French voyageurs, who first arrived in the mid-17th century, called this area Fond du Lac (Head of the Lake) and, like the Native Americans before them, camped in the natural harbor for protection from Lake Superior’s notoriously severe and sudden storms.
Daniel Greysolon, Sieur DuLuth, a marine captain in the French army, landed on Minnesota Point in 1679 to promote peace between the warring Ojibwe and Dakota, and fur traders soon established a small outpost in Duluth’s present-day Fond du Lac neighborhood. The enterprise succeeded, though never flourished, even after 1809 when John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company built a fort here. The station was abandoned in 1849, the same year Minnesota became a territory.
Rumors of copper in the area—later proven to be nothing but rumors—and the construction of the Sault Sainte Marie Locks brought settlers back in 1853. The next year, when the Treaty of La Point turned over most of the Ojibwe’s land to the Americans, a true land rush began, and many predicted that a city here could rival Chicago.
As a site for a city, the Head of the Lake couldn’t be more ideal. The natural harbor is one of the best in the world, and, as the westernmost point on the Great Lakes, it is perfectly situated commercially. Wealthy land speculators from St. Paul and politicians from Washington threw money into development.
Nearly a dozen small settlements, which eventually would merge into the present-day Duluth, sprang up below the steep hills on the north side of the bay, but most initial growth took place to the south on the broad plains of Wisconsin. Superior was the logical location for a great city, not only because of the level terrain, but it was also closest to the natural harbor entry, linked to St. Paul by a new military road, and a future rail line wouldn’t need to span the St. Louis River.
By 1857 Superior had swelled to around 3,000 people, while Duluth remained a backwater. The American Civil War began a few years later and put all plans for a new metropolis on ice.
It would be over two decades before anyone again dreamt of a great city here. That person was Eastern financier Jay Cooke, who came in 1868 and decided to bring his Lake Superior and Mississippi River Railroad north from St. Paul to Duluth instead of Superior. This was the first in a series of events that gave Duluth dominance and created a rivalry between the two cities that, to a small degree, still exists today.
Even before the first train rolled into “Jay Cooke’s town” in 1870, Dr. Thomas Foster, publisher of the city’s first newspaper, had declared Duluth “the Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas” and the population exploded from 14 in January of 1869 to 3,500 by the Fourth of July.
The bubble burst a second time in 1873 when Cooke’s entire empire crumbled, inciting a stock market crash and national depression. The city officially lost its charter and most of its 5,000 citizens, but Duluth was just too strategically positioned and surrounded by too many natural resources not to fulfill its destiny. It took about a decade, but soon local logging and western wheat farming revived the Twin Ports’ purpose and fueled construction of even more railroads to move these products here, plus the wharves, docks, and grain elevators needed to ship them to the East.
By 1883 Duluth and its 14,000 residents were thriving, and the city, through further economic ups and downs, continued to grow. Shipping eventually made Duluth–Superior the second most important urban center in all of the Northwest and home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world.
As the 20th century rolled in, iron mining expanded on the Mesabi Range and Duluth–Superior became the busiest port on the Great Lakes. Many of the city’s heavy industries shut down or moved on over the course of the century, but tourism and shipping, along with education and health care jobs, have kept the city moving forward.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition