Two newspaper interviews, published 20 years apart, bookend the rise and fall of Alexander Miles — a Duluth barber, elevator innovator and real estate developer who spent the last quarter of the 1800s along Lake Superior.
The first story appeared in 1887 when Miles was 50 and at the top of his game. The Western Appeal, a St. Paul weekly, sent a reporter to Duluth to interview the man widely considered the richest black man in Minnesota. After breakfast at his hillside home, Miles gave the reporter a tour of Duluth in a carriage pulled by Harry G, one of his prized horses.
“Mr. Miles is particularly proud of his horses, which are as fine as any in the city,” wrote the reporter, who described Miles’ house at 311 W. Fourth Street as “a very comfortable residence on an excellent site overlooking the lake … in a style in accord with his means.”
Some estimates put Miles’ worth — through his real estate, hair-care business and inventions — at $500,000. But 20 years later, Miles was widowed, broke, cutting hair in a Seattle hotel and living in a nearby rooming house.
A Seattle Daily Times reporter, learning that Miles had lost his fortune, stopped by to interview the barber.
“I started in at my trade, and gradually built it up until I had an establishment of my own of goodly size,” Miles told the reporter. “I piled up my money, little by little, and invested it carefully in real estate, getting as much down-town property as I could.”
Duluth was a burgeoning town with a busy port near ore deposits, virgin timber and Midwest grain. Its population mushroomed from about 2,000 people when Miles arrived in 1875 to nearly 53,000 by 1900. Miles figured he could cash in on eastern investors pouring money into Duluth.
But the financial panic of 1893 came just as Miles oversaw construction of a dozen Queen Anne-style homes on W. Fourth Street and what is now Mesaba Avenue.
“Well, at last the bubble burst, and property that was worth fortunes declined in market value to a song,” Miles told the Seattle reporter in 1907, when he was about 70. “Rents amounting to hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month declined to almost nothing.”
To meet his mounting debts, Miles said “it was necessary to sacrifice my property.”
Today, a handful of Miles’ dwellings are about all that’s left of his legacy in Duluth. They include the steep-gabled homes at 301-307 W. Fourth Street and the one Miles lived in nearby at what became 450 Mesaba Av.
“Over 120 years old, they are in need of some restoration and most have been covered with aluminum siding, but they still have a distinctive look,” according to David Ouse, a retired Duluth reference librarian who writes about the city’s history for the News Tribune and the zenithcity.com website. Ouse has unearthed countless details about Miles’ life, including a theory about why the barber landed a patent for safer elevators in 1887 — six months before he led the Winona reporter in a carriage behind Harry G.
According to Ouse’s research, Miles was born in Ohio in January 1837 — although some sources pin his birth to May 18, 1838. He moved to Waukesha, Wis., in the 1850s and launched a six-decade barbering career. By 1863, Miles had moved to Winona, where he purchased the OK Barber Shop and started selling his Tunisian Hair Dressing. He met the love of his life, Candace Dunlap, in Winona and they moved in the early 1870s to Toledo, Ohio, where Miles patented his hair cleansing balm.
By 1875, the couple headed to Duluth. “There were two or three other places at that time attracting attention, Kansas City and St. Louis being very prominent,” he said in the 1907 interview, “but it seemed to me that Duluth had the best prospects of all.”
By 1882, the Duluth Daily Tribune was reporting that the “popular barber and hair-dresser” had added “another first-class barber” to his “ ‘tony’ shop.’’
He soon leased more space in the new St. Louis Hotel and began operating bath rooms he called “as fine a set … as can be found this side of Chicago.”
Branching into real estate, he supervised construction of a since-demolished three-story brick office building with granite cornerstones at 19. W. Superior St.
Miles applied for an elevator patent in 1887 aimed at making doors safer. Early elevator users had to operate the doors of the cages and the ones on each floor, frequently leading to accidental falls into shafts.
Ouse said it’s unclear whether Miles ever sold the rights to his patent, but his safety enhancements were enough to earn him entry into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.
What attracted him to elevators? Ouse studied old floor plans of the St. Louis Hotel, which revealed Miles’ barber shop was adjacent to the elevator.
“It’s only speculation, but it’s easy to imagine Miles, while at work, hearing the operation of the elevator and thinking of ways to improve it,” Ouse wrote on the Duluth Public Library’s reference blog (tinyurl.com/Duluth-Miles).
Miles went on to become the only black member of Duluth’s Chamber of Commerce. He moved to Chicago in 1899 to launch the United Brotherhood insurance society that made securing policies easier for people of color.
In their mid-60s, Alexander and Candace moved to Seattle, where she died in 1905 — 13 years before he did. All the while, he kept cutting hair.
“He has only been able to keep the wolf from the door,” a Seattle newspaper reported, “and dream of seeing better days.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.