When Northlanders look back at 2019, there will be many news stories from which to mark the time:
The miraculous escape of Jayme Closs from her captor in Douglas County, Wis.
A pair a blizzards that sandwiched the Thanksgiving holiday and left Northlanders digging out for days.
The UMD men’s hockey team winning its second consecutive national title.
Those are just a few of the many stories that members of the News Tribune newsroom considered when voting on the biggest stories from 2019.
Here’s a look back at what made big news in the Northland during the past 12 months. And while you're at it, check out our top stories from the rest of the decade.
1. Jayme Closs found alive in Douglas County
Jayme Closs drew national attention in January when she escaped the Douglas County house where she had been held captive for 88 days by the man who shot and killed both of her parents.
Jake Patterson, then 21, of Gordon, pleaded guilty in March to abducting the 13-year-old from her Barron, Wis., home and killing her parents, James and Denise Closs, with a shotgun. He told police he planned the crime after seeing Jayme get onto a school bus as he drove to work.
As law enforcement and volunteers united in the search for her, Jayme spent more than two months imprisoned in the house, often under Patterson’s bed, barricaded by storage bins containing barbell weights.
Jayme escaped Jan. 10 while Patterson was away from the house. She located a nearby neighbor, coincidentally a retired child-protection social worker, who brought her to a neighboring residence and summoned help.
Patterson was sentenced in May to two consecutive life terms without parole, plus an additional 25 years in prison.
Jayme, now 14, has reportedly returned to school and now lives with an aunt and uncle.
2. Thanksgiving dessert: 21.7 inches of snow
Twin Ports residents are used to snow, but not often so much snow in such a short time.
On Saturday and Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, 21.7 inches of snow was reported at the National Weather Service’s Duluth station near the airport. That wasn’t even the most in the region — Washburn got 31 inches. But it did constitute the ninth-highest two-day snowfall on record for the city.
Accompanied by a strong east wind, the storm brought the Northland to a virtual standstill. Area schools that had been closed for the holiday remained closed on Monday and, in many cases, on Tuesday as well. Two Duluth elementary schools didn’t open until Thursday.
The schools were closed because plows still hadn’t reached some streets — much to the displeasure of numerous residents who sounded off via social media.
At a Wednesday news conference, Mayor Emily Larson apologized on behalf of the city.
“We have not fulfilled our commitment on this snowstorm this time for neighborhoods and residents,” she said.
3. Duluth synagogue burns to ground
When the only remaining Modern Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the Northland was gutted by fire overnight Sept. 9, the grim news was felt around the world.
"I was absolutely devastated,” New York author Sarah Rose said.“The most terrifying image to any Jew anywhere is a synagogue on fire. It is what our nightmares look like."
Rose’s ancestors built the 120-year-old Adas Israel Congregation synagogue at 302 E. Third St., and she’d worshipped there throughout her life.
After the fire, investigators combed the site and the Central Hillside neighborhood for clues. By the end of the week, they learned it had been started by a homeless man who left his warming fire on the synagogue grounds after it got out of control. The man remains in jail after failing to follow through with his probation.
The Anti-Defamation League in Chicago tracked developments closely, while authorities ultimately ruled out a hate crime. But despite some of the synagogue’s priceless handwritten Torah scrolls being saved by the Duluth Fire Department, the damage was done.
The synagogue’s leaders met only briefly with media throughout the week, valuing privacy and doubting they would build again on the same site.
"The plan moving forward is uncertain and probably a long way off," a board member said.
4. UMD men’s hockey team wins second straight national title
The University of Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey program put the wraps on its second consecutive national championship in 2019 with a dominating 3-0 victory over Massachusetts on April 13 in Buffalo, N.Y., getting goals from senior captain Parker Mackay, sophomore defenseman Mikey Anderson and freshman center Jackson Cates.
Junior goaltender Hunter Shepard made 18 saves for his seventh shutout of the season and school-record 15th of the Cohasset native’s college career.
“This is awesome. It never gets old,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, who later in the summer would interview with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks before signing a contract extension with UMD. “Every one is different. They’re obviously special.”
All three of the Bulldogs’ national championships have come in this decade, with 2011 in St. Paul being the first.
They’ve also won a pair of NCHC Frozen Faceoff titles, with the 2019 title at Xcel Energy Center being the second in three seasons.
UMD is the first team to win back-to-back national championships since Denver did in 2004 and 2005. The next 13 champions failed to even come close to repeating, not even making the Frozen Four. Sandelin is one of 10 coaches to win three or more NCAA Division I hockey titles
“To be able to go back-to-back at the NCAA level, it’s just a credit to my teammates and the coaching staff,” Mackay said. “Sandy, it starts there from the top down. We’re going to enjoy it again just as much as the first one because it doesn’t come around that often. To be able to do it two in a row — unbelievable.”
5. 'Can of worms' project $100M over budget
In November, Minnesota Department of Transportation officials delivered the news that its $343 million Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction project was $100 million over budget, necessitating a scaled-back version of the work.
The project, scheduled to begin in May and last through 2023, was presenting myriad complications and would no longer include reconstruction at the U.S. Highway 53 and Garfield Avenue interchanges. Instead, work would focus on the Interstate 35 corridor in order to adhere to the $343 million budget.
The mega project is being designed to replace the deteriorating bridges that make up the ramps, overpasses and raised sections of freeway at the confluence of I-35 with I-535 and U.S. Highway 53 in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Duluth. It’s expected to make the roadway dubbed “can of worms” safer and allow for oversize trucking loads to use the freeway instead of city streets.
But MnDOT officials said everything was coming up more complicated than expected, describing it like remodeling a really old house.
The $100 million funding gap left neighborhood sources weary, knowing that adding project elements back in later meant extending the years of construction in the neighborhood. Engineers will still design the postponed elements, and sources have said they’re still trying to drum up more funding in hopes of restoring the original plans.
"We want people to know as we go along what the story is, and even if it changes that's better than having a really bad story at the end," said Duane Hill, district engineer and top MnDOT official in Duluth.
6. Police dog Haas shot and killed (tie)
The Duluth Police Department received an outpouring of support after suffering the loss of a police dog for the first time in department history early this year.
K-9 Haas, a 3-year-old Belgian malinois, was killed while his handler, officer Aaron Haller, was wounded when they were shot by an armed domestic-assault suspect during a standoff inside a Skyline Parkway residence Jan 13.
Although another Duluth police officer returned fire, a medical examiner concluded that gunman Taylor Turek died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound during the encounter.
Hundreds turned out to a memorial service for Haas, who also was honored with the June dedication of the K-9 Haas Memorial Dog Park in Gary-New Duluth.
"He was an absolute warrior of a dog who died a hero's death, giving his life so that his partners had a significantly better chance of making it out of there alive," said Haller, who has returned to work with a new partner, a Dutch shepherd named Luna.
6. Storm damage mounts with high water (tie)
Lake Superior spent much of 2019 at or near record-high water levels, making shorelands more susceptible to storm damage.
The lake notched historic highs for five straight months — May through September — but as of Dec. 1, had fallen about 3½ inches below the record seasonal high set in 1985, according to the International Lake Superior Board of Control. Even so, Lake Superior remains about 13 inches above its average level for the past century.
The Board of Control predicted: “There will continue to be a significantly increased risk of shoreline erosion, lakeshore flooding and coastal damages over the next several weeks and potentially through the winter.”
Duluth’s Lakewalk is among the structures threatened by high water and sustained substantial damage — estimated at $25 million-$30 million — as a result of storms that struck in October 2017, April 2018, October 2018 and April 2019.
Much of the Lakewalk subsequently has been reinforced, and these reconstructed sections successfully withstood another storm Oct. 21. Efforts to rebuild and beef up the Lakewalk in the Canal Park area will continue in 2020.
6. Work begins on Vision Northland (tie)
The first step in constructing Essentia Health's Vision Northland — an $800 million development in downtown Duluth – started in early September.
The three-year project will bring a new 14-story hospital bed tower, larger surgical suites and clinic space, while the area near the project has already seen road closures, restricted access to building entrances and rock blasting.
The development will help Essentia better serve its patients and prepare the health care system for future changes in the industry, Mark Hayward, Essentia's senior vice president of operations, said in an interview with the News Tribune earlier this year.
The hospital tower is a significant part of the project, as approximately $675 million of the project's total $800 million price tag will go toward the replacement hospital bed tower, surgery suites for St. Mary's Medical Center and clinic space. The remaining funds will be used for infrastructure and financing, according to Essentia.
An affordable housing complex on the west side of the project is caught in the middle of the development, as it will likely be demolished to make way for a parking ramp.
With a tight housing market in Duluth, its residents fear they will be displaced and have nowhere to go. While project developers and city officials say the project opens up land and should spur further developments.
Meanwhile, St. Luke's hospital began its own major redevelopment project by beginning its $36 million construction of a new and expanded emergency room and catheterization lab. It's only the first phase of a long-term project expected to cost almost a quarter of a billion dollars.
9. UMD navigates 'devastating' cuts (tie)
Faculty, staff and students in the fall awaited news on how the University of Minnesota Duluth would distribute $5.2 million in cuts for the 2020-21 school year, fearing programs would be eliminated and as many as 50-60 jobs would be lost.
The cuts were announced in October with an aim toward erasing UMD’s “structural imbalance,” or recurring deficit, which had dogged the university for most of the decade as enrollment dipped in the years following the Great Recession.
The community in UMD’s School of Fine Arts felt particularly in the crosshairs as early numbers suggested the school could face a 9% cut to its budget.
Fine Arts students, UMD’s Faculty Senate, faculty union members and state politicians sent letters to the school’s administration in support of arts at UMD and in opposition to the proposed cuts.
When details of the cuts were announced Dec. 4, 24.7 full-time equivalent positions were eliminated, directly affecting 29 faculty and staff and 13 graduate teaching assistants.
In addition, UMD announced plans to merge the School of Fine Arts with the College of Liberal Arts on July 1, 2020. No academic programs were eliminated, though several were reduced or temporarily suspended.
9. Diocese of Duluth abuse victims receive $39M (tie)
The proceedings lasted all of 40 minutes. But for some who had gathered at the federal courthouse in Duluth on Oct. 21, it was a day 70 years in the making.
In an emotional hearing before a packed gallery, U.S. District Judge Robert Kressel approved a settlement awarding more than $39 million to 125 surviving victims of child sexual abuse within the Diocese of Duluth.
The landmark settlement agreement allowed the diocese to emerge from bankruptcy nearly five years after it filed for Chapter 11 protection in the wake of a $4.9 million jury verdict in the first case to go to trial under a Minnesota law that opened a window for victims of past abuse to file suit.
"So many survivors for so long felt they would never be believed," said Jeff Anderson, an attorney representing many of the survivors. "Well, you are and you were and you now have been."
Bishop Paul Sirba, who died less than six weeks later, repeatedly apologized, saying: "Those who have suffered abuse in the church are, in our eyes, our brothers and sisters who have been harmed. They deserve and always have deserved our particular love and support.”