Life in a Northern Town

It’s the world’s largest freshwater port. But when the steel, timber, and frozen pizza industries go to hell, the city is screwed. Or maybe not. How did our favorite northern town go from being “the state’s largest white ghetto” to being its most popular destination? It’s all about converting to the post-industrial future that awaits us all—the global tourist economy.

Today, the quintessential symbol of Duluth may not be the raw beauty and power of Lake Superior, or even the beloved Aerial Lift Bridge, but instead the rather humble rust-colored ore boat afloat on Superior’s waters in the lift bridge’s shadow. The SS William A. Irvin is a retired 610-foot ore boat that sailed for U.S. Steel from 1938 to 1978, carrying iron ore and coal to Great Lakes ports. In 1986 the Irvin became a tourist attraction in the Duluth harbor, and is now visited by thousands of people every year.

The Irvin has become a figurehead of Duluth’s waterfront, but it could also be called a figurehead of Duluth’s successful conversion from a swarthy industrial port town to a diversified economy with a heavy emphasis on tourist dollars. “We’re both a tourist attraction and a working city,” says Ken Bueheler, executive director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum at the downtown depot. “I think most people get that now. We are both.”

In order to fully appreciate the significance of the Irvin’s perennially fresh paint and long lines during the high season, you have to understand how much likelier it once seemed that any retired ore boat docked in the Duluth harbor would have rusted itself away to oblivion right along with the blighted economy and waning population of a dying city.

Back in the summer of 1974, my mother was packing my sisters and me and the family dog into the old Impala for the move from Duluth to the wild west. My dad and his sister were simultaneously dumping my great aunt’s North Shore log home (with stone fireplace on a wooded lot near the Lester River) for a paltry $15,000. They were glad to be rid of it. And around that same time—an era of scarring economic hardship for the hilly city—another fed up Duluthian was paying for the installation of a billboard that begged: “Will the last person to leave Duluth please turn out the lights?” That dismal billboard might have been my final view of the city, as the Aerial Bridge and the gritty Duluth-Superior harbor disappeared behind the rising southbound slope of Interstate 35 at the Cody Street exit.

As a West End girl, my view of Duluth was necessarily impoverished. But my mother’s weekly drives along London Road to “look at the mansions” made it clear even to a child that somewhere along the line there had been real wealth in Duluth. In the late 1800s, when the timber, steel, shipping, and railroad industries that put Duluth on the map were in their full glory, Duluth boasted the highest concentration of millionaires per capita of any city in the country. The 1970s and 80s, however, saw brutal setbacks in the steel, mining, and timber industries, and as the economy bottomed out, Duluth’s high school graduates flocked away en masse and thrust the population into deep decline.

In recent years, though, the city has been transforming itself. A tedious battle over the expansion of I-35 through downtown finally gave way to a successful freeway expansion that included the use of surplus funds to re-brick the downtown streets and build a boardwalk along the shore. These days, the dozens of new hotels, resorts, restaurants, and shops—and of course the William A. Irvin—in Canal Park and along the North Shore suggest that people really love to stay in Duluth.

And yet the city’s latest tourist attraction—the Duluth Aquarium—ran into trouble within a year of opening its doors, and is still scrambling to concoct a viable plan for reopening in the spring. Some wonder: Is this snow-belt city of ore boats, paper mills, and arctic weather really sustainable as a tourist town?

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