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 jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org. 

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 jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.