Situated at the westernmost point of the Great Lakes on the north shore of Lake Superior, Duluth is accessible to oceangoing vessels from the Atlantic Ocean 2,300 miles away via the Great Lakes Waterway and the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Lake Superior is generally considered the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area.
Duluth’s name in Ojibwa is “Onigamiinsing” (“at the little portage”). It takes its name from the small and easy portage across Minnesota Point between Lake Superior and western Saint Louis Bay, forming Duluth’s harbor. According to Ojibwa oral history, Spirit Island, located near the Spirit Valley neighborhood, was the “Sixth Stopping Place” where the northern and southern branches of the Ojibwa Nation came together and then proceeded to their “Seventh Stopping Place,” near the present city of La Pointe, Wisconsin.
Several factors brought the fur trade to the Great Lakes in the early decades of the 17th century. The fashion for beaver hats generated a demand for pelts.
Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers explored the Duluth area, Fond du Lac (Head of the Lake) in 1654 and again in 1660. French fur posts were soon established near Duluth and in the far north where Grand Portage became a major trading center. Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, French explorer whose name is sometimes anglicized as “Duluth”, explored the Saint Louis River in 1679.
Two Treaties of Fond du Lac were signed in the present neighborhood of Fond du Lac in 1826 and 1847. As part of the Treaty of Washington (1854) with the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa, the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation was established upstream from Duluth near Cloquet, Minnesota. The Ojibwa population was relocated there.
Interest in the area was piqued in the 1850s as rumors of copper mining began to circulate. A government land survey in 1852, followed by a treaty with local tribes in 1854, secured wilderness for gold-seeking explorers, which sparked a “land rush,” and led to the development of iron ore mining in the area.
Around the same time, newly constructed channels and locks in the East permitted large ships to access the area. A road connecting Duluth to the Twin Cities was also constructed.
By 1857, copper resources became scarce and the area’s economic focus shifted to timber harvesting. A nationwide financial crisis caused nearly three-quarters of the city’s early pioneers to leave.
The opening of the canal at Sault Ste. Marie in 1855 and the contemporaneous announcement of the railroads coming had made Duluth the only port with access to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Soon the lumber industry, railroads and mining were all growing so quickly that the influx of workers could hardly keep up with demand, and storefronts popped up almost overnight. By 1868 business in Duluth was really booming. In a Fourth of July speech Dr. Thomas Preston Foster, founder of the first newspaper in Duluth, coined the expression “The Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas”.
In 1869–1870, Duluth was the fastest growing city in the country and was expected to surpass Chicago in size in only a few years. When Jay Cooke, a wealthy Philadelphia land speculator, convinced the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad to create an extension from St. Paul to Duluth, the railroad opened areas due north and west of Lake Superior to iron ore mining. Duluth’s population on New Year’s Day in 1869 consisted of fourteen families; by the Fourth of July, 3,500 people were present to celebrate. However, Jay Cooke’s empire crumbled, and the stock market crashed in 1873, and Duluth almost disappeared from the map.
By the late 1870s, with the continued boom in lumber and mining and with the railroads completed, Duluth again bloomed. By the turn of the century, there were almost 100,000 inhabitants, and it was again a thriving community with small business loans, commerce and trade flowing through the city.
Around the start of the 20th century, the city’s port passed New York City and Chicago in gross tonnage handled, elevating it to the leading port in the United States. Ten newspapers, six banks and an eleven-story skyscraper, the Torrey Building, were also present. At one time, beginning in 1905, Duluth was said to be home to more millionaire’s per-capita than anywhere in the United States.
In 1907, U.S. Steel announced that a $5 million plant would be constructed in the area. Although steel production didn’t begin until 1915, predictions held that Duluth’s population would rise to 200,000–300,000.
For the first half of the 20th century, the city was an industrial port boom town with multiple grain elevators, a cement plant, a nail mill, wire mills, and the Duluth Works plant. In 1916, during World War I, a shipyard was constructed on the Saint Louis River. A new neighborhood, today known as Riverside, was formed around the operation. Similar industrial expansions took place during the Second World War, using Duluth’s large harbor and the area’s vast resources for the war effort. Tankers and submarine chasers (usually called “sub-chasers”) were built at the Riverside shipyard. The population of Duluth continued to grow after the war, peaking at 107,884 in 1960.
In 1918, the Cloquet Fire (named for the nearby city of Cloquet) burned across Carlton and southern Saint Louis Counties destroying dozens of communities in the Duluth area. The fire was the worst natural disaster in Minnesota history in terms of the number of lives lost in a single day.
The National Guard unit based in Duluth was mobilized in a heroic effort to battle the fire and assist victims, but the troops were overwhelmed by the enormity of the fire.
Economic decline began in the 1950s, when high grade iron ore gave out on the Iron Range north of Duluth; ore shipments from the Duluth harbor were the most important element of the city’s economy.
By the late 1970s, foreign competition began to have a detrimental impact on the American steel industry. This eventually led to the closure of the U.S. Steel Duluth Works plant in 1981, causing a significant blow to the city’s economy.
Duluth is cited as “where the Rust Belt began”. Other industrial activity followed suit with more closures, including shipbuilding, heavy machinery and the Duluth Air Force base.
With the decline of the city’s industrial core, the local economic focus shifted to tourism. The downtown area was renovated with new red brick streets, skywalks, and new retail shops. Old warehouses along the waterfront were converted into cafés, shops, restaurants, and hotels. These changes fashioned the new Canal Park as a trendy tourism-oriented district. The city’s population, which had been experiencing a steady decline since 1960, has now stabilized at around 85,000.
Some 3.5 million visitors each year contribute more than $400 million to the local economy. Duluth has become a major tourist destination.