'Pride' tells Duluth's story through port's eyes

"Before there were cities, states or a nation, there was the port!" That's a line writer Bill Beck penned originally for the introduction of "Pride of the Inland Seas: An illustrated history of the port of Duluth-Superior," which he co-authored w...

"Before there were cities, states or a nation, there was the port!"

That's a line writer Bill Beck penned originally for the introduction of "Pride of the Inland Seas: An illustrated history of the port of Duluth-Superior," which he co-authored with longtime Canal Park Marine Museum Director C. Patrick Labadie.

Because it sums up the project perfectly, the line instead serves as the key sentence in promotional material sent out by the book's publisher, Afton Historical Society Press.

The 288-page book, with 200 color and black-and-white images and nearly 1,000 endnotes, aims to be the comprehensive story of the port that was used by American Indians, voyageurs and fur traders and generations of Duluthians connected to such crucial industries as iron and steel, timber, grain and coal, right to the present day. The book, which retails for $35 and will be widely available at area bookstores, debuted with a book signing at the Lake Superior Maritime Center last week.

Beck, reached by phone in Indiana, where he now lives and works, said it's a critical story to tell.


"There are a lot of people in Duluth who understand portions of the story, because so many people derive their livelihood in one way or another ... from the existence of that port," he said. "But I think that there are relatively few people who understand the huge wider picture, and how far back in history that goes."

Davis Helberg, the semi-retired director of the Port of Duluth-Superior who spearheaded the project, couldn't agree more with Beck's sentiments. Like Beck, he says the port's history is basically the city's history.

"I think the history and development of the port are inseparable from the history and the life and times of not only Duluth and Superior but this greater region," he said, citing the Iron Range and the grain-growing regions to the West as examples.

"The city and the community exists, in my judgment, because of the port," Helberg added. "It was established here because of its waterfront, this wonderful God-given harbor that we have here."

Like Helberg, Beck also believes one current industry thriving in Duluth, tourism, also owes its existence to the large transport vessels and particularly ocean-going ships which have traveled the St. Lawrence Seaway, providing the novelty of international water commerce in the middle of the North American continent.

"Look at the development of the waterfront. Look at the development of Canal Park," Beck said. "The reason people come to Duluth is to see those big boats come through the shipping channel."

Helberg says he's often put it this way: "The tourists come to see the ships, the ships don't come to see the tourists."

A top-notch team


Helberg says the project was one he started as port director in 1998, before his retirement, after some discussions with Beck.

"As someone who's spent most ... of his working career on the waterfront and on the shipping industry, I always felt that there was a need for a comprehensive history of the port," he said. He noted that it had been done in hit and miss fashion, never consolidated into a good, hardcover publication.

But in another sense, by that time the project was well under way. Beck says it started for him in August 1979, when he went to work in Duluth as a business and financial reporter for what was then the Duluth News Tribune and Herald, now the Duluth News Tribune. One of the things he covered on that beat was maritime commerce, which he says he found "endlessly fascinating."

"I think that's really when the thought began germinating that, hey, this would be neat, to do an actual history of the port and what maritime commerce means to the Duluth-Superior community and has meant over 250, 300 years," he said.

Changes in his life would soon make him even more suited to the project that was germinating. He went to work for Minnesota Power and wound up begin appointed to the Duluth Seaway Port Authority board of directors.

"I got a chance to see it from the inside," he said.

Eventually, after writing a very successful book chronicling the history of Minnesota Power, St. Mary's Hospital and other businesses, he started his own business, Lakeside Writer's Group, for such projects. Even though he has since moved back to his native Indiana, he is working at that business yet, having kept the name originally chosen to reflect the neighborhood where his home-based business was launched.

His coauthor is no slouch. Labadie, an effective writer himself, directed the Marine Museum, now known as the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor's Center, from its founding in 1973 until 2001. He now works as a historian for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Mich.


"It worked pretty seamlessly," Beck said of the collaboration. "Pat, of course, my co-author, has forgotten more Great Lakes history than most of us know."

The early decision was that Beck would do the majority of the writing, but since Beck was more adequate on the port's 20th century and Labadie was an expert on the 19th century history where Beck was weakest, Labadie would do heavy editing on those sections.

Helberg, also a veteran Twin Ports journalist, also worked extensively with the manuscript and did considerable work selecting the images for the book after Labadie took the job in Michigan.

"We couldn't have had a better team than Beck and Labadie," Helberg said.

Beck, he said, churns out copy. "He's highly disciplined, he's accurate, he has flair," Helberg said. "He's an amazing writer."

Labadie, in turn, is a noted historian whose knowledge of the early port is "without parallel," Helberg said.


'A massive job'


Helberg said the project started when the port hired Beck to prepare a book "treatment," basically a proposal which includes a detailed outline, sample chapters, lists of sources and suggested artwork, and thoughts on projected marketing and potential audiences for the book. The treatment itself ran to 45 pages, and the port began trying to sell it to publishers, first trying the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

When that publisher turned it down, Helberg turned to Duncan MacMillian, the president of Afton Historical Society Press in Afton, Minn., who as a former CEO of Cargill, Inc., was no stranger to the Port of Duluth-Superior.

"To be blunt, I tried to tap Mr. MacMillan's heartstrings a little bit," Helberg said.

It worked, or at least the sales pitch did. Afton, which has produced several titles related to the Northland, bought the idea.

"As it turned out, it was probably the best way to go," Helberg said.

That's when the work began in earnest. Actually, part of it was already under way, as Beck, at Helberg's request, had begun interviews with about 50 people, collecting, recording and transcribing their oral histories. It's a treasure of history that, if legal hurdles can be overcome, Helberg hopes will be transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Superior, which already has extensive historical archives from the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor's Center.

Beck said the interviews were fascinating. As just one example, he mentioned meeting Germaine Guthrie, who in the interview mentioned babysitting current New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, whose father was a ship owner -- a story that didn't make the book.

And that was just the beginning.


"It was a massive job," Beck said.

He says he has four or five banker's boxes of alphabetized files used for research, portions of which he began collecting 25 years ago as a Duluth journalist. Numerous institutions and private collectors offered up images, up to 600 of them, finally culled down to 200 chosen for inclusion in the book.

Helberg said the manuscript itself, after all the hard work, ended up being 200,000 words, massively longer than could fit the contract calling for a 200-page book. Originally, the endnotes alone, fascinating reading in themselves by Helberg's reckoning, came in at 40,000 words.

It's a pain that faces many authors. Eventually the book was culled down to 90,000 words, weighing in at the final 288 pages.

"But we had to do heavy, heavy editing and cutting," Helberg said. "... It was excruciating. It was terribly painful." Beck added that photos cut were a "consistent heartbreak."

There was just too much good stuff.

One area of the book that ended up being significantly cut was sidebars to the main chapters, each telling an interesting story. For instance, a sidebar that made it into the book covers the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Beck had written two or three such sidebars for each chapter, but only one per chapter was allowed.

In a display of how technology can benefit writers, a partial solution was found for that sidebar problem. In October, several of them, along with some of the images that didn't make the final cut, will be placed on a Web site linked from the Duluth port site.


Preparing for success

The finished product is loaded with historic photographs and artwork, dating back to the earliest days of the port. Nineteen chapters outline the fur trade, food transportation, the era of importing coal and the current era of exporting coal. Other chapters cover cruise ships, the Depression, the war years, fishing, shipbuilding and, of course, iron ore.

It seems destined to be a Northland classic.

Beck said the opening book signing was a success, and Helberg said advance sales and early returns, as well as anecdotal comments, are good.

Beck said the appeal will actually go beyond the Twin Ports, to the many places affected by Great Lakes shipping, and he has an anecdote to back up that prediction. He met a woman in Florida several weeks ago and got to talking with a woman who had lived in Ohio and worked on the ore docks. When he told her about the project, she was so excited she said she would order copies for her son and for her ex-husband.

"When she said 'ex-husband' I knew this book had legs," Beck said.

Kyle Eller is features editor for the Budgeteer News. Reach him at or 723-1207.

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