Fire destroys 2 buildings in Superior's North End
Two buildings were lost in the fire.
SUPERIOR — Two vacant buildings were lost to a fire Thursday morning in the North End district.
Superior firefighters received the call at 5:50 a.m. and 13 off-duty firefighters also responded at 6:10 a.m., Fire Chief Scott Gordon said in a news release. The fire quickly consumed the Sivertson warehouse at 1507 N. First St. and spread to the Bayside Warehouse and Twohy Mercantile Building next door at 1515 N. First St.
Both buildings are a complete loss. On Thursday afternoon, ash from the fire could be seen as far as St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church on East Fourth Street.
The fires were considered substantially extinguished as of 3 p.m. Thursday.
"It's still smoldering, so we'll keep people on the scene overnight to keep an eye on it," Gordon said.
No injuries or fatalities were reported. Crews were expected to remain on the scene throughout the day and overnight to manage the buildings and respond to any flare-ups.
As of 8:45 a.m., the temperature was 10 degrees below zero, with wind chill at 22 degrees below zero, according to the National Weather Service in Duluth. Not ideal conditions for fighting a fire, Gordon said during a press conference.
“It’s very dangerous fighting fires in the cold and it’s magnified when the buildings are this large,” he said.
Slips, falls and frostbite pose the biggest threat to firefighters in frigid conditions due to how fast the water becomes ice, he said.
Superior Mayor Jim Paine said he was, first and foremost, grateful there was no loss of life or injuries.
“Nonetheless, this is a terrible tragedy for the city. These buildings had both historical and architectural significance for our community, and they had a great deal of potential for new life, both of them. And so that’s a loss for both our past and our future,” Paine said.
The Sivertson warehouse, in particular, was almost turnkey-ready for development. The mayor said the buildings helped tell the story of Superior as a waterfront city.
“So losing it is a real tragedy, and it does set back a lot of our goals for the region. It won’t stop us. We will rebuild in this area. There is still a lot of opportunity here. But part of the story of Superior lost today,” Paine said.
The fire department received two new aerial ladder trucks in late November that it used for the first time to respond to the Thursday fire. Gordon said their debut went “very well."
The department also put to use the lessons learned during a series of large fires in 2018 at Cooper Elementary School, the Husky Refinery and the Globe grain elevator.
“This is not an avenue that we want to get better at by experience. However, it would be foolish not to learn from our experience,” Gordon said.
The warehouse fire most closely resembled the grain elevator fire, he said, due to the large footprint and height of the structures, as well as the heavy timbers inside them.
Firefighters initially worked to prevent the fire from spreading to the second warehouse.
“That was tactic No. 1 … it didn’t take long to realize that that wasn’t going to happen,” Gordon said. “We didn’t want to write that building off, but once both buildings were burning at once, there was no chance that we have enough staff, enough manpower, enough water to put that out at that point.”
The Blatnik Bridge to and from Superior was closed at 6:30 a.m. to protect the scene and reopened at 7:32 a.m., according to Gordon.
Stefan Nowaq was staying in a shop building across the street from the warehouses after the fire broke out.
“You could hear a boom and a boom as part of the walls coming in, and then all of a sudden you’ve got two big booms,” he said.
He smelled the smoke and thought the shop was burning, then saw firefighters outside.
“I took a video of that building (the Sivertson warehouse) going down, and I turned, I saw smoke coming out the third floor of that building (Bayside Warehouse and Twohy Mercantile Building). So I figured we were going to lose both of them,” Nowaq said.
He and another man staying there started their cars and evacuated to a spot about two blocks away.
"It's not a way to get up in the morning, it's not," he said from the driver's seat.
Once a fishery
The four-story Sivertson building, 1507 N. First St., is listed for sale on the Follmer Commercial Real Estate website for $795,000. The 48,000-square-foot warehouse was built in 1890 and formerly home to Lake Superior Fish Co.
Mitch Holmes, owner of Duluth/Superior Concrete Services LLC, which owns the Sivertson building, said Thursday afternoon they "lost everything" in the fire. He wasn't available for further comment.
For more than 30 years, the building was owned by the Siverston family, which operated Sivertson Fisheries and a ferry service connecting Grand Portage and Isle Royale National Park out of the building.
Stuart Sivertson, 80, of Duluth, the fishery’s former president, had just found out about the fire from his daughter when the News Tribune reached him by phone Thursday morning.
“It’s just a feeling of sadness, I guess,” Sivertson said. “Because that building was just a lifesaver for our family business and for a number of other fishermen.”
Sivertson hails from a fishing family that began fishing along the North Shore and Isle Royale in the 1890s when his grandfather and great-uncles immigrated from Norway.
The fishery moved to several locations in Duluth, including 366 Lake Ave. in Canal Park, but needed more space to freeze all the smelt they were catching in the late 1960s.
“We were catching several million pounds of smelt annually at that time,” Sivertson said.
After going to college and working as an industrial engineer out east, Sivertson’s father in 1967 asked him to return to the area and help with the family business. Sivertson was responsible for finding a new place and securing financing for the building and equipment.
“We were desperate to find a place. We’d been searching since 1967 to find a place,” Sivertson said. “Here was this ideal location right on the waterfront where we could land smelt.”
So in 1974, the family bought the warehouse, brought over their dressing machines, outfitted the building with 4,000 feet of cold storage that dropped to 40 degrees below zero, compressors that could freeze 5,000 pounds of fish per hour and rebuilt the dock with white pine lumber reclaimed from a nearby grain elevator.
The fishery would then ship 25-pound cartons of smelt throughout the U.S. and even some overseas destinations like Japan and France, Sivertson said.
But the Lake Superior smelt population plummeted just a few years later.
“The building kind of represented the last of the remnants of when Duluth was an important commercial fishing place,” Sivertson said.
The family continued to use the building, and it housed the staff offices for their Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Lines, a ferry service between Grand Portage and the island national park out in Lake Superior.
And they sold the fishery to a group of men who ran it as Lake Superior Fish Co., using the cold storage to keep trout caught in Canadian lakes.
Eventually, the building would be sold to Duluth/Superior Concrete Services LLC and return to the market in spring 2016 .
‘Where sail meets rail’ building meets fire
The Bayside Warehouse and Twohy Mercantile Building is owned by Dr. Eric Ringsred, according to Douglas County property records. Ringsred is the former owner of downtown Duluth’s Pastoret Terrace , formerly home to the Kozy Bar and Apartments.
His son, Miles Ringsred, told the News Tribune that Eric was feeling “blue” over news of the fire.
In 2019, the National Park Service designated the building as a protected historic resource , a key step in getting the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Eric had hoped to find a developer for the building. The pandemic had put those plans on hold, but Miles said they were restarting those conversations.
“We were looking at getting that ball rolling again for this new year and that’s apparently not going to be happening,” Miles said.
“(The building is) going to pretty much have to be bulldozed,” he said.
Built in 1894, the Romanesque Revival warehouse was home to the Twohy Mercantile Co., the largest grocery wholesaler in Superior. It was a significant part of the "multi-nodal" wholesaling industry of the 1890s and early 1900s that used the confluence of shipping, rail and truck transport to deliver goods throughout the Upper Midwest. The Twohy building was cited in a 1907 Superior Evening Telegram article as the catalyst for the “where sail meets rail” slogan for the area.
The building’s architect, Oliver Traphagen, was the most prominent architect in the Twin Ports of Duluth and Superior. Of his surviving buildings, 12 have been individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The builder, Butler Brothers Construction of St. Paul, was a prominent construction company in the United States from 1890 to 1915. It completed some of the largest infrastructure projects in the nation, including the Duluth ship canal, as well as 13 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Miles said Eric purchased the building in the mid- to late 1990s to save it from demolition.
In the years since, it has mostly been used for storage.
The late collector Doug Moen, a longtime friend of Eric, used the building to store his collection of vintage items. In 2013, Moen fell 8 feet down an elevator shaft in the building while moving a couch and died from his injuries at the hospital later that night.
His collection was still in the building during Thursday’s fire and Miles said he expects it’s all been destroyed. It included “beautiful old wooden doors” salvaged from a renovation at downtown Duluth’s Greysolon Plaza, a 1960s cigarette dispenser and other antiques.
Thursday’s fire is not the first for the property.
A fire to an out building in the early 2000s killed Pepperoni, the Ringsreds' pet Japanese snow monkey. The monkey had been staying with a caretaker of the property when a stove or furnace caused a fire, Miles said.
Miles said Pepperoni had come from a Portland, Oregon, pizza restaurant called the Organ Grinder, where “monkeys were some sort of a theme,” and then eventually his father adopted it in the mid 1990s, which is about the time he also acquired the Bayside Warehouse.
This story was updated throughout the day with information about the fire. The final version was published at 6:12 p.m. Jan. 6. The initial version was posted at 7:08 a.m. Jan. 6.