouen, France. The actual lift, a 386-foot long suspension that cars drive on now, was added in 1929 and 1930.
When the St. Lawrence Seaway, the 114-mile channel between Montreal and Ogdensburg, New York opened in 1959, Duluth was ready. With a new addition to the bridge, a deep canal and a harbor, ocean vessels could easily access Duluth. Although the harbor is 2,342 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Duluth is the biggest inland harbor in the world.
Rising to 138 feet in 55 seconds, the Aerial Lift Bridge is the biggest and quickest lift bridge in the world.
Duluth was founded on industry and although warehouses are now shopping districts, the history is evident. For example, the DeWitt-Seitz building in Canal Park, now home to several shops and restaurants, used to house one of Duluth’s busy and prosperous companies among other things: a manufacturing plant for mattresses and box springs. Morgan Park, now a neighborhood of larger Duluth, was originally a separate community built solely for steelworkers and their families. Warehouses dotted the Duluth landscape and the waterfront along Lake Superior was no exception.
In the 1970s, many of Duluth’s key industrial companies had closed. When the US Steel Plant – a sizeable employer – closed in 1971 along with other corporations, Duluth suffered greatly and unemployment rose. But like several times before, the city eventually recovered.
The Canal Park area, with business declining, gradually filled with empty warehouses and junkyards. So it was first on the list in a June 1966 preliminary report for the beautification of Duluth. It wasn’t until 1984, however, that a complete plan was formed. Successful waterfront development in San Francisco, Boston and Toronto helped the overall push toward making Duluth’s own waterfront an aesthetic place where people would want to spend time.
The first building change was the completion of the Duluth Area Arena, now the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. All that had been there before was an old scrap dock. In early June 1988, the first 400 feet of the Lakewalk were dedicated.
Currently, the Lakewalk stretches seven miles from Bayfront Festival Park to Brighton Beach.
Duluth now strikes a successful balance between the labor that “industry” implies and the city’s more recent emphasis on tourism and conventions. The port is still busy with regular shipments of grains, coal and taconite, and several buildings near the harbor give off that industrial feel.
The quirks in Duluth are usually the very things upon which the city’s inhabitants pride themselves. Duluth, Minnesota’s third largest city, is a long city that stretches along the lake, with many neighborhoods built on the steep hills. Known affectionately as the “lake effect,” the weather at the Sky Harbor weather station on Park Point (elevation 607 feet) may be foggy and 50 degrees, while the weather up by Duluth’s International Airport (elevation 1,427 feet) may be partly sunny and 70 degrees. Lake Superior makes Duluth’s summers a bit cooler and its winters a bit warmer. The Aerial Lift Bridge and its accompanying foghorn – and viewing huge ocean vessels – are integral to life in Duluth.
Interested in learning the in-depth history of Duluth’s earliest years? Resident historian and publisher of the Zenith City Press, Tony Dierckins detailed the story of Duluth’s inception and incorporation. Watch the video to learn about 1856-1870.