Duluth, MN panorama 1870, courtesy of Sheldon T. Aubut
Original occupants of the western tip of Lake Superior were members of the Sioux and Ojibway tribes. In the 1600’s, however, French explorers discovered what the Native Americans knew all along; the area was brimming with fur-bearing animals. Soon, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut would arrive in an attempt to make peace between the Ojibway and Sioux in hopes of securing trading and trapping rights. His efforts earned him the opportunity to be the city’s namesake: du Lhut!
Rising to the Top
By the latter half of the 19th century, Duluth, indeed, was rising to its zenith! The city boasted the only U.S. port accessing both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, making it easy for the rest of the nation to tap into the area’s rich lumber, ample wheat, and expansive ore mining opportunities. It was fast becoming much more than its origin as a French fur-trading settlement. The arrival of the railroad was the puzzle piece that brought this zenith into full view; transporting people, products and prosperity. A great change from the simple life of the area’s original occupants: the Sioux and Ojibway.
In fact, in 1869 Duluth was the fastest growing city in the United States and it was on track to become the largest city in the Midwest. Unfortunately, disaster was looming on the horizon. In 1873, a stock market crash made it seem like the city would simply disappear from view altogether.
Yet, this “zenith city of the unsalted seas”, so coined by the city’s first newspaper, would get another chance. The important marriage of rich natural resources and viable transportation could not keep the city down. And, by the turn of the century, population neared one hundred thousand. Duluth was home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation, some say the world. The wealthy found their tax free incomes could go far here in this northern Mecca. They built homes, roads and businesses. And to meet these demands, a large workforce was created, which also prospered.
This boomtown backdrop can still be witnessed in Duluth’s downtown. The National Park Service designated a large portion of downtown buildings as a National Historic Register District. The Duluth Commercial Historic District is a parallelogram of 107 buildings on Superior and First Streets between 4th Avenue West and 4th Avenue East. The buildings represent significant commercial adaptation of architectural styles popular during the district’s period of significance (1872-1929), including Romanesque, the Revival Styles and vernacular commercial modes.
The historic designation gives property owners the opportunity to tap into federal preservation tax credits if they are looking to rehabilitate their structure. Duluth, MN has three additional historical districts — the Civic Center, Old Main School and Glensheen Mansion — as well as numerous individual listings that appear on the National Register, including the Aerial Lift Bridge, Hartley Building, and Irving School.
Efforts downtown continue to embrace Duluth’s rich early 20th century architecture by giving historical buildings new lives. Duluth’s new millennium workers spend their breaks at a plethora of fine eateries or unique shops, giving this tourist destination year ‘round desirability for Minnesota businesses. A three mile climate controlled Skywalk makes maneuvering the downtown easy and even allows pedstrians to stroll to Canal Park safely protected from the bustling interstate.
In Canal Park, life in the shadow of the historic Aerial Lift Bridge is the perfect playground for tourists. Once-tired warehouses are filled with a serendipitous array of shops, pubs and restaurants. Here, you can step onto the three mile Lakewalk which offers a chance to walk, run or bike alongside the breathtaking Lake Superior scenery.
Future Improvements in Historic Downtown
Recent studies on the downtown commercial district have helped city leaders find direction in their plans for civic improvements. A Charrette Process was undertaken in 2005. The planning session came up with recommendations concerning parking and safety issues of which Duluth is already seeing the benefit. Plus, efforts are underway to make downtown access to the Lakewalk more user-friendly and to expand downtown housing opportunities.
In addition, the city of Duluth was the subject of a Preservation Development Initiative undertaken by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The study focused on Old Downtown and surrounding areas. It is intended to provide a blueprint for enabling new development to sensitively blend in and enhance the communities’ historical character and sense of place. It ultimately provided the impetus for seeking the historic district designation. As it continues on this path, Duluth seems to recognize its place in history much as it did a century ago; a thriving city that realizes its unequaled beauty and opportunities.