Minnesota Memories: Risking my life in Duluth’s BoweryIn the west end of downtown Duluth, near the railroad tracks and about 150 yards from Lake Superior, was the area known as the Bowery.
By: Paul Slayback, for the News Tribune
In the west end of downtown Duluth, near the railroad tracks and about 150 yards from Lake Superior, was the area known as the Bowery.
“You know down in that Bowery area?” said my dad.
“Yeah, I know where it is,” I said.
“Be careful around that area — bad guys hang around there,” said my dad.
“What kind of bad guys?” I said.
“Lazy bums ... heavy drinkers,” said my dad.
Following my dad’s advice, I avoided this area ... most of the time. But one cold winter day in 1949, after a light, overnight dusting of snow and rain followed by freezing temperatures, Randy, an 11-year-old friend, and I decided to walk out on the frozen lake near the Bowery.
“You think the ice is strong enough to hold us?” asked Randy.
“Of course, look there,” I said, pointing to some people to our right walking on the frozen lake.
Glancing over the lake, we discovered we had company. Scattered along the shore were several people, mainly men, sitting, standing and kneeling over little round holes in the ice —fishing.
Looking closer, we saw the fishermen had chopped holes in the ice, some 10 to 12 inches thick, about 3 feet in diameter, and had lines with bait dropped in these holes. Some dipped small twigs into the water and then stuck them in the snow, where they froze and secured their lines, freeing their hands. All seemed to be enjoying themselves, drinking coffee or whiskey, laughing, talking, some drinking out of bottles, some cups and others out of steaming thermos bottles.
I recall my dad telling me that ice fishing was a favorite Minnesota tradition that gives a lot of guys “a good excuse to get away from their wives and kids for a day.”
Most of the men gave us a friendly greeting as we passed by and looked to see if they had caught any fish and what kind. We mainly saw lake trout frozen stiff on the ice. There was a light, cold breeze sweeping across the lake that felt cool and refreshing, reddening our cheeks and noses.
Suddenly, Randy pointed and said, “What’s that over there, Clarence?” directing my attention to a small, grayish object about 50 yards away that seemed to be moving slightly and was sitting smack-dab in the center of what looked like one of those ice holes.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s take a look.” No one was around this ice hole, and as we got closer we discovered the object was a duck — a mallard. The mallard was a dirty grey and white. He wasn’t swimming around having a good time in a winter swimming hole — this mallard was in trouble. He was stuck in the ice and couldn’t walk, let alone fly, although he was trying to do both those things as we approached him.
The duck’s left wing was the one causing him the most trouble as it appeared to be frozen to the bottom and side of the ice hole. “What do you think, Randy, should we attempt a rescue?” I said.
“Yup, might as well. He’ll die for sure if we leave him here,” Randy said.
I ran over to one of the fishermen, borrowed a short hatchet and went about chopping our duck out of the ice, being careful not to strike any part of the duck.
After the ice was removed from around the duck, I bent down on my hands and knees and, taking off one my mittens, scooped up the duck and lifted him out of the hole but getting my hand, arm and the sleeve of my winter jacket quite wet.
The water was freezing. Placing the duck in the crook of my arm, I noticed that his left wing felt like a frozen piece of pizza. I too, was feeling the cold as my wet sleeve was starting to ice up and my left arm below the elbow, the one with the cat gut and the lightning left jab, was beginning to get numb.
As Randy and I begin moving off the lake looking for some place warm, we both spotted a fire by the shore. Shelter. Getting closer, we discovered that the fire and smoke was coming from a large trash barrel near the railroad tracks.
Standing and sitting on crates around this barrel were six men who were rubbing their hands together to keep warm. We could see the steam from their breath moving skyward as they glanced in our direction. “This is the Bowery ... and those men may be bums,” I said.
“My dad told me that many of the men that hang around the railroad tracks are just men out or work. He called them hobos, not bums,” Randy said.
“What’s the difference?” I said.
“I don’t know exactly — he said hobos were better.”
The danger was there, but the fire was inviting, and I was freezing my butt off, plus this duck needed help. Moreover, we both were 11 years old, strong, almost men, we thought.
We threw caution to the wind, set our jaws, squinted our eyes and approached. The men were dressed in old clothes, mostly ill-fitting. On closer inspection, I observed that many had stubbly beards with rough-looking hands, wore several layers of clothes and, strangely, most were without mittens or gloves on this wintry day.
“Hello there, can we share your fire?” I said.
“Sure can,” said one of the men standing close to the fire can. “What have you got there?” he asked, indicating the duck snugly secured under my arm. After I explained how we found and rescued the duck, another man, shorter than the first but also friendly, came over with what once might have been a white towel, now badly stained and ragged, and suggested we wrap the duck in it to help him thaw out.
After looking at Randy and getting his nod of approval, I handed the duck over to the man, who gently wrapped the towel around the duck and nestled him under his arm similar to the way I had been holding him.
We visited and the more the men talked, the better I liked them. A few told us their names and we told them our first names. We discussed the weather, the ice fishermen and their life on the rails. Besides their rough-looking hands, I noticed their weather-beaten faces, probably due to the constant exposure to the elements.
“So you hop these freights for getting from one place to another?” I asked one of the men who called himself Eddie.
“Yeah, for travel, but mainly we use them to get to places where we think we’ll find work,” said Eddie.
So, riding the rails for these guys was not a hobo’s holiday, I thought. As we warmed up and started to thaw out, I noticed another small fire about 20 feet from the barrel that was supported by three or four wooden poles in the shape of a tripod. A wire held a black kettle with a small fire underneath fueled by pieces of black coal.
Scanning the yard, I noticed that there were several chunks of coal scattered around the area near the railroad tracks. Ambling over to this small fire, I smelled the rich aroma of cooking vegetables and noticed that a few of the men were eating and slurping this vegetable brew mixture —more soup than vegetables, I thought. Some were using spoons while others just drank out of tin cans. One of the men asked, “You boys hungry?”
Although the soup smelled good and it had been a few hours since I had eaten, I said, “No thanks.”
As Randy and I warmed up, I noticed one of the men was bunching up some old newspaper that I thought he would be placing on the fire. But, the paper wasn’t for the fire, it was for him. As we looked on, he started shoving this newspaper under his heavy, gray coat, stuffing the paper up and down his sleeves and all around his chest, back and sides. “What does that do?” I asked Eddie.
“It keeps him warm. ... We all use it in the winter,” said Eddie. Amazing, I thought. I also noticed that all the men wore stocking or regular hats and Eddie told me the hats were just as important for keeping you warm as the newspaper. In fact, he said “if your feet are cold and you want to warm ’em up, just keep your hat on.”
After about an hour I decided it was time to move on.
“I think we better be going,” I said to both Randy and Eddie. “Will you take care of the duck for me?” I asked Eddie.
“Sure, no problem; I’ll take good care of him,” replied Eddie, softly stroking the duck under his arm.
When I got home about sundown, I told my Dad about my adventures with the duck.
I also informed him that I had met some hobos near the railroad tracks but they were friendly. So he would know I hadn’t ignored his warning about the men, I added, “There were a lot of people in the area ice fishing.”
My dad listened carefully, asked me a few more questions, and then I noticed a smile form and an eyebrow raise as he asked, “And this man told you he would take good care of your duck, huh?”
“Yeah. He even wrapped it in a towel to keep it warm —it had a frozen wing,” I said.
After a long pause, my dad, now moving from the kitchen to the living room, said in a quiet, barely perceptible voice, “In good care, or maybe just duck soup.”