Saturday, December 25, 2021

’Twas the day after Christmas Eve...

Written for the Duluth News Tribune By Jim Heffernan for Saturday, December 25, 2021

Well, he made it. Santa Claus is back at the North Pole after last night’s grueling journey around everywhere delivering lots of toys to girls and boys.


“It was a rough one,” the Jolly Old Elf admitted after landing at sunrise near his cozy cabin and toy factory at the top of the world — not feeling quite as jolly as in the weeks leading up to his annual trek.


Eager to “hit the sack” (not the sack he carries on his back, but his cozy bed), Santa granted an interview before snuggling under the quilts and covers for a long winter’s nap.


“But make it short,” he said. “I’m bushed.”


Why was this Christmas trip such a “rough one?” he was asked.


“Because it’s different now. Everything’s changed from the old days when I could harness up the reindeer just after dark on Christmas Eve and make my way south, red-nosed Rudolph in the lead in case of fog.” Every direction is south from where Santa and Ms. Claus live.


He said, for one thing, he’s had to worry about the elves coming down with COVID all year while busily making the children’s toys. “We all made it,” Santa said, adding, “I think it’s too cold up here for the virus. But we’re careful. We all wore masks all the time, although it’s hard to get a mask around my flowing white beard. Drives me nuts.”


“Then there’s the con-sarned clouds,” he went on. “It used to be kind of pleasant up there in the clouds, drifting along in my sleigh, Dasher, Dancer Prancer and Vixen in the lead behind Rudolph, with Comet, Cupid. Donner and Blitzen pulling their weight behind them.”


“But,” he said, “now the clouds are full of words and reports and letters and all sorts of stuff where people store the materials from their computers. It’s a mess up there.”


Asked what sort of stuff he encounters, Santa almost blushed, although his face is so permanently red it’s hard to tell. “You have no idea what people write on their computers and then store it in the cloud. Companies, the government, and ordinary people clog up the clouds with their data. I’ve never had to deal with data before.”


He went on to say all of the data in the clouds is confusing the reindeer as they led the sleigh around the world. “We plowed into the data from the Internal Revenue Service and had a hard time finding our way out.”


“Then there’s this global warming,” he groused. “Believe me, that is not a good sign for delivering gifts to the kids on Christmas.” He noted that with less snow in the future, his sleigh will have a difficult time landing on roofs as he delivers the toys to eager children.


“You don’t see as many polar bears around the yard here either. It’s a mess. It’s just not as much fun as it used to be. I should retire. Hardly anybody believes in me anymore anyway,” he said as he loosened the belt on his huge red bathrobe.”


“Oh now Santa,” Ms Claus chimed in. “You’re just tired and you ate too many cookies children left for you along the way.”


The usually Jolly Old Elf indeed was not very jolly at all this morning as he mused about last night’s journey around the world. Not a “ho” to be heard, much less two more ho’s.


“You aren’t going to retire or anything are you?” the interviewer queried.


“Nah, I don’t think so,” he answered. “It’s just that everything’s so changed these days it kind of gets a Saint like me down.”


“Cheer up, Sweetie,” Ms. Claus interrupted. “Here, have an egg nog and you’ll feel better after a good rest.”


With that, Santa turned on his heel and headed for his cozy bedroom for a long winter’s nap. But I heard him declaim as he hit the sweet hay, “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good day.”


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Holiday music evokes memories...

Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/Saturday, December 11, 2021

I listened to a rendition of “Jingle Bells” in the Baroque style the other day on public radio and it put me in a Christmas mood right away. Holiday music has a way of doing that better than any other Yuletide tradition.


Oh, there’s the beautiful decorations cropping up on houses all over town, the shopping in decorated stores and, of course, here in Duluth we’ve got Bentleyville down there on the waterfront. Very Christmassy, indeed.

But, for me, it’s the holiday music that can send my emotions about Christmas swelling, bringing back memories of Christmases past, and, believe me, I’ve racked up a lot of Christmases past.


Some of the music is enduring, some ephemeral. Both seem to put me in the Christmas mood.

Who can forget the engaging “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (underneath the mistletoe last night)? Well, maybe some have forgotten it, but I haven’t. That’s Christmas to me. How about you? No?

And then there was the plaintive “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.” It was sung by the great Jimmy Boyd, who, to the best of my knowledge, got his two front teeth back and never thang another thong. Still, what a sentiment, what a holiday plea. Gulp. That’s Christmas to me too, although I think it might be the one “carol” left unrecorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

A bit longer lasting in the pantheon of inspiring Christmas music is “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” (bend your ear this way). Sigh. Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a dolly, Nellie thinks dolls are folly (ahead of her time). What could evoke the holidays more touchingly?

How about “Baby It’s Cold Outside”? It always shows up at this time of the year, although there’s no actual mention of Christmas in the lyrics. That’s OK. If it’s cold outside it must be Christmastime. That’s good enough to put me in a holiday mood. Just like “Walkin’ in the Winter Wonderland”: (“In the meadow we can build a snowman, we’ll pretend that he is Parson Brown. He’ll say, ‘Are you married?’ we’ll say, ’No, man, but you can have the job when you’re in town.’”) Could that snowman be Frosty?

Oh, my, we can’t forget Rudolph in this compilation of Christmas music to inspire the yuletide spirit. There was no “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in my earliest years. But along he came, shiny nose and all, when I was still a kid, making me feel bad that the other reindeer wouldn’t let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games. I have always wondered what kind of games reindeer actually play, but no matter. Puts me in a Christmas mood, that’s for sure.

Just like those “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” Everybody knows that ubiquitous holiday ballad performed by so many artists. It simply reeks of holiday spirit, although I have never actually seen chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and don’t know anyone who has. Marshmallows might have been better. But still, that’s Christmas to so many of us.

How could I organize this compendium of inspiring Christmas music and leave “White Christmas” out? Well, I’m not going to. That song actually came out when I was a child too (yup, I’m that old) and is, perhaps, the most popular Christmas song ever composed in America.

In my youth, I sang in several choirs — church, high school, university — and, of course, they all embraced Christmas as a time to show off their talents. I’ll always remember the words to one of the numbers I’ve joined in singing many times in various choirs. It’s from Handel’s “Messiah” and it goes like this:

“For unto us a child is born, a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”


It has a ring to it, don’t you think? Without that, none of the rest would exist.


Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Meet the man who never was...

The Man Who Never Was
Written by Jim Heffernan for The Duluth NewsTribune/Saturday, November 27

 Today I was going to discuss issues of vital concern to Americans, such as the end of Britney Spears’ conservatorship and Taylor Swift’s split with Jake Glyllenhaal, but decided instead to feature The Man Who Never Was — me. Yours truly. Moi.


So let me begin at the beginning. I am born. My parents don’t have a name yet so they put “Baby Boy” on my birth certificate. I, of course, did not know this. My folks always had said I was named after both my paternal grandfather and a recently departed uncle and that was that. I figured it would say my full name on my birth certificate if I ever saw it.


Let’s jump ahead now to something over half a century later when, planning a European trip, I applied for my first passport. I needed to prove that I am who I am, so I got my birth certificate proudly proclaiming the arrival of…“Baby Boy?” Oh for crying out loud! What happened to James?


Not good enough, decree the passport people reviewing my birth certificate; got to have some other proof of your existence. They suggest that old school report cards would be acceptable. Well, I have some of those from my earliest years at Duluth’s old Lincoln Elementary.


So I fished a few early report cards from a family history file and was astonished to see my “marks” and teacher comments. The comments are highly complimentary of my singing ability (soprano at the time) but that I spend too much time dreamily staring out the window and not paying attention to learning such things as reading, writing and arithmetic that you might need later in life. Who knew that?


Of course I’m humiliated to show this to the passport guy but I went ahead with it, chagrined at such revealing (if true) traits attributed to me. It worked. The U.S. State Department, which issues passports, apparently accepts Americans who stared out the window in school.


Onward. Well, actually, backward. Facing the military draft after completing my education in the 1960s (I gazed out the window a lot in college too), I joined the U.S. Army National Guard, which didn’t care what you did in school as long as you could spit-shine boots.


Many of the men I served with recalled being “sworn in” when they enlisted in the Army. Sworn in? Oops! They forgot so swear me in when I joined. I hadn’t promised to uphold the Constitution or defend America from enemies real or imagined or whatever they say when you raise your right hand, but there I was in boot camp conning other recruits into spit-shining my boots in exchange for me ghost-writing love letters to their girlfriends. Several got married right after they got out, I learned.


But what about me?  I’m the man who never was…sworn in.


Oh well. I muddled through it all anyway, Army boot camp, six years of weekend warrior duty and released. So, a couple of years ago, reading about all the benefits veterans qualify for, I checked with the local veterans office to see my status. “You are not a veteran,” I was told, because I hadn’t served enough time on active duty.


Well, well. The soldier who never was.


And now, at long last, let us move to the present. A few weeks ago, to be precise, I was informed by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety that my driver’s license had to be renewed by my birthday. (You remember my birth described above. Name? Baby Boy.)


While I was at it, I decided to apply for one of the new super-duper licenses that can get you through domestic airports to the satisfaction of customs officials who never smile and confiscate pocket penknives from innocent travelers. The licenses are called “REAL ID compliant” and require applicants to submit all kinds of proof that they exist (take that, man who never was) and that you are a real American (take that, non veteran who served six years in the military).


No problem.  I was able to submit certain personal identification documents, the main one being my hard-earned passport.


Weeks pass and then a letter arrives from the Department of Public Safety. In essence, I was informed there was some problem with my passport and they wouldn’t issue my REAL ID driver’s license without other identification.


Whew. The man who never was again. Getting used to it.


So, with trepidation I went to the St. Louis County courthouse to obtain my birth certificate, terrified that it might ID me as “Baby Boy.” I guess I had fixed that back when I applied for a passport, because the certificate was perfect, with my full name and the great seal of St. Louis County. They only cost 26 bucks. Frame not provided.


Now I’ve been informed that I will receive my new super-duper driver’s license in a couple of weeks. We’ll see.


And to think Britney Spears and Taylor Swift think they’ve got problems.


As the man who never was, though, I do want to add briefly that they forgot to include the wedding vows when I got married. You know: “Do you, Baby Boy, take…” and so on and so forth.  But now I’m going to look in a mirror and see if I’m there.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

Saturday, November 13, 2021

The lasting legacy of Bela Lugosi as ‘Dracula’...

Bela Lugosi as Dracula
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/November 13, 2021 

Let’s go on a voyage today…

By the time I got to Budapest it was raining. No, maybe that was Vienna on a Danube River trip a few years ago. Who cares what the weather was when visiting the homeland of notorious actor Bela Lugosi.


Why Bela “Call Me Dracula” Lugosi now? Fully two weeks after Halloween 2021, the year almost everybody wore masks if they had an ounce of sense? But enough politics. Around Halloween I re-watched Bela on TV as Dracula in his first movie playing that blood-sucking vampire and this is my first chance to express some inspiring thoughts on it in print.


I was shocked, shocked in Budapest (cognoscenti like me actually pronounce it Budapescht to demonstrate our erudition) to find how big Lugosi still is in the Hungarian capital. After all, the guy left there before 1920 and died in Hollywood more than 30 years later.


It’d be like Duluth worshiping Bob Dylan in 2087, or thereabouts. They probably will.


But everywhere you go in Budapest (remember, if you read this aloud to your children, pronounce it Budapescht to get them off to a good start in life) there’s some remembrance of Bela Lugosi — statues, museums (well, just one); there’s the Bela Lugosi Day Care Center, the Bela Lugosi Laundromat, the Bela Lugosi Blood Bank (hmmmm), Saint Bela Lugosi Cathedral. Well, maybe I dreamed a few of those up, but Lugosi is big in Budapest. Take my word for it.


Who remembers the famous Austro-Hungarian emperor (I forget his name, but James Mason played him in the movies with huge sideburns)? Hardly anybody remembers who was emperor when all the trouble started over there leading to World War I, but you can’t round a corner in downtown Budapest without running into Bela Lugosi.


Sometimes I worry in writing these columns that as a registered geezer my musings will not be of interest to members of those generations with letters like X, Y and Z and so forth. All of my progeny falls into one of those categories. My generation falls somewhere between “Greatest” and “Boomer,” so we got no credit at all for ending the Great Depression and discovering Elvis.


But we remember Bela Lugosi, by cracky. He scared the living daylights out of me when they re-relased his 1931 classic “Dracula” and it showed up at Duluth’s Lyric Theater on a dark and stormy night when I was about 10 years old. At least I think it was dark and stormy; dark for sure, Daylight Saving Time having lapsed. I’m pretty sure. I like to be decisive.



You couldn’t view that movie at that age without being petrified, and being instilled with a lifelong fear of vampire bats, which are now accused of starting pandemics. Sometimes in the film, Dracula shows up as a bat casing the boudoirs of fair-haired young women before turning back into the black-caped-white-tie-and-tails monster about to suck her blood via her neck. That sort of thing gets your attention as a pre-adolescent.


Sleeping in a coffin placed in a dank catacomb during the day, he’d rise only after dark (you wonder what he thought about Daylight Saving Time) to work his hypnotic magic on his comely victims and also crazed males who have difficulty speaking without seeming to scream in a monotone, eyes wide with terror.


Whew, I’m getting scared just recalling his stuff. Thank heaven (heaven is not actually involved here but thank it anyway) for Dr. Van Helsing, who’s got the goods on the caped, widow’s peaked, slick raven-headed, vampire.


Van Helsing carries a good-sized crucifix in his suit coat breast pocket because he knows that is the one thing Dracula fears and shrinks back from. (Well, I guess heaven IS involved here a bit. What a relief.) Oh, Dracula recoils from garlic too — just like the rest of us.


“You know too much, Van Helsing,” says the Count (oh yes, I forgot to note that Dracula was a tangential royal in his Transylvania homeland — not to be confused with Pennsylvania). Back home in Transylvania he was known as “Vlad the Impaler.” This was several generations before the Hollywood years, although it’s the same guy. Vampires never die as long as they sleep all day. They don’t even fade away, even when a stake is driven through their hearts.


Oh, I can’t go on. I’m getting the shivers just writing about this.


I recall taking the bus home from the Dracula movie that night and my buddy and I ran as fast as we could in the dark from the bus stop to the safety of our homes and hearths.


Meanwhile, back in Budapest, I have a photo of me posing in touristy attire standing in front of the Bela Lugosi Museum, inexplicably painted a cheerful yellow. I didn’t go inside, though. Scared? Maybe. Also cheap.


Finally, remember: If you want to impress your friends, pronounce it Budapesht.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Lost and confused at Duluth landfill...

Bessie, 1962
Written By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/October 30, 2021

I went to the “dump” recently to get rid of some styrofoam planks we had used as insulation. We no longer need them because of global warming. Can’t prove that; taking a chance.


I used to be an old hand at going to the dump, formerly also known as the landfill and now, in the Duluth area, known as the Materials Recovery Center of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (MRCWLSSD…got that?).


As most folks around here know, it’s that huge tract off Rice Lake Road just north of the city limits, filled, absolutely filled, with decades of Duluth’s trash history and one very large dead body, more on which later.


It might surprise someone going there for the first time that often, on weekends when everybody cleans out their garage, the vehicles line up on the feeder road 15-20 at a time, some pulling trailers full of trash. It’s like a funeral procession for your junk.


You slowly move toward a “checkpoint” where yellow-vested personnel look over your load before flagging you on to the next stop. It reminded me of “Checkpoint Charlie,” the famous site in Berlin that processed people going back and forth between West and East Berlin when they had the big wall. By the time I got to Berlin on a trip, it was being operated as a tourist trap. What was left of the Berlin wall was covered with German graffiti art.


Meanwhile, back in rural Duluth, the getting-rid-of-junk process has undergone a huge change from several years ago when you could drive unimpeded right into the middle of the landfill, throw your junk on a pile and escape as quickly as possible, holding your nose and swatting flies. It is not easy to hold your nose and swat flies at the same time.


Now, after passing through Checkpoint Garbage, you are stopped at another checkpoint where you are asked to pay a fee calculated on the amount and type of refuse you want to get rid of.


After that, you’re supposed to follow a map they hand you, without telling you it’s a map, and find your way to the appropriate site for the kind of stuff you are hauling. I foolishly didn’t look at the map and got hopelessly lost and confused, pulling up by a series of garages filled with discarded but usable stuff people leave off and other people, apparently, scavenge. I mistook one of those folks for an employee (he was seated in a lawn chair so I figured he was working), but was told in no uncertain terms that he was, in fact, not working there.


Finally, I saw a front-end loader a few hundred feet away moving refuse around, went over and added my styrofoam to the pile and endeavored to get the heck out of there — not an easy task without the map.


But first I stood and looked around at the nearby vast green field covering decades of refuse buried there before the active area was moved to where it is today. Whenever I’m there, I pay brief silent homage to the late Bessie, the Duluth Zoo’s only elephant. She’s in there somewhere.


I’ve recalled her here in the past, but for those who don’t remember her, Bessie was the lone elephant at the Duluth Zoo, now known as the Lake Superior Zoo. They built a huge house for her and there she stood for years swaying to and fro and tugging on her leg chains as visitors filed by.


But the day came — more than 40 years ago — that Bessie died, right there in the Duluth Zoo’s elephant house. What to do with a dead elephant? Well, what they did was haul her up to the landfill, as it was known then, on Rice Lake Road and gave her a proper burial.


I wrote a column about all this at the time, but I believe it’s worth repeating that I wonder, hundreds of years from now, what future archeologists digging around ancient northern Minnesota might think when they discover an elephant under the decades of detritus and carrion (they bring dead horses there, don’t they?) that we have contributed to those acres outside Duluth.


Like other strange finds that crop up in unlikely places around the globe, it could upset all theories about the range of ancient pachyderms in North America. That would be Bessie. Or maybe just her bones. 


Today’s modern Material Recovery Center is a great advance in garbage/junk disposal, of course, and so much more environmentally friendly than just letting anyone dump anything they want there and beat a hasty retreat.


But such was the way for decades in Duluth, and it wasn’t always outside of town. I can remember as a child going to the Duluth dump with my father when it was located in West Duluth, on the waterfront a few blocks west of the ore docks — good luck to the St. Louis River estuary.


Back at the current facility, I finally found my way out, meeting 15 or 20 vehicles lined up go get in, their occupants undoubtedly waiting to pay their solemn respects to Bessie. Undoubtedly indeed.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at   

If interested, click HERE for linking to an older blog post that gives more information about Bessie, the Elephant.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

A brief personal history of Duluth...

Plant built by Minnesota Steel Company (part of US Steel.
Photo: circa 1925/Northeast Minnesota Historical Center 

Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/October 16, 2021


When Washington Post columnist George F. Will turned 80 recently, he remarked that he had been alive for one third of American history.


What? Well, if you do the numbers, I guess it’s so. Three times 80 is 240. That about takes us back to the Founding Fathers, bless their souls.


This whole idea gave me pause, though. I’m close to George Will in age. Got him by a couple of years. I’d never looked at my tenure in this life that way. A third of American history? Seems strange, although true.


It means both Will and I were born around the onset of World War II. I actually remember a few things about the war. Couldn’t get jam for toast because of sugar shortages. My parents had to turn in “points” with money to buy certain things. My father sold our car — couldn’t get gas and tires. Oh yes, the Atomic Bomb went off at the end of the conflict.


It changed everything, of course, and even though I was a youngster, I do remember it. The rest is history, as they say. That rest being the remainder of the 20th Century and the first fifth of the 21st. Long time. I was there.


Will’s observation prompted me to do the numbers on how much of Duluth’s history I have experienced. About half, give or take. Hmmm. Half of the history of Duluth in my lifetime? Well, the numbers don’t lie.


So, let’s see what got my attention in the past eight or so decades of my conscious observation of things Duluth. Let me start by saying it’s changed. A lot.


I was born into an industrial city. We were really going great guns during the war building ships for the effort — my only memory of that was hearing other kids say their fathers worked in the “shipyard.” That all came to an abrupt halt at war’s end.


But we were a steel-producing town, out there in Morgan Park. A lot of kids’ dads worked there too. Up to several thousand in good times, if memory serves. (All of this is memory, and not well-researched history.)


When I was young, and the plant was still going strong, it was called American Steel and Wire Division of United States Steel Corp. It was Duluth’s king industry, its fortunes linked to the city’s in very important ways. Like jobs.


Every so often there would be layoffs at the steel plant, and it was big news. But it always seemed to bounce back, along with its adjacent Universal Atlas Cement Co. in Gary-New Duluth. That is until they didn’t in the 1970s. The steel plant slowly wound down to the open field on the site today, everything disappeared except contaminants left behind in the soil on which it stood.


11th FIS F-102 Delta Dagger 56-1485
in arctic colors about 1959 (Wikipedia)
The demise of the steel plant closely coincided with the permanent closing of Duluth’s U.S. Air Force base, causing even more grave concern for the economic outlook of Duluth. The Air Base had been hastily constructed after World War II when a new war, a Cold War, began concerning our leaders. That sustained the base’s mission for around 20 years, as its role in defending the northern United States from Soviet missiles increased. But then the U.S. government pulled out, leaving only a state Air National Guard base in its wake and a federal prison camp in its former facilities.


No major steel plant? No sizable Air Force base? And oh, I almost forgot, the huge Marshall Wells hardware operation with a national reach, and the Coolerator Co., the Kleerflax Linen Looms all closing. The list was getting pretty long. Plus, it eroded the city’s population, eventually dropping about 20,000 from 100,000-plus.


Glancing back again, it didn’t have huge chimneys spewing industrial smoke but along came UMD, slowly growing into a large institution and economic force. It started small about 1947, replacing a small teacher’s college, and by the time I got there a decade later it had about 2,000 students. It now has more than 10,000 and it has a huge impact on Duluth, along with the several other campuses of higher education, not the least of which are St. Scholastica and Lake Superior College.


And, of course, we had two large hospitals — St. Luke’s and St. Mary’s —that had been around since at least early in the 20th century. I was born in St. Luke’s. Take a look at them today, with St. Mary’s emerging as part of today’s Essentia that is transforming downtown Duluth’s skyline with towering new construction.


Duluth has become a major regional medical center, akin, but perhaps not equal, to the Mayo Clinic’s impact on Rochester, Minn. It contributes mightily to the economy. I don’t know how many are employed in our far-flung medical facilities but it likely rivals or surpasses the jobs at the old steel plant and other former businesses.


In the middle of these changes, starting in the 1960s, Interstate 35 was constructed right through town. And as important to Duluth, the Arena Auditorium was built over waterfront junkyards, opening in 1966 and since expanded as the DECC, becoming the city’s preeminent cultural/entertainment/sports center.


For much of my lifetime what we know as Miller Hill Mall was undeveloped woods and later a golf driving range. Downtown Duluth was the center of commercial activity with five good-sized department stores, half a dozen movie theaters and a passel of specialty shops, restaurants and taverns. Now the Miller Trunk area has the lion’s share of that.


Can’t forget tourism. I’m running out of space here, and I’ve left out a lot of Duluth changes in the half of its history I’ve witnessed (like mega railroad activity), but the bottom line is that Duluth has transformed itself through thick and thin (lots of thin) and always survives.  Development of Canal Park and Lake Superior’s shoreline has greatly enhanced tourism, turning a downtrodden downtown neighborhood from junkyards and dilapidated buildings into a shining attraction with numerous hotels and restaurants for locals and tourists.


What about the arts? The Duluth Symphony (now Duluth-Superior Symphony) is a decade or so older than I am, and the Duluth Playhouse is decades older than that, going all the way back to the early 20th Century. For years, though, that was about it. In fairly recent years, Duluth has developed a vibrant arts community encompassing all the arts and a downtown neighborhood to show them off.


Oh, there’s so much more to say, like the arrival of television in the early 1950s that also played a huge role in Duluth’s evolution. And we once had two daily newspapers, morning and evening, the diminution of which was influenced by the advent of the World Wide Web.


I must stop, but not before saying we are a transformed, and become more vibrant and interesting city in the decades that I have been part of it. Glad I was born here, and glad I stayed…for half of this town’s existence, and all of mine.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Duluth was pioneer in electric vehicles...

1947 Cincinnati Trolley bus, similar to those in Duluth 
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/October 2, 2021

Electric cars are on the horizon. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever have one. I have a birthday coming up on Monday and, counting the candles on the cake, I’m not at all sure an electric car is in my future. I’m not even sure there’s a cake large enough for all the candles.


But you never know. I’m all for electric cars, even though I grew up in an era of gas-guzzling, tail fin sporting Detroit iron monsters. I had a few of those over the years and foolishly thought they’d be around forever.


For some reason I recall once saying to a friend: “I’ll never own a car that doesn’t have a V-8 engine and white sidewall tires.” That’ll give you some idea of how prescient a forecaster of things to come I was. For the past 35-plus years I have owned only fairly small — you could say “compact”  — cars with four-cylinder engines and black sidewall tires.


Things change.


But I still look back fondly on those thrilling days of yesteryear when the greatest achievement in my life — a goal shared by many other boys — was to get a driver’s license. We could get them at age 15 in those days.


We were car crazy, often to the detriment of such things as scholastic achievement. Whose car could go the fastest in a quarter mile or could beat the car in the next lane for a block or two when a red light turned to green — called “drag” racing — were the important things in our lives. (As an aside, and just to be clear, drag racing did not involve dressing up in women’s clothing. Still, some cars had skirts on their back fenders.)


Oh, the cars were supposed to look nice too, and be “customized.” That involved removal of such useful things as trunk handles, door handles, hood ornaments and other standard fixtures and replacing them with nothing. Nothing. Holes left where the removed parts had been were filled with steel patches and body putty and smoothed and painted over. Rear ends were either lowered or raised. Cool. Very cool.


And to be cool, your car also had to have dual exhausts with “straight” mufflers that loudly rumbled, called “smitties,” especially while drag racing. Many of today’s pickup truck drivers still adhere to this twin pipes, loud-muffler practice. No whitewalls though.


Here in Duluth, those of us who were like-minded about cars formed clubs, called “Car Clubs,” ostensibly devoted to promoting safe driving (yeah, right) and assisting stranded motorists (uh-huh). Our West Duluth club was called the “Regents,” in honor of the governing body of the University of Minnesota. Or maybe not. It just sounded classy.


This was the mindset for many males of my generation as America moved inexorably away from behemoth cars to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, largely imported from Japan, although the German Volkswagen came on pretty strong too with its original “bug.”


And now electric cars are looming, perhaps the greatest contrast with the old Detroit iron, slab-sided gas guzzlers that could ever be imagined. They don’t even have tail pipes or mufflers.


You wonder how fast the electric cars would be off the line in a downtown drag race? Is there anybody still alive who cares?


I have some insight, though, into how fast electric vehicles might be, especially when starting out. I’m old enough to remember when most of the transit buses in Duluth were powered by electricity. They didn’t have huge batteries, like today’s electric vehicles, but were connected by trollies to power lines suspended above the streets on which hey plied.


I know it seems incredible today, but there they were, well into the 1950s. Before the trolley buses, Duluth had streetcars on rails, also connected to power lines strung above them. They went out before World War II. Even I don’t remember them.


Back to how fast electric vehicles might be in a drag race with some gas guzzling hot-rodder aching for a little action at the turn of a traffic signal.


Those old trolley buses had at their disposal every available ampere of power immediately upon pressing the accelerator whereas a car needed to rev up its power. I remember being told to never get in a drag race with a trolley bus. You’ll lose.


Of course you’d never get into such a race. Bus drivers would never deign to endanger their passengers by racing around the streets of the town. Too bad.


Just for the historical record, there was one major drawback to trolley buses. Sometimes the trolleys would become disengaged from the power wires above and drivers would have to pile out and re-connect them with cables extending from the back of the bus up to the trolleys.


It was a great opportunity for mischief when young riders would disembark and run to the back and disengage the trolley on purpose. I knew one kid who never got off a trolley bus without disabling it.


Still, those electrically powered buses put Duluth into the fight against greenhouse gas and climate change/global warming 75 years ahead of today’s efforts.


And we didn’t even know it.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at