Discover Duluth: Superior Street, Vol. I-IIISince Day One, Superior Street has been Duluth's main street.
By: Matthew R. Perrine, Budgeteer News
Nothing defines a city like its main street, so it is with great honor that “Discover Duluth” finally takes on Duluth’s.
Today Superior Street is marked by its brick roadway, an eclectic array of businesses and a nearly impenetrable black wall of shadows. (Because most of the city’s tallest buildings are lined up side by side on the street’s south side, there isn’t much in the way of sunshine for a chunk of the road.)
But, back in the day, it was an entirely different beast.
“Superior Street was a continuous succession of hills and gullies, connected its entire length by a 4-foot plank sidewalk, with the planks laid endwise, bridging the ravines and tunneling the hills,” an early immigrant was quoted as saying in Deborah Morse-Kahn’s “Lake Superior’s Historic North Shore.” “To walk it was hazardous in the daytime, almost sure death after dark.”
The street appeared on maps as early as 1865 — a full five years before Duluth was officially recognized as a city. Tony Dierckins, publisher and author of the Aerial Lift Bridge compendium “Crossing the Canal,” speculated that the name was probably used as early as 1856, when the township of Duluth was first platted.
Thirteen years after Duluth became a city, streetcar tracks already covered Superior Street. (These were uncovered in the mid-1980s when the city tore up the roadway to put in the bricks and, instead of removing the steel, workers were instructed to simply cement over them.)
It’s unclear when Superior Street was first paved, but a newspaper account in 1925 reported that the city already had more than 100 miles of paved streets.
Aside from new traffic signals being installed in 1953, and Duluthians calling their city streets “deplorable” in 1950, there wasn’t much in the way of Superior Street news until the early ’80s. This is when the $7.5 million “Superior Streetscape” renovation project was dreamed up — or, as Tom Daly so eloquently summed it up in the Duluth News-Tribune & Herald, “those bricks.”
In that column, from Dec. 16, 1984, Daly also mentioned that there would be a “super” bus stop located on the Holiday Center block, concluding, “We should have one jewel of a downtown when the construction turmoil is over.”
The “turmoil” seemed to drag on for some time. In October of ’85, downtown’s “official grand opening” was held, even though the bricking wasn’t all done.
Then, a full 10 months after that PR circus, John Myers reported in the News Tribune that, “even though the project hasn’t been finished,” the brick work already needed repairs in some spots. They would get loose and, much like today, cause considerable damage to unsuspecting motorists.
In an effort to attract more consumers downtown during the construction, the mid-’80s also saw the creation of a character named Henry Brick. He appeared in dozens of television commercials and tried to get people’s attention with sayings like “C’mon down and jaywalk!”
Superior Streetscape woes aside, Duluth’s main street has helped shape a number of good memories throughout the years. In addition to being an integral route in both Grandma’s Marathon and the Christmas City of the North Parade, it was also utilized when Northland soldiers were sent off to war.
According to Dan Hartman, director of Veterans’ Memorial Hall, they would march from the Armory down to the Depot, where trains were waiting to take them to their final destinations. He said this ritual was treated as “a day of recognition,” and it continued from World War I through the Korean War — after which time the Armory wasn’t used in the same capacity.
No matter where your Superior Street experiences fall on the “memorability index,” there’s no denying the downtown stretch’s impeccable array of faces and places. From bowling alleys, intimate theaters and high-end hotels to a casino, a pizza place/concert hall and a somewhat-controversial strip club in a historic vaudeville theater, the heart of the Zenith City has it all.
“Discover Duluth” is an ongoing photo essay series by Matthew R. Perrine that highlights points of interest in and around the region. For more photos from this set, click on the accompanying photo galleries.