Grain Elevators of
The Zenith City
Duluth, MN

Intro

Duluth is home to many landmarks…

…but it is the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge that anchors the historic hillside to the dainty downtown to the Great Lake, pinning the scent of freshwater waves to the soul of the city.

Not too far from the bridge and the historic downtown it complements is another sort of skyline. It is more geometric and its neighbor, and much more quiet. Across part of the bay is Duluth’s ill-understood elevator district along Garfield Avenue.

Looking toward the famous Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge from Lake Superior. Shot on a the legendary Pentax 67.
Looking toward the famous Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge from Lake Superior. Shot on a the legendary Pentax 67.

In terms of economic and physical scale, they rival the ore docks—an industry which always left Duluth second to Superior. So, strangely, these monoliths of the grain trade have received relatively little attention ever since they, to be blunt, stopped spontaneously exploding on the edge of the city.

The following attempts to be the most complete representation of the history of Duluth’s elevator row, though of course it can never be totally comprehensive. With that nuance, follow me to 1869…

Duluth’s First Elevator

Elevator A and surrounding area, circa 1872. (Image: MNHS)
Elevator A and surrounding area, circa 1872. (Image: MNHS)

Duluth’s first grain elevator was financed in 1869 by two of the biggest names in the early history of the town: Jay Cooke, who funded the construction, and Roger Munger, whose town-building sawmill, located just down Lake Avenue, provided the lumber. The construction signaled a local economic sigh that signaled a recovery from the Panic of 1857. Cooke’s railroad (the Lake Superior & Mississippi) serviced the elevator and even added a 1,000-foot breakwater to protect loading vessels.

It was designed to hold 350,000 bushels—just 20 percent the capacity of its modern counterparts—and featured steam-powered conveyors to move that grain around.

Duluth’s Elevator A, built along the Lake Superior shore at the foot of 3rd Avenue East. (Image: Duluth Public Library)
Duluth’s Elevator A, built along the Lake Superior shore at the foot of 3rd Avenue East. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Because of the natural boundary of Minnesota Point and the lack of a ship canal, the wooden crib-style structure had to extend into the unprotected harbor, near the foot of modern Fourth Avenue East. The elevator’s breakwaters were hit hard by a storm in the winter of 1872, which crippled much of the harbor.

Harbor Scene (Gallagher, Duluth Public Library)
Harbor Scene (Gallagher, Duluth Public Library)

This precarious location would have been the future of Duluth grain were it not for the construction of the ship canal in 1871. Between that time and 1905, when the first iteration of the Aerial Lift Bridge was constructed, a ferry service moved people and goods across the primitive canal.

With a reliable connection between Lake Superior and a natural harbor, one ready for industry, businesses looked to Duluth as a future major national port.