DULUTH – Having for a long afternoon maneuvered more or less safely a pair of cross-country skis on the edge of this Lake Superior port, I angled my truck toward Canal Park as the sun disappeared behind the city’s marque hill, whose steep slope was first platted for settlement in 1856.
Duluth has some 86,000 residents now, but in 1860, four years after the Treaty of La Pointe opened the Minnesota side of Lake Superior to a trickle of European immigrants, its population was a meager 80.
The attraction for most of these early interlopers was a mineral that is still valued today. Native peoples dating to 5,000 B.C. had extracted copper from the rivers and rock of what is now the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, fashioning from it axes, spearheads, hooks and chisels.
The La Pointe Treaty cleared the way for prospectors to grubstake their way up the North Shore, from Duluth to Grand Marais, hoping to find new and still-richer copper deposits.
But the boom never materialized, and the North Shore “copper towns” of Flood Bay, Stewart River, Portland and Bellville were quickly abandoned.
Had those first fortune-seeking explorers of what is arguably Minnesota’s most beautiful region been availed of the comforts that awaited me the other evening in a Canal Park hotel and nearby fine restaurant, they doubtless wouldn’t have left.
With good reason.
Over the past four decades, Duluth has in many ways transitioned from an industrial town whose lakeshore was littered with junk cars and scrap metal to a recreation and vacation destination that Outside magazine once dubbed “America’s best outdoors town.”
Indeed, if your passion is skiing, Duluth has a slope or trail for you. If you prefer instead to motor north in summer to kayak, mountain bike, hike or fish, Duluth, with its voluminous waterways, 129 parks, 11,000 acres of green space and boundless latticework of trails, beckons to outdoors enthusiasts, “come hither.”
And come they do. Just last week, the city reported another record-breaking visitor year, with $12.4 million collected in tourism tax revenue, an all-time high.
Most of which, said local historian Tony Dierckins, can be credited to a citywide attitude change beginning in the 1970s.
“Before that time, when the lakefront was little more than a junkyard, Duluth essentially had turned its back to Lake Superior,” Dierckins said. “When the city turned around and looked toward the lake and the advantages it offered, changes began.”
In the early 1980s, nearly 180,000 tons of rock were blasted to build the stretch of Interstate 35 that snakes along Duluth’s Lake Superior shoreline. Hauled a short distance, the rock yielded 6.3 acres of new land — enough to build the city’s Lakewalk while also helping to transform Canal Park from a warehouse graveyard to a tourism hot spot.
Maarja Anderson Hewitt is among an ambitious bevy of marketers who toil at Visit Duluth, the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau that represents more than 400 tourism businesses.
“When talking to people around the country about Duluth, whether they’re potential vacationers or organizers of meetings or conventions, we focus on the beauty of our outdoors,’’ she said. “We’re a city that has great breweries, a great arts scene and great restaurants, together with beautiful Lake Superior and incredible outdoor recreation.’’
Yet Duluth’s revamping masks other realities.
Though the average age of Duluth residents is trending down, perhaps due to the allure of its outdoor amenities, for 30 years the city’s population has stagnated. What’s more, in 2018, 38 percent of its households had total income of $35,000 or less.
And while Duluth’s leisure and hospitality businesses employ some 7,500 people, trailing only the education and health services, and the trade and transportation sectors, the average annual wage of hospitality workers and those in similar jobs was $19,000 in 2018 — last among 11 employment segments recorded.
Industry, not tourism, has always been, and remains, among the city’s primary economic drivers, said Jayson Hron of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. Shipping, manufacturing and similar ventures, Hron said, generate three times more local tax revenue and have a higher job multiplier than most other Duluth businesses.
Supporters of Duluth’s evolving reputation as a vacation destination agree that taconite shipping and taconite mining-support businesses, and other industries, are critical to the city’s economic well-being.
But in moves that have aggravated long-held tensions between Duluth and the Iron Range, groups such as Duluth for Clean Water and the Downstream Business Coalition have strongly opposed a planned PolyMet copper-nickel mine some 60 miles “upstream” from Duluth. They argue that the clean water and other resources Duluth residents depend on are too valuable to risk being tainted by mercury and other toxins, as has occurred at similar mines elsewhere.
“PolyMet threatens Duluth,” said JT Haines, a Duluth resident and northern Minnesota representative of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “It threatens the St. Louis River and Lake Superior — everything Duluth needs to sustain itself. We appreciate that our future is intertwined with our neighbors to the north. We’re looking for a positive vision that benefits all communities.”
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My Canal Park hotel room faced Lake Superior, which in the evening’s dim light lay flat with a layer of skim ice near shore.
Pulling off my ski clothes, I showered, dressed and walked to a nearby restaurant, where I met longtime friends Dave and Margo Zentner, who moved to Duluth in 1955 and 1958, respectively, and never left.
Few people fish, paddle and otherwise play on, in and around Lake Superior more than Dave.
During dinner, I asked Dave and Margo if they believe copper-nickel mining can be done safely.
“Like a lot of people in Duluth,” Dave said, “for a few months in the 1970s, we had to go to our local fire station to carry our drinking water home in buckets.
“Reserve Mining had told us the tailings they were dumping into Lake Superior wouldn’t hurt our drinking water. At the time, in retrospect, we should have been more skeptical.
“We’re more skeptical now.”
Editor’s note: In April, the Minnesota Historical Society Press will publish “Duluth, an Urban Biography,” by Tony Dierckins. Dierckins (zenithcity.com) provided much of the historical information for this column.