Jim Heffernan Chronicle: A Brief Personal History of Duluth
What? Well, if you do the numbers, I guess it is. Three times 80 is 240. This brings us back to the Founding Fathers, bless their souls.
This whole idea got me thinking, though. I am close to George Will in age. I had it a few years. I had never seen my tenure in this life this way. A third of American history? It sounds strange, although it is true.
This means that Will and I were born at the start of WWII. I actually remember some things about the war. Impossible to have jam for toast because of the lack of sugar. My parents had to give “points” with money to buy certain things. My dad sold our car – he couldn’t buy gasoline or tires. Ah yes, the atomic bomb exploded at the end of the conflict.
It changed everything, of course, and even though I was young, I remember it. The rest is history, as they say. This remainder being the remainder of the 20th century and the first fifth of the 21st. A long time. I was there.
Watching Will prompted me to do numbers on how much of Duluth’s story I have lived. About half, give or take. Hmmm. Half of Duluth’s story in my lifetime? Well the numbers don’t lie.
So let’s see what caught my attention over the past eight decades or so of my conscious observation of Duluth things. Let me start by saying that this has changed. A lot.
I was born in an industrial city. We were doing really great in the war building ships for the effort – my only memory was hearing other kids say their fathers worked in the “shipyard”. It all came to an abrupt end at the end of the war.
But we were a steel-producing town down in Morgan Park. Many fathers of children also worked there. Up to several thousand in good times, if memory serves. (All of this is memory, not well documented history.)
When I was young and the plant was still functioning well, it was called American Steel and Wire Division of United States Steel Corp. It was the industry queen of Duluth, its fortune being linked to that of the city in a very important way. Like jobs.
Every now and then there were layoffs at the steel plant, and that was great news. But it always seemed to bounce back, with its neighbor Universal Atlas Cement Co. in Gary-New Duluth. That was until they didn’t in the 1970s. The steel plant slowly shrank to the open space on the site today, everything is gone except for the contaminants left in. the ground she was on.
The disappearance of the steel plant closely coincided with the permanent closure of the US Air Force base at Duluth, causing even greater concern for Duluth’s economic outlook. The air base had been hastily built after WWII when a new war, a cold war, started involving our leadership. This sustained the base’s mission for about 20 years, as its role in defending the northern United States against Soviet missiles increased. But then the U.S. government withdrew, leaving in its wake only a state Air National Guard base and a federal prison camp in its former facilities.
No major steel plant? No major Air Force base? And oh, I almost forgot, the huge Marshall Wells hardware operation with a national reach, and Coolerator Co., Kleerflax Linen Looms are all closing down. The list was getting quite long. In addition, it eroded the city’s population, ultimately causing around 20,000 residents to drop to over 100,000.
Looking back, there weren’t huge chimneys spewing industrial smoke, but the UMD came, slowly becoming a great institution and an economic force. It started out small around 1947, replacing a small college of teachers, and by the time I arrived there a decade later it had about 2,000 students. It now numbers over 10,000 and has a huge impact on Duluth, as well as several other higher education campuses, including St. Scholastica and Lake Superior College.
And, of course, we had two big hospitals – St. Luke’s and St. Mary’s – that had been around since at least the turn of the 20th century. I was born in St. Luke. Check it out today, with St. Mary’s emerging as part of today’s Essentia transforming the skyline of downtown Duluth with towering new construction.
Duluth has grown into a major regional medical center, similar, but perhaps not equal, to the Mayo Clinic’s impact on Rochester. It makes a powerful contribution to the economy. I don’t know how many are employed in our remote medical facilities, but that probably rivals or exceeds jobs at the old steel mill and other old companies.
Amid these changes, starting in the 1960s, Interstate 35 was built across the city. And just as important to Duluth, the Arena Auditorium was built on a waterfront landfill, opened in 1966 and since expanded as DECC, becoming the city’s preeminent cultural / entertainment / sports center.
For much of my life what we know as Miller Hill Mall consisted of undeveloped woods and later a golf driving range. Downtown Duluth was the center of commercial activity with five good-sized department stores, half a dozen cinemas, and a plethora of specialty shops, restaurants and taverns. Now the Miller Trunk area is taking the lion’s share.
Don’t forget about tourism. I’m running out of space here, and omitted many of Duluth’s changes in the half of his story that I’ve witnessed (like a mega railroad business), but the bottom line is that Duluth transformed through thick and thin (a lot of thin) and still survives. The development of the Lake Superior Canal and Shore Park has dramatically improved tourism, turning an oppressed downtown area of ââdumps and dilapidated buildings into a brilliant attraction with plenty of hotels and restaurants for locals and tourists alike.
What about the arts? The Duluth Symphony (now Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra) is about a decade older than me, and the Duluth Playhouse is decades older than that, dating back to the turn of the 20th century. For years, however, that was about it. Over the past few years, Duluth has developed a vibrant arts community encompassing all the arts and a downtown neighborhood to showcase them.
Oh, there is so much more to say, like the arrival of television in the early 1950s which also played a huge role in Duluth’s evolution. And we used to have two dailies, morning and evening, the decline of which was influenced by the advent of the World Wide Web.
I have to stop, but not before saying that we are a transformed city and become more dynamic and interesting over the decades that I have been a part of it. Happy to be born here, and happy to have stayed hereâ¦ for half the life of this city, and all of mine.
Jim Heffernan is a former journalist and news and opinion columnist for Duluth News Tribune. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be contacted by email at [email protected]