…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.
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
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.
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.
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.
A special thanks to Tony Dierckens at zenithcity.com, Laura Jacobs at the University of Wisconsin-Superior Archives, and the research staff at the Duluth Public Library.
The American Architect. (1906). Elevator fire, duluth. The American Architect, 89, 132. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=C7MxAQAAMAAJ
Beck, B., & Labadie, P. (2004). Pride of the inland seas. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=mjcwAQAAMAAJ
Dierckins, T., & Norton, M. (2012). Lost duluth: Landmarks, industries, buildings, homes, and the neighborhoods in which they stood. Duluth: Zenith City Publishing.
Duluth Board of Trade. (1913). Annual report. Duluth: Board of Trade. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=cXVLAAAAYAAJ
Duluth elevator burns. (1908, June 27). Boston Evening Transcript. Retrieved from http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=XHY-AAAAIBAJ&sjid=nVkMAAAAIBAJ
Duluth Port Authority. (n.d.). Duluth lake port. Retrieved from http://www.duluthport.com/docks-duluth-lake-port.php
Fire, blast rip elevator, damage ship. (1978, January 22). Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved from http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1499
Grain Dealers Company. (1902). Minnesota. The Grain Dealers Journal, 8, 124. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=UD4yAQAAMAAJ
Lapinski, P. (2008). Rice's point. Inland Mariners, 14-15. Retrieved from http://www.inlandmariners.com/Mariners_06/im_library_articles_files/RicesPoint.pdf
Northwestern Miller. (1886). Northwestern Miller, 576. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=KwBQAAAAYAAJ
Peavey elevator on bay front destroyed by fire; loss nearly 1,200,000. (1906, February 18). Duluth News Tribune. Retrieved from http://zenithcity.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/PeaveyFire_2.18.1906_DNT.pdf
Van Brunt, Walter. Duluth and St. Louis County: Their Story and People. II. Chicago: American Historical Society, 1921. 256. Print.
Wm. R. Gregory Company. (1912). American Hay, Flour and Feed Journal, 22-23, Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=Q9gwAQAAMAAJ
World's greatest grain mart. (1900, June 26). Duluth Herald. Retrieved from http://archive.org/stream/may1190009dulu/may1190009dulu_djvu.txt