Jim Heffernan’s Column: A Brief Personal History of Duluth

by | Oct 16, 2021 | Driving Ranges

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

However, this whole idea made me pause. My age is close to George Will. Got it a few years ago. I had never seen my tenure like this in this life. A third of American history? Seems strange, although true.

It means that Will and I were born at the beginning of World War II. I actually remember a couple of things about the war. Couldn’t get jam for toast due to lack of sugar. My parents had to redeem “points” with money to buy certain things. My father sold our car – couldn’t get gasoline or tires. Oh yes, the atomic bomb went off at the end of the conflict.

It changed everything, of course, and even though I was still a teenager, I remember it. The rest, as they say, is history. The rest is the rest of the 20th century and the first fifth of the 21st century. Long time. I was there.

Will’s observation led me to compile numbers of how much of Duluth’s story I experienced. About half, give or take. Hmmm. Half the story of Duluth in my lifetime? Well the numbers don’t lie.

So let’s see what caught my attention over the past eight decades of my conscious observation of Duluth’s affairs. Let me start by saying that it has changed. Much.

I was born in an industrial city. We made really great weapons during the war to build ships for – my only memory of it was other kids saying their fathers worked in the “shipyard”. All of this came to an abrupt end with the end of the war.

But we were a steel producing town out there in Morgan Park. Many fathers also worked there. Up to several thousand in good times, when the memory lasts. (All of this is memory and not a well-researched story.)

When I was young and the plant was still doing well, it was called the American Steel and Wire Division of United States Steel Corp. It was Duluth’s royal industry, the fortunes of which were very importantly linked to that of the city. Like jobs.

From time to time there were layoffs at the steel mill, and that was big news. But it always seemed to be recovering, along with the adjacent Universal Atlas Cement Co. in Gary-New Duluth. That was until they didn’t in the 1970s. Today the steel mill has slowly retreated to the open field on the site, everything disappeared except for the impurities that had remained in the ground on which it stood.

The steel mill’s demise coincided closely with the final closure of the US Duluth Air Force Base, making Duluth’s economic prospects even more serious. The air base had been hastily built after World War II when a new war, a Cold War, began for our leaders. This kept the base’s mission going for about 20 years as its role in defending the northern United States from Soviet missiles increased. But then the U.S. government pulled back, leaving only a state Air National Guard base and federal prison camp in their former facilities.

Not a big steel mill? No air force base worth mentioning? And oh, I almost forgot that the giant Marshall Wells national-range hardware operation and Coolerator Co., Kleerflax Linen Looms are all closing down. The list got pretty long. It also eroded the city’s population, eventually dropping from over 100,000 to around 20,000.

Looking back, it didn’t have huge chimneys pumping out industrial smoke, but UMD came along and slowly grew into a major institution and economic force. It started small around 1947, replacing a small teaching staff, and by the time I got there a decade later it had about 2,000 students. It now has more than 10,000 and has made a huge impact on Duluth, along with several other colleges, not the least of which is St. Scholastica and Lake Superior College.

And of course we had two big hospitals – St. Luke and St. Mary – that had been around at least since the beginning of the 20th century. I was born in St. Luke. Take a look today, as St. Mary’s is being built as part of what is now Essentia, which is changing the downtown Duluth skyline with a towering new building.

Duluth has grown into a major regional medical center similar, but perhaps not equal, to the Mayo Clinic’s impact on Rochester. It contributes massively to the economy. I don’t know how many are employed in our medical facilities far away, but it probably rivals or outperforms jobs in the old steel mill and other former companies.

In the midst of these changes, Interstate 35 was built across the city from the 1960s. And what is important for Duluth, the Arena Auditorium was built over the junkyard by the water, opened in 1966 and has since expanded as DECC to become the city’s outstanding cultural, entertainment and sports center.

For most of my life, what we know as Miller Hill Mall has been undeveloped forest and later a golf driving range. Downtown Duluth was the center of commerce with five large department stores, half a dozen cinemas, and a number of specialty shops, restaurants, and taverns. Now the Miller Trunk division has the lion’s share of it.

Don’t forget tourism. I’m running out of space here and I’ve skipped a lot of changes in Duluth (like mega railroad activities) in half of its history I’ve witnessed, but the bottom line is that Duluth has gotten through thick and thin (a lot thin) and always survived . The development of Canal Park and the Lake Superior shoreline has greatly improved tourism, turning a rundown downtown neighborhood of junkyards and dilapidated buildings into a glowing attraction with numerous hotels and restaurants for both locals and tourists.

What about the arts? The Duluth Symphony (now Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra) is a decade or so older than me, and the Duluth Playhouse is decades older, dating back to the early 20th century. But that was what it was all about for years. In recent years, Duluth has developed a vibrant arts scene that includes all of the arts and a downtown neighborhood to showcase them.

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

I have to stop, but not before I say that in the decades I’ve been part of it we’ve become a changed and livelier and more interesting city. I’m glad I was born here and glad I stayed … for half of this city’s existence and all of me.

Jim Heffernan is a former news and opinion writer and columnist for the Duluth News Tribune. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by email at [email protected].