Long before the Lakewalk, hotels, gift shops and eateries turned Canal Park into the tourism hub of Duluth, the lakefront area was far less inviting with its smattering of junkyards and warehouses.

The story of its transformation has been well-told in recent years, with resurfaced photographs showing old car parts and scrap metal lining the shore of Lake Superior. But long before that, in an era not so easily recalled, Canal Park was a thriving area of the burgeoning young city for even seedier reasons.

As shipping and rail traffic helped shape the city, a sizable "red light district" sprung up along the waterfront, offering a variety of vice for visiting workers and locals alike.

For decades starting in the late 1800s and continuing well into the 1900s, sensational headlines captured the debate over the scourge of brothels, which newspapers of the time commonly described using innuendos such as "evil resorts" or "houses of ill repute."

Long before the construction of Interstate 35 divided downtown Duluth and Canal Park, the "Tenderloin" district was centered along Lake Avenue and St. Croix Avenue — today's Canal Park Drive. It was the avenues' shared alley, between Railroad and Sutphin streets, that became particularly notorious for featuring rows of ramshackle bordellos on either side.

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Booze flowed freely, gambling debts were settled with fists, and young women roamed the streets outside the two-story clapboard rooming houses looking to entice men disembarking ships.

"In the very heart of the city, near one of the main thoroughfares, where thousands of people pass by day and night, there is an evil that is known to everyone," the Rev. Arthur H. Wurtele said in a speech covered by the News Tribune in 1908.

"It is the most flagrant flaunting of vice publicly before the people that I have ever seen. In no American or Canadian city that I have ever been in, has there been such substantial and luxurious looking buildings devoted publicly to vice, under police protection, as we have in Duluth."

A 1908 article recounted the efforts of the Park Point Civic Club to have the "evil resorts," or brothels, removed from what is now Canal Park. (News Tribune archives)
A 1908 article recounted the efforts of the Park Point Civic Club to have the "evil resorts," or brothels, removed from what is now Canal Park. (News Tribune archives)

Police, politicians and judges tried at times to wipe the district off the map — issuing broad orders for establishments to shut down, enacting hefty fines and sending lawmen in for sweeping raids — though regulations often proved ineffective and it appeared an open secret that many in positions of power preferred to keep the district alive.

Not exactly embracing its activities, some business leaders and political figures argued it was nonetheless prudent to keep the red light district intact, under the watchful eyes of police, rather than dispersing the wickedness throughout town.

"That the red light district is a necessary evil in the life of a city was the argument most generally used," the newspaper reported when the City Council voted to outlaw the establishments in 1908. "The (businessmen) said it would be impossible for the city authorities to prevent the springing up of a district elsewhere in Duluth if the evil resorts on St. Croix avenue are suppressed."

Clergy members delivered sermons, and community groups called meetings to come up with solutions — including a rather creative idea offered at a session hosted by the Park Point Civic League that summer.

"Suggestions were made after the service by prominent leaders of the league that an artificial island could be established a short distance up the St. Louis River, where the district would be isolated and of little annoyance to the community or temptation to the innocent young," the newspaper reported.

Duluth officials in 1908 grew increasingly frustrated by the city's red light district, especially the establishments belonging to Madam Mary Gain, who earned the nickname "Queen of Duluth's Underworld." (News Tribune archives)
Duluth officials in 1908 grew increasingly frustrated by the city's red light district, especially the establishments belonging to Madam Mary Gain, who earned the nickname "Queen of Duluth's Underworld." (News Tribune archives)

The Duluth Police Department's annual report in 1910 indicated 307 women were arrested that year, 54 for "common prostitution" and 12 for "running houses." There were 5,668 men arrested that year, too, but only two for operating resorts.

Even one of today's longest-enduring symbols of Canal Park, Grandma's Restaurant, comes with its own lore of Grandma Rosa Brochi, an Italian immigrant who supposedly welcomed lonely sailors to a bordello on the waterfront.

But Duluth wasn't the only city grappling with public vice. As towns popped up on the Iron Range, so did brothels and saloons offering up hard liquor, gambling and prostitution to the miners and lumberjacks. Two Harbors had "Whiskey Row," a rowdy waterfront grouping of some two dozen saloons and brothels.

"Anyplace where there is a large number of men, these things spring up around them," local historian Todd Lindahl said in 2007. "It's something that's always happened."

In Superior, the area around Third Street and John Avenue became famous for its red-light district. At least 85 prostitutes worked at establishments with colorful names as the St. Paul Rooms, Louise and Stanley's, Indian Sadie's and 314 John during the World War I era, late News Tribune journalist and historian Dick Pomeroy reported in 1997.

Complaints led to occasional raids and fines, but few serious consequences ever seemed to stem from the well-known activities, retired Superior police officer and author Alex O'Kash said in the same article. The women were often rounded up, but police didn't seem to bother the johns.

"It was surprising. Generally, when there was a raid, there were very few customers present," O'Kash said. "I think they were warned beforehand by law enforcement agencies."