In Maine, I’m afraid, it’s too easy to forget that working waterfronts exist all over the world, in all sorts of places that don’t have lobsters, big tides or even salt water.

Take Duluth, Minnesota, at the western end of Lake Superior. Duluth got its start as a port in the 1850s (a false start, as it turned out – the Panic of 1857 ruined the national economy and a scarlet fever epidemic in Duluth made things worse) but the discovery of iron ore and gold-bearing quartz in the region in the 1860s quickly revived the place. I found myself there briefly while visiting the canoe country of northwestern Wisconsin, 40 miles away, and my time there allowed for a look at Duluth’s working waterfront.

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, Maine’s first lumber boom was ending and the timber industry began its move to the forests of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. Financier Jay Cooke, always a man with an eye for an investment opportunity, made Duluth the northern terminus of the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad. The population grew from a handful to 3,500 residents; then, fueled by immigration and the growing lumber and grain businesses, it reached 26,000 by 1887.

A wonderful exhibit of old photographs in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ museum next to the Duluth Ship Channel (today the western terminus of the St. Lawrence Seaway) tells the rest of the story. Ore, timber, fish and grain poured out of the region’s mines, forests and farms and had to get to market, and Duluth was one of the places by which these and other products went aboard ships to get there. By the end of the century the port was one of three – Chicago and Milwaukee were the other two – that shipped the bulk of the Midwest’s grain worldwide. The images in the Corps’ museum are of docks, bridges (including a marvelous lift bridge over the canal that started out as an aerial tramway), tugs, barges, specialized ships, grain handling facilities, rail yards, shipyards and the growing city itself, starting as a cluster of flimsy-looking wooden houses on a spit jutting out into Lake Superior. Today Duluth and its suburbs, clearly a community of  some wealth, extend up the hill fronting on the lake for block after block. Substantial houses (no longer wooden or flimsy) line the streets, oriented for their views of the lake.

By the early 1900s, Duluth handled ‘more gross tonnage than New York City’ and was “the leading port in the United States,” according to one history, referring to a time when Manhattan and Brooklyn tonnage were counted separately. In Duluth there were 10 newspapers, a skyscraper, a cement plant and a steel mill. Manufacturing declined in the 1960s as the “Rust Belt” spread through the Midwest. Shipping has survived to some extent and today there is considerable activity in the port, transshipping heavy machinery and parts for wind turbines in addition to grain and other commodities.

Tourism has become a major contributor to Duluth’s economy today, as the city and port have become the gateways to fishing and wilderness areas throughout northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. As I said, I went to the city as a tourist myself.

International connections can bring unwanted visitors, as they have to many a waterfront. Zebra snails and lamprey eels have both arrived the Great Lakes via ships visiting their working waterfronts, causing various kinds of trouble in water bodies over a wide area. And of course there’s Duluth’s well-known mongoose, which came to town from India aboard a British tramp steamer in the 1960s, prompting a huge dust-up between the U.S. Department of the Interior (which wanted to put it to death as a threat to wildlife if it escaped and reproduced) and the supporters of the Duluth Zoo (which maintained the mongoose couldn’t threaten anything because, as the only member of its species in the U.S., it couldn’t reproduce). Resolving the mongoose case, which became a cause celebre for months, took the intervention of the Secretary of the Interior and attracted the attention of President John F. Kennedy. Jack Denton Scott, a writer for Readers’ Digest, wrote a short illustrated book about the mongoose that’s still popular reading in Duluth.

Located at the western end of the Great Lakes, Duluth looks west as well as east. Rail lines tied the city to the Pacific Northwest as closely as the Sault Ste. Marie canal linked it to the Atlantic. One published history makes the claim that by the second half of the 19th century, Duluth was the only port in the country with access to both the Atlantic and Pacific. I’m not sure what that says about Chicago, which also enjoyed east-west rail and sea access, but that’s another story.

In the Corps of Engineers’ museum, weathered name boards overhead commemorate dozens of ships that visited Duluth’s waterfront, arriving loaded with imports or “in ballast,” departing with this rich region’s many varieties of cargo. Some ships met bad ends (the Edmund Fitzgerald comes to mind) but many more sailed to their destinations and back, securing one working waterfront in a seemingly odd location (to a Mainer at least) its reputation as a major world port.


David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront.