My Cities by the Bay: Superior was to be “the next Chicago,” then Duluth committed an “utterly lawless” deed

October 4, 2011

Kathy Laakso
Zenith City Weekly

For almost 150 years, locals have heard the shipping canal legend: The people of Duluth hurrying down to the shore in the dead of night with picks and shovels—even kitchen serving spoons—to finish carving out the canal before Wisconsin officials could swoop down with a court order to halt what the Superior Times called an “utterly lawless” deed.

Superior and Duluth have always been in competition with each other, like two sisters of different fathers, Wisconsin and Minnesota, vying for the attention of their powerful mother, Lake Superior.

As with much of our mutual history, this fight began over the railroad. The city of Superior was founded in 1854, built on speculation based on the westward momentum of transcontinental rail.

With its natural bay for ships to connect with the railroad, United States Vice President John Breckenridge once called Superior “the next Chicago,” predicting the “City of Destiny” would someday be home to a million people.

Transcontinental rail was built with federal money. The government supplied construction bonds and land grants as well as timber and mineral rights to companies that wanted to build.  

The Union Pacific and Central Pacific climbed over each other for a chance at the money and, as often is the case, opportunity breeds abuse.

Inflating costs, bribing members of Congress, and building faulty track to put money in the personal pockets of railroad board members led Uncle Sam to wonder if this project was such a good idea.  

Then Jay Cooke, a banker and investor from back east who helped finance the Civil War, decided to cash in his markers in Washington. Congress allowed him to renew the 1864 Northern Pacific charter.

Northern Pacific was originally chartered to build a line from Lake Superior to Oregon, but was stalled by the high cost of railroad corruption and the War.

The company issued $100 million in construction bonds secured by a land grant. Jay Cooke and Company agreed to sell the bonds in America and Europe, touting the Midwest as the next place to build tracks.

Superior was confident the railroad would finally come its way. The eastern terminus was established in Thomson Township (later Carlton, Minnesota).

If they put money into the Superior & State Line Railway Company, city officials reasoned they would connect to the Northern Pacific junction at Thomson, diverting the railroad from Duluth.

Cooke agreed to the deal—but only if Superior paid for it. The city put out a bond referendum that would allow Douglas County to purchase $300,000 stock in the company that would build the line.

Founding editor of the Times Edward W. Anderson, Jr. urged voters to approve the bonds, but with all the stories they’d heard about corruption in the rail companies, people lacked confidence in the men involved.  

James Stinson, of Superior & State Line, had fled town before, when rail didn’t pan out, and no one put it past him to do so again. Voter turnout was low and the referendum failed.

So Jay Cooke found another partner—the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, which ran north from St. Paul and intersected with the Northern Pacific line at Thomson already. The company’s only stipulation was that Duluth must be the railroad’s sole terminus on Lake Superior.

Duluth, a younger and then-smaller city, was ecstatic, but Cooke still faced one obstacle: Congress had given land to Wisconsin for development of the Saint Croix line. The deadline to build it had passed in 1869, but a charter to extend that deadline was now before the legislature.

This would not do. To make sure Superior wouldn’t get a chance at another railroad, Cooke lobbied to put the land grant back into public domain.

But you can’t lobby the lake to do what you want. Superior had a natural bay, giving it the upper hand as the only entrance from the lake for ships to dock.

The Sault St. Marie locks promised to bring commerce from around the world to Superior’s doorstep, while Duluth’s rocky shore, subject to the lake’s fury, made docking there almost impossible.

In 1869, the Corp of Engineers reviewed the harbor and considered three options:

•building a breakwater to create an outer harbor;
•cutting a canal through Minnesota Point and dredging the inner harbor to build docks; or
•completing the piers at the entrance to the Bay of Superior and dredging an interior harbor.

The latter option was least costly and that was reason enough for the Corp to recommend it.

When the Lake Superior & Mississippi railroad came to Duluth in 1870, the city started to construct a breakwater in the lake to protect the docks. But Mother Nature joined forces with Lake Superior in 1872 and destroyed it before they could finish.

Duluth wasn’t happy with the Corp’s decision to put money into the Superior bay and decided to create access to their own docks. Building a ship canal across Minnesota Point seemed like a better idea anyway and it had been talked about for years.

Since Jay Cooke was a member of the first Board of Directors of the Minnesota Canal and Harbor Company, his railroads picked up the tab.

The W.W. Williams and Company’s dredging tug, Ishpeming, started carving out the canal in the summer of 1870, but the people of Superior didn’t find out about it until a story appeared in the Times on September 29 and they cried foul.

The “sisters” across the bay were now at war.

Duluth asserted in their newspaper, the Tribune, that the St. Louis River would have to run uphill to divert the lake from the canal.

The Superior Times, oozing with sarcasm, wondered whom they thought they were kidding and questioned the legality of the whole thing.

Superior filed suit in state and federal court. Newly elected Governor Cadwallader Washburn asked the federal government to step in and stop the dredging.

Williams & Co. did stop, but only for the winter. By April, the Ishpeming worked continuously for a week until it hit a snag of frozen gravel.

Here is the part where Duluthians appeared at midnight with picks and shovels to open the canal on Minnesota Point.

In June, the federal government did file an injunction against Duluth and Williams & Co., seeking to either stop the dredging or to build a dike between Minnesota Point and Rice’s Point, on the basis that the canal would destroy Superior’s natural bay.

But by then, the canal was already built. Federal Judge Samuel Miller heard the case and ruled Duluth could continue dredging, but must build the dike.

As it turns out, though, putting an actual wall between Duluth and Superior was not a great success. The harbors cut each other off and shortcuts were taken in building the dike, compromising its structure.

In November 1872, Wisconsin took its failed injunction to the US Supreme Court, this time against the City of Duluth, its mayor Sidney Luce, and the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, which had helped pay for the canal and used its trains to haul building materials for the dike.

The complaint alleged the dike would “absolutely and entirely deprive the citizens and inhabitants of [Superior] from the privilege of navigating that portion of the St. Louis River” and “from all connections with the said Lake Superior and Mississippi railroad.” This would “inflict great and irreparable injury to the commercial prosperity” of Superior.

The dike didn’t last long anyway. Cooke wanted to rebuild its faulty structure and the Chief of Engineers ordered Duluth to do so. Then someone blew a hole in the dike with gunpowder.  

It was clearly time for a compromise.

In early 1873, Wisconsin Governor Washburn met with the Northern Pacific to negotiate. The dike was to be removed and the bay of Superior dredged to form a natural entrance to the docks at both cities.

The Northern Pacific offered to extend its rail from Rice’s Point to Connor’s Point in Superior and run along the shoreline to the mouth of the Nemaji River.  

Two weeks later, the Times reported both the canal and dike would remain, with an opening in the dike for boats to enter the inner harbor from Superior to access the railroad docks and wharves to Duluth.

Times editor Anderson, who had covered this story from beginning to end, couldn’t help editorializing:

The compromise agreed upon by the representatives of Wisconsin and Minnesota in regard to the matters in controversy between Duluth and Superior, is much more favorable to Duluth than was stated in previous telegrams.
The Duluthites have, in fact, won a substantial triumph.
The canal is to stand and the dyke is to stand; but a hole is to be made in it for Wisconsin to crawl through on its way to the Duluth docks.
Such a “compromise” is depriving the State of Wisconsin of all its rights, destroys the future of Superior, and concedes to Duluth not only all it asked and robbed us of, but even more than they claimed.

In the end, Jay Cooke lost much of his money as the country was on the brink of a major recession. Superior didn’t see its rail line until 1881. The storms of Lake Superior eventually helped dismantle the dike.  

Today, the sisters continue struggling to change with new industries and find their own unique identities. But we still hold in common the connection that once divided us—Lake Superior.

Kathy Laakso is Director of the Douglas County Historical Society.

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