My Year in Duluth, Minnesota

My family moved from Stratford, Connecticut, where I had grown up, to Duluth, Minnesota, in the summer before my senior year in high school. Any upheaval like that is going to be hard for a teenager, of course. I had a small group of really good friends that I had to leave behind. And we were old enough that we were allowed to take day trips to New York to go to museums or attend Broadway shows, so moving to Duluth really felt like going into exile.

My father worked for the U.S. Customs Department, and he had to move to Duluth in order to move up in the hierarchy. In Duluth, he was Assistant Collector of Customs, with responsibility for determining that incoming ships had paid the proper duty on their cargoes. Duluth lies at the western tip of Lake Superior, and although it’s 1500 miles from the ocean, it was actual an ocean port – the western destination of ships taking the long journey down the St. Lawrence seaway. So it was a major hub for bulk exports like lumber, iron ore, and grain, and a variety of incoming cargo destined for various locations in the midwest. This picture shows the lift bridge that marks the entrance to the Duluth harbor.

Duluth Lift Bridge

Duluth actually had its major boom around the turn of the previous century, when the iron range in northern Minnesota was the most productive. At one point, the port of Duluth handled more shipping than the port of New York, and had more millionaires per capita than in any other U.S. city. But by the time we got there, the iron ore was giving out, and the city whole area was in an economic decline. (Just a few years before, a guy by the name of Bob Zimmerman had made his escape from the nearby iron range town of Hibbing, and was making a bit of a name for himself as a folksinger.)

Duluth from above

Duluth HillsideIn the Google maps image, Duluth is shown as a narrow strip along the north shore of the lake, across the river from the town of Superior, Wisconsin. What you can’t see from above is that the city is on a very steep hillside sloping down to the lake (see photo to right). Most of the downtown area slopes at a rate of about two floors per city block, making walking a bit of a challenge. And every so often there was some sort of spectacular accident when a heavily-loaded grain or timber truck would careen down the hill after its brakes failed.


The town was full of ornate old buildings, and along the north shore of the lake, there was a row of elegant mansions that used to be the homes of the millionaires. But it was all a bit old and musty and industrial. At the west end of town, there was a paper mill that produced a rather pungent odor when the wind blew in the wrong direction.

When we first got to Duluth, we lived for a month in an old cottage on Pike Lake (you can see it in the upper left corner of the Google maps image). We had only one car, so my father would drive into town leaving us without the ability to go anywhere. The cottage came with a rowboat, so I spent a lot of time out in the lake, reading, and writing letters back to my friends in Connecticut.

Old Duluth High SchoolEventually my parents bought a house a few miles away from town. My father and I would drive together into town in the morning, he would drop me off at school, and go on to work. School was in a fantastic old Romanesque Central High School, built in 1893. (This picture shows how it looks now – it’s no longer being used as a school, but it’s nice to see that it’s still standing.) I have many fond memories around that building, including my first boyfriend, who played the starring role in the school play (Liliom – could it be any more romantic?) And yes, we did sneak up into the clock tower one night after rehearsal.

Duluth shorelineAlthough I felt isolated from civilization, I had to admit that Duluth was in a beautiful physical setting. We were in the middle of the north woods, and the northern shore of Lake Superior was particularly lovely, a little like the Maine Coast. The summer was cool and comfortable, but fall came early, with the trees starting to show traces of gold as early as August. I remember taking long walks through the wooded country roads with my neighbor’s golden retriever, Tandy. A couple of times bears raided our garbage cans, and one time when we were walking, Tandy got all exciting and someone we passed said that they’d just seen a bear go into the woods. But we never saw it.

The proximity of the huge lake and the steep hillside leading to it led to some unusual weather effects. There was one Monday morning when we left the house it was bright and sunny, but when we went over the crest of the hill, we descended into a layer of clouds that shrouded the city. My friends at school who lived downtown said that it had been raining there for 3 days!

At other times, there would be a temperature contrast between the water and the air, so a mist would rise from the lake. It was very eerie to watch the huge ships gliding through the mist.

Winter was cold and long. Duluth is about 150 miles south of International Falls, which is frequently cited as having the coldest temperatures in the U.S. Lake Superior was huge, and when the wind came from the east, after blowing over miles of frozen lake, it was bitterly, bitterly cold. It was frequently well below zero. One of my coldest memories was going out with our neighbors to cut Christmas trees from out in the woods when the temperature was about 20 below. Oh. My. God. It was cold.

But one advantage to always being so cold is that the snow was a lot easier to manage. It stayed light and fluffy, and you didn’t have that freezing and rethawing and slush that we have to deal with here in the east.

Duluth iceThe lake froze solid, of course, and there were several months when all shipping ground to a halt. Then in early spring, there would be this amazing grinding and groaning as the ice started to shift and break up. One morning, you would drive over the hill and the ice would all be gone (because the wind had shifted and blown the broken-up ice out into the lake). Then the next day, the wind would change and the ice would blow back and get wedged against the shore.

Some other things I remember about Duluth:

The Scandinavian names. We lived on Anderson Lane, bought our house from a Johnson, our neighbors were the Petersons and one of my good friends was a Swenson. There were 8 pages of Andersons/Andersens in the phone book.

And the mongoose. One of the exciting bits of news while I was there was that a foreign sailor had brought a pet mongoose in on his ship. They were not allowed at that point because they were considered a danger to farm animals or something. So the mongoose was confiscated and eventually ended up in the local zoo.

And curling. Curling was big in Duluth, so I heard of it long before most people finally encountered it in the Olympics (although I never tried it myself).

I mentioned that I was interested in Broadway plays, and I liked to read the opening night reviews in the New York TImes. Well, in Duluth there was only one newstand that got the NYT (and it got only 2 copies), so I had to be sure to get there early if I wanted a copy on a particular day.

And as for isolation, I once saw some statistics on the 1917 flu epidemic which indicated that it never even reached Duluth… So maybe it would be a good place to move if the bird flu hits. Just need to watch out for all those migrating geese…

After my high school graduation, I spent a lazy summer in Duluth, and then in the fall I came back east to college. (In retrospect, moving to Minnesota might have helped me to get into Radcliffe because of the way they used geographical quotas. I’m sure that being in Minnesota improved my chances over applying from Connecticut.) Just before I left, I spent a day going around on my bicycle visiting some of my favorite places in the area. I didn’t realize at the time I would never be coming back. But I couldn’t afford to go back during the holiday break (I went to visit my grandparents in Connecticut instead), and by the time my freshman year had ended, my father had moved on to a new position in Louisville, Kentucky. So I never returned to Duluth.

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