As 1856 began, perhaps no other region in the U.S. stood as poised with promise as did the western end of Lake Superior. More than a dozen townsites had been platted along the lake’s north shore between today’s Duluth and Grand Marais, which surveyors speculated held more copper than Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.

Their incorporators hoped each town would become home to a lucrative mine. Eleven more were staked out in what is now Duluth, and their proprietors each wished their property would become the center of a great city fueled by the copper mining industry.

But prospectors found no copper, at least not enough worth mining. By the time the speculators stopped speculating, 1,560 people were living within Duluth’s modern borders.

Then came the Financial Panic of 1857, and people fled — three-quarters of them deserted by January, many walking to St. Paul. For the next decade those who remained struggled to keep their towns alive.

The North Shore was all but abandoned. A few stores remained open in Superior; none in the Minnesota townsites. No flour that first winter meant no bread. Those who remained fished and trapped and grew a few potatoes. One early resident later referred to these hearty souls as the “Ancient and Honorable Order of the Fish Eaters.”

Local trade was handled on a barter system. When Orrin Rice offered to give two corner lots in Duluth to John Carey, St. Louis County’s first judge, in exchange for a pair of boots, Carey refused — the footwear would be worth much more in the winter to come.

Judge John Carey, circa 1896. In 1856, the community’s future looked so bleak he wouldn’t trade a pair of boots for two corner lots in Duluth. (Courtesy of the Duluth Public Library)
Judge John Carey, circa 1896. In 1856, the community’s future looked so bleak he wouldn’t trade a pair of boots for two corner lots in Duluth. (Courtesy of the Duluth Public Library)

Sidney and Harriet Luce, farmers from Ashtabula County, Ohio, had arrived less than a year earlier. The Luces had invested in Portland, platted between Third and 15th avenues east, and wished to see their property. The Luces did not intend to stay, but after so many left in the wake of the panic, they and a few others remained to protect their investment and those of their friends.

Before the panic, Sidney Luce had built a wharf and a warehouse at the foot of Third Avenue East. Copper mining would certainly attract a railroad, Luce surmised, and a building boom along with it — and his facilities would be ready to receive the necessary supplies.

The copper bust and the panic forced Luce’s building into a completely different role, later described by the Duluth Minnesotian as the “artery through which the pulsations of the coming city beat.”

Luce’s warehouse, technically Duluth’s first commercial building, became home to the Federal Land Office, the post office, the county’s first courthouse, the register of deeds office, and county auditor’s and treasurer’s office and hosted annual townsite and school district meetings.

Luce (whose motto was “Do it for Duluth!”) and others worked to retain the population, in part by creating jobs. In 1859 he staked German cooper Gottlieb Busch and three Yankee carpenters with land, lumber and a brew kettle, and they built a brewery. Thanks to Luce and Busch, who served as brewmaster, even if those hanging on in nascent Duluth had only fish and potatoes to eat, at least they could wash them down with beer.

It would take a lot more than fermented hops to help Duluth survive. The population of the 1856 townsites dropped to 406 by 1860. That included just 80 in what the federal census bureau counted as Duluth: every settlement between 21st Avenue East and Rice’s Point.

The Civil War further decimated the population, as Judge Carey later explained: “Many of those that yet remained departed, some with the patriotic spirit to enlist in the Union army.” For the next eight years Ojibwe residents far outnumbered the immigrants, especially during the summer when they set up camps along Minnesota Point.

Of that period historian Walter Van Brunt would later write that a handful of people, including Carey and Luce, “kept vigil over the lifeless corpse of Duluth.” After the war ended a few returned, and a false gold rush on Lake Vermilion gave the local population a temporary boost.

Even so, the population of Duluth townsite in early 1869 was described as “14 families … all gathered together in a little hamlet at the base of Minnesota Point.”

With essentially no economy — nor a railroad to attract industry — it looked as though none of the 1856 townsites would ever become a great city. That all changed in February 1869 when Jay Cooke announced that he would terminate his Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad in Duluth.

Happy 150th birthday, city of Duluth!

Editor's note: This story is adapted from the forthcoming book “Duluth: An Urban Biography,” by Tony Dierckins (Minnesota Historical Society Press, April 2020); signed copies available for preorder at zenithcity.com.