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 

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