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Touring Duluth's dark history

The Duluth Experience’s Dark History Tour includes tales of hauntings at the Duluth Depot. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Tour guides for the Duluth Experience’s Dark History Tour have collected stories of a figure dressed in 1920s clothing who played pranks on patrons at the NorShor Theater. Steve Kuchera / 2 / 3
The Duluth Experience Dark History Tour offers possible explanations for the figure in white who haunted the alley behind the Temple Opera building. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 3

On a dark November night, more than 100 years ago, thousands of Duluthians lined the shore of a stormy Lake Superior to watch a tragedy unfold.

An ore boat that had left Duluth towing a barge encountered rough water and turned back toward safety. At the canal, just short of the Duluth Harbor, the SS Mataafa was beaten up by heavy water. The prow was grounded; the stern smashed against the south pier; the boat broke in two.

Nick Schutz, a guide for the Duluth Experience's Dark History Tour, stood at the front of a 14-passenger bus and showed a slide of the front page of the Nov. 29, 1905, edition of the Duluth News Tribune. The headline: "Crew on steamer Mataafa, pounded by waves, at entrance of harbor, is facing awful death."

The storm was raging, the conclusion seemingly foregone, when the newspaper went to press.

"Duluth's first live Tweet," Schutz said.

The story of the Mataafa — and other shipwrecks not made a muse for Gordon Lightfoot — are among the topics covered in the two-hour bus tour. Topics range from a regional Romeo and Juliet, to a bloody West End wage war, to a ghostly female figure in a downtown alley that, at least one night, attracted an eager audience.

The Duluth Experience, a relatively new company, started as a way to cart craft beer enthusiasts to local breweries. One of the founders, Dave Grandmaison, is a longtime home brewer and has friends in the beer biz. That tour was a natural fit for the area, he said.

But the intent had always been to also have adventure tours — think bikes and kayaks — and history tours, including stories of gunfights and ghosts.

"There are a lot of creepy stories about Duluth that are not talked about very often," Grandmaison said. "We thought we'd shine a light on the criminal things, the unfortunate things."

The company tested a monthlong run, covering the criminal and unfortunate things last October, and found an audience. A similarly themed walking tour they hosted this past summer quickly became the company's most popular history tour.

Now, in time for the creepiest season, the Dark History Bus Tour has returned.

The route starts in Canal Park, with stories of shipwrecks and slavery, before cruising west for the tale of the son of a Dakota chief and the daughter of an Anishinaabe chief who fell in love, ran away to an island on the St. Louis River and were never again seen.

There are well-known places and tales, like the Glensheen murders and the Cloquet fire of 1918, and the rumored hauntings, like the William A. Irvin and the Duluth Depot.

But there is also a little-known burial spot, an apparition dressed in 1920s-wear who was known to steal drinks off a bar, and a local school teacher who disappeared in the 1970s. The tour doesn't shy from Duluth's ugliest moments, including the lynchings of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie in 1920.

"I've always been interested in Duluth's industrial and cultural history," said Schutz. "Last year, as we were developing content, more and more stories unfolded. Now I feel like the resident expert on Duluth's dark history."

During a recent run, the bus pulled over in Duluth's West End. Schutz, dressed in a dark blue Duluth Experience shirt and matching dark blue hat, told a story from the summer of 1889.

An hourlong gunfight had broken out between striking laborers who were protesting a pay cut and the police, who had formed a line to protect the men who were working on a sewer. Ultimately, two men died and, according to news reports, 30 were injured.

It's been dubbed "Duluth's bloodiest event," according to Schutz.

Now in this space at 20th Avenue West and West Michigan Street: A parking lot and an adjacent billboard advertising Holiday gas stations. "Happiness starts here," it says, with an arrow pointing to a 99-cent cup of coffee.

"It costs about as much as they were making," Grandmaison said.

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