Grain Elevators of
The Zenith City
Duluth, MN

The Wood Age (1872-1900)

The Wood Age (1872-1900)

Lake Superior Elevator row (left) and Union Elevator row, about 1890. (Image: Duluth Public Library)
Lake Superior Elevator row (left) and Union Elevator row, about 1890. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Lake Superior Elevator Co.

Lake Superior Elevator was the biggest of the early grain interests in Duluth. Its oldest elevator was “B,” built in 1880 on Rice’s Point directly across from the still-new ship canal and next to Northern Pacific’s #2 Freight House. It sat on a little-improved natural peninsula, making it an ideal location.

Aside: What’s There Now? Cargill and Ruins.

After “B,” more elevators of the same design followed on the slip. Elevator “C” was added in 1881 and stood 125 feet over the lake. When it was rebuilt in 1888 it was clad in iron to make it more fire resistant, a strategy that would be repeated for all the wooden elevators that followed.

Though the majority of the grain passed through Duluth on its way to mills, the Twin Ports had a few mills of its own, dating to the 1882 Superior Roller Mill in Wisconsin. The most impressive operation by far, though, was the Imperial Flour Mill funded by Roger Munger, Bradford T. Church, and T. A. Olmstead. This plant was complemented by two elevators, #4 and #5, to help handle its 8,000 barrel-per-day output. At the time of its construction Imperial was the largest and most technologically advanced flour mill in the world.

The text of the Duluth Imperial Flour ad above reads: “As our airship proudly raises / on high we hear the praises / and our song the world amazes / By its truth, / For we sing of product cereal / Which makes our bread ethereal / And is known as flour ‘imperial’ / From Duluth.” (Image: X-comm.)
The text of the Duluth Imperial Flour ad above reads: “As our airship proudly raises / on high we hear the praises / and our song the world amazes / By its truth, / For we sing of product cereal / Which makes our bread ethereal / And is known as flour ‘imperial’ / From Duluth.” (Image: X-comm.)

The construction of the first Elevator “D” began in 1884. The elevator was capable of storing 1.2 million bushels and was the highest elevator in the harbor; its highest point was 140 feet over the lake, impressive for 1884 carpentry-based engineering. The following year Warehouse No. 1 was added to the shoreline, not far from a new Elevator “G,” which filled in the space between “D” and the Rice’s Point railroad tracks.

Warehouses are essentially giant grain sheds, where the grain piled horizontally, as opposed to elevators, which stored grain vertically. Elevators are superior to warehouses because they can use gravity to expel grain, but they are much more expensive to construct.

Lake Superior Elevator’s Elevator D was built in 1884 with a capacity of 1.2 million bushels of grain. (Image: Duluth Public Library)
Lake Superior Elevator’s Elevator D was built in 1884 with a capacity of 1.2 million bushels of grain. (Image: Duluth Public Library)
Birds love grain elevators. I love grain elevators.
Birds love grain elevators. I love grain elevators.

Union Improvement & Elevator Co.

Union began building elevators on Rice’s Point in 1885, a little south of Lake Superior’s shipping slip. Elevator “E” would be first, rising 92 feet and consisting of wood clad in iron. It would be rebuilt in 1889. Elevator “F” was built next to “E” a few hundred feet into the bay on an artificial eastward extension of the Point.

The following two years would bring one more elevator each. Elevator “I” was added near the mouth of the slip in 1886 and held an impressive 1.75 million bushels in its 80-foot high bins. Elevator “H” adjoined “I” on its western side in 1887 and stood 135 feet over the lake. The wooden “I” would be replaced by a concrete silo system in 1919 bearing the same name; it still stands.

Capitol Elevator Co.

Capitol’s oldest elevators, #4 and #5, were not built by Capitol at all, but by the aforementioned Imperial Mills. Imperial struggled since its construction to bring profits, but could not find success in spite of its record-breaking production rate. In 1899 it was put to auction, where it was purchased by Capitol on the condition the mill not produce or handle flour. Imperial had built two elevators, #4 and #5, which Capitol put to use.

Capitol Elevator #4 in the early 1900s. (Image: MNHS)
Capitol Elevator #4, originally Imperial #4, in the early 1900s. (Image: MNHS)

Imperial’s first elevator, the #4, rose in 1889 to the then-precarious height of 170 feet. This is less impressive as it only skirted the edges of a loading slip at the time, making it less than ideal to load ships with. Later, the slip was refined to give #4 more flexibility. Capitol, and all slips going eastward, rested on artificial protrusions from Rice’s Point, unlike Lake Superior Elevator, which relied upon existing geographical features.

Very close to #4—dangerously close, in fire prevention terms—followed Imperial #5, built to a more reasonable height of 90 feet and farther down the slip, right beside the Imperial Mill. So near, in fact, that both Imperial, then Capitol, used steam from the flour mill’s boilers to operate the elevators, a practice that continued after the flour mill was closed due to consolidation and the mill became Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing’s first sandpaper plant.

Checking out the neighbors. Shot on a the legendary Pentax 67.
Checking out the neighbors. Shot on a the legendary Pentax 67.

Elevator A and Q Burn

Union came to operate Duluth’s first elevator as well: the circa-1872 “A.” In November 1886, the company was in the process of finishing the construction of Elevator “Q” adjacent to “A” when a light bulb exploded in “A,” turning the wooden, dusty guts of the elevator into an unstoppable inferno. Grain dust is extremely flammable, and dust fires are difficult to battle. Soon, the fire had spread to “Q” which was immediately engulfed. No known images exist of “Q,” but it is highly likely that it had not yet been shielded in corrugated iron when the fire began.

Flames spread from the old elevator’s cupola—the raised hallway on top of the structure where grain is directed into bins—down the sides of the elevator, burning through the walls instantly. Burning grain rained onto the street, trestle, and into Lake Superior. The town gathered to watch as two-dozen firefighters entered the flaming buildings, equipped only with hoses and buckets.

When it was clear that the battle against the blaze was in vain, and that it was wiser to withhold the men in case the blaze threatened to spread downtown, the men were recalled. During evacuation, three men passed out from the smoke and heat and were consumed by the fire. One found himself trapped by the flames in the unfinished cupola of “Q” and, rather than being burned alive, leapt to his death.

A scale wireframe reconstruction of Duluth's elevator row.
A scale wireframe reconstruction of Duluth’s elevator row.

Additional to the death toll, the loss of 500,000 bushels in the elevators proved enough to trigger a rise in the Chicago grain market. Rather than being sold to mills, what did not burn was left to rot, eventually being sent out by barge to the middle of the lake and dumped. In 1891 the building’s ruins were turned into a temporary, makeshift curling rink for the Duluth Curling Club before they were eventually demolished.

The loss of life motivated Duluth to build safer elevators, and was perhaps another reason all subsequent elevators were built on Rice’s Point—far from downtown. It is possible that the Zenith City looked toward its principal rivals and their history with fire: Chicago’s Great Fire in 1871 killed hundreds and erased a swatch of its footprint, and a grain explosion in 1878 destroyed several square blocks of the milling district there and killed 18.

One thing was sure, there had to be a better construction material than wood. In the late 1880s a giant surge of grain began to hit Duluth from the Red River Valley, dramatically increasing the demand for new, fireproof facilities in Duluth.

Then came Peavey.

References »

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.

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