Ten stories that have shaped Duluth: Key dates in the last 75 years

Duluth has seen a lot of changes and celebrated a lot of events throughout the past 75 years. These are the top 10 momentous events from the past 75 years that have helped shape the city into what it is today.

Duluth has seen a lot of changes and celebrated a lot of events throughout the past 75 years. These are the top 10 momentous events from the past 75 years that have helped shape the city into what it is today.

1932 -- Duluth Aviation Club formed

The Duluth Aviation Club was formed in 1932 to stimulate airmail and passenger service, start airport improvements and hold airmeets and tours, said Alvin Grady, retired director of finance at the Duluth International Airport. That year the club held two airshows.

The Williamson-Johnson Municipal Airport had been dedicated in 1930. The municipal airport would change its name to Duluth International Airport.

In 1939, a Municipal Airport board was selected and in 1940 Northwest Airlines began regularly scheduled flights to Duluth, Grady said.


Aviation in Duluth continued to grow with the addition of Sky Harbor Airport in 1946, the Duluth Air National Guard Base in 1948 and a U.S. Air Force Base in 1951.

The Municipal Airport got a new $210,000 control tower in 1951 making it one of the most modern towers in the country at the time, he said.

The Air Force Base closed in 1982. And in 1994, Cirrus Design Corporation moved its world headquarters to the Duluth International Airport. The company designs, manufactures and sells light aircraft from its headquarters at the airport.

In 1998, it was estimated that the airport and its tenants contributed more than $101 million to the regional economy, he said.

In 2000, the Russian Antonov 124, one of the world's largest aircraft, landed at the Duluth Airport. The year also saw the installation of runway centerline lighting at $2.4 million followed by a instrument landing system for $3.9 million.

The most recent tenant at the Duluth International Airport is Allegiant Air, which began offering low fare rates to Las Vegas in 2005.

The Duluth Airport Authority is overseeing $14.3 million construction projects on the airfield. It continues to make improvements for the future of aviation in Duluth, Grady said.

1947 -- Duluth university becomes coordinate campus of U of M


The Minnesota State Legislature created the Normal School at Duluth in 1895. In 1921, the school became the Duluth Teachers College.

In 1947, the college became a coordinate campus of the University of Minnesota.

UMD turns out graduates with bachelors, masters, medical and pharmacy degrees each year. The campus is made up of 50 buildings on 244 acres -- all of them built since 1948.

Today Duluth, home to three colleges, is an educational center in the Northland.

About 37 percent of UMD students come from the Twin Cities, 45 percent come to the school from other parts of Minnesota.

About 10,500 students attend UMD, about 3,300 attend the College of St. Scholastica and 4,200 attend Lake Superior College. The University of Wisconsin-Superior and the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College are located in nearby Superior.

Dec. 2, 1961 -- Duluth-Superior High Bridge opens to interstate traffic

Construction on the Blatnik Bridge on I-35 between Minnesota and Wisconsin began in November 1958. Three years later the bridge opened to traffic.


The Blatnik Bridge replaced the Interstate Bridge, a toll bridge built in 1897 which had been damaged by ore boats several times, said John Bray, Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesperson.

The Interstate Bridge was often put out of commission. Drivers could not use the bridge when a train needed to cross the bridge or a ship needed to go through, Bray said.

A movement began to build a high bridge that wouldn't be interrupted by shipping. The leader of the movement was Congressman John Blatnik, who the bridge would later be named after.

At the time, Blatnik came up with the funding idea for the bridge. In 1956, the Interstate Highway System was approved, and Blatnik proposed that the interstate system fund the building of the bridge as an offshoot of the Interstate 35 Highway that would connect Laredo, Texas, with Duluth in the future.

Today, Interstate 535 still runs from I-35 across the Blatnik Bridge to Superior.

The Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge on U.S. Highway 2 followed the Blatnik, opening in 1984 to replace the Arrowhead Bridge, which was built in 1927 and operated as a toll bridge until 1963.

The highway department saved a portion of both the Interstate and Arrowhead bridges, lowering them further into the water as boat launches and fishing piers to preserve some of their history, Bray said.

The Blatnik Bridge was renovated, beginning in 1992. The restoration provided road shoulders and a center median for safety reasons.


Aug. 5, 1966 -- Duluth Arena Auditorium opens its doors

Better known as the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC), the DECC started out as an arena and auditorium built on the site of the Zalk-Josephs scrap yard.

The scrap yard was chosen by a study by the Stanford Research Institute, according to Manley Goldfine, writing in "The Will and the Way."

The Pioneer Hall and Northwest Passage were added in 1976 connecting the DECC to the downtown's Skywalk system. The City Side Convention Center was added in 1990, and the Harbor Side Convention Center and parking ramp in 2001, Goldfine wrote.

The waterfront area where the center was built now includes the Great Lakes Aquarium, Bayfront Festival Park and the Vista Fleet.

The DECC is the center of regional convention and national performances. It is also home to University of Minnesota Duluth Hockey and the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra.

1971 -- U.S. Steel Plant closes furnace operations

The U.S. Steel Plant announced it would build a plant in Duluth in 1907. Eight years later the plant began producing steel.


The steel plant was the largest employer in the city and in the region. And was part of an overall economy in Duluth built around industrial manufacturing jobs, said John Toman, a supervisor at U.S. Steel for more than 40 years.

U.S. Steel didn't only employ Duluth citizens, it also housed them. The steel plant built the Morgan Park neighborhood for its workers to live in. The company later sold off the properties.

The plant closed through a period of years in the 1970s, Toman said. "I think the immediate impact (of the plant closing) was significant because at one time there were as many as 3,500 people employed at that plant."

The first closure was a hot end closing in 1971. The plant had nine open furnaces and two blast furnaces, which it closed down in 1971. That closure was followed by the cold end closing in 1973 of the wire end of the plant, Toman said.

U.S. Steel operations in Duluth ended with the closing of the corporation's coal plant in 1979, he said.

For a period of time, West Duluth, Gary New Duluth and Morgan Park were greatly affected by the closing of U.S. Steel and most other industrial companies in Duluth. Many other businesses went out of business when they lost their customer base because unemployed people moved out of the city to pursue work elsewhere, Toman said.

Today, Duluth has a different type of economy than it had before 1970. The medical, educational and tourism based sectors picked up the slack where manufacturing jobs left off, he said.

U.S. Steel still has a presence in Duluth. The company still owns the 460 acres where the plant once operated at the end of the Morgan Park neighborhood.


1972 -- Miller Hill Mall opens

Miller Hill Mall opened in 1972 as a 600,000 square foot mall.

The area around Miller Hill Mall from Duluth Heights to Hermantown has also developed as a shopping destination for the entire Northland region, wrote Robert Eaton in the 2004 book "The Will and the Way."

By 1981, less than a decade after it was first built demand was being made for more store space at Miller Hill Mall, said former mall manager Ed Orman.

"There was a demand for it; there was a customer appeal," he said.

Purchase of additional property started in 1983 and the now expanded 1 million square foot mall held the expansion opening in June 1988.

Several city and state organizations and mall personnel were instrumental in getting the expansion off the ground, Orman said.

Sept. 29, 1973 -- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opens museum near canal

Three years after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center by the lake front, Andy Borg and Mick Paulucci opened Grandma's Saloon and Grill near the waterfront.

The rest of the area was filled with old industrial buildings, junk yards and a fast food burger joint, but Borg and Paulucci had a vision for the waterfront, said Brian Daugherty, president of Grandma's Restaurant Co. and past president of the Canal Park Business Association.

The development of Canal Park took both private and public investment in the area, Daugherty said.

Businesspeople built hotels, shops and restaurants in former industrial buildings. The city of Duluth and the Minnesota Department of Transportation built the Lakewalk and public parks.

The completion of the Waterfront Plan took decades. What visitors to Canal Park see today did not happen overnight, Daugherty said.

"It's been quite a ride," he said. "It's a very humbling and prideful experience to see people come to your city and marvel at it."

The tourism and service industries represented in Canal Park stepped up to fill the void of the manufacturing industry.

Today the district is filled with restaurants, shops, coffee shops, entertainment, etc.

The area is still growing. And the businesses are always going to be offering a new experience for the district's visitors, Daugherty said.

In the 1990s the area blossomed and today it continues to grow, he said.

June 25, 1977 -- Duluth running group holds marathon race; Grandma's Restaurant sponsors

Grandma's marathon was first run in 1977 by the North Shore Striders, a Northland running group. The group wanted to host a marathon on its favorite training course North Shore Scenic Highway, said Laura Wright, Grandma's Marathon public relations director.

That first race included 150 contestants. This June, more than 17,000 runners competed between the marathon, the Gary Bjorkland Half Marathon and the William A. Irvin 5K.

Tens of thousands also came out to watch the marathon. And about 4,500 volunteers helped support the marathon.

It's grown to become a weekend running event, Wright said.

Grandma's Marathon is now the 13th largest marathon in the nation out of about 400, she said.

"Grandma's Marathon is the only race in that top 20 that is located in a small city," she said. "The community really comes out to support it. Runners say community welcome is the draw for them."

The 31st Grandma's Marathon is set for June 16, 2007.

June 27, 1977 -- Elizabeth Congdon and Velma Pietila found murdered at Glensheen

The murders of Elizabeth Congdon and her nurse Velma Pietila caught Duluth in a media storm in the summer of 1977.

The investigation was a major project on three fronts for the Duluth Police Department. And the trials of Roger Caldwell and Marjorie Caldwell were the longest trials in the history of Minnesota at the time said John DeSanto, prosecutor and co-author of "Will to Murder" a non-fiction book about the crime and trials.

Roger Caldwell was convicted of two counts of first degree murder. His conviction was overturned, and he pled guilty before he could be retried for the crime. He committed suicide in 1988.

Marjorie Caldwell was acquitted. She was later convicted of arson in Arizona.

The case captured the interest of the people of Duluth, Minnesota and the entire region, DeSanto said.

The case included the Congdon name, the setting of Glensheen, a crime of greed, circumstantial evidence and mystery. All those factors combined to capture the people's interest at the time and continues to hold it, he said.

"You couldn't write fiction with this many twists and turns," DeSanto said. "It's interesting that people are still so interested in it."

The crime also made people in the Duluth community aware that a murder inspired by greed could happen in Duluth, he said.

Aug. 28, 1994 -- New rose garden dedicated atop I-35

The dedication of the Rose Garden atop I-35 signified the completion of the I-35 reroute through Duluth. The project saved the rose garden, Leif Erickson Park and historic buildings. The project also created extra gardens, parks and the Lakewalk.

The 1-35 extension connected Duluth to the nationwide I-35, which begins at the Mexican boarder in Laredo, Texas, and ends at 26th Avenue East in Duluth.

The rose garden dedication was the culmination of almost 30 years of planning, public hearings and compromise, said John Bray, Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesperson.

"All of the neat stuff we have here happened because the people of Duluth demanded that the plan be changed," he said.

The original plan for the freeway was to build it up on stilts or to create a wall to protect the roadway from lake spray. Both plans would have destroyed historic buildings and eradicate a view of Lake Superior from the downtown.

"The original plans would have been a mistake of monumental proportions," Bray said. "The people of Duluth stood up and said no to it."

The I-35 extension in Duluth was the first time in the nation that so much compromise was accomplished to both build the road and satisfy the people, he said.

"It was an incredible experience to see what happened," Bray said. "It's won every major highway award possible."

The highway department, in partnership with the city of Duluth, built the Lakewalk along the outside of the highway.

"Tourists focus on Canal Park, and it's all because of the freeway," he said. "A lot of people don't know that."

Note: This article was originally published Sept. 17, 2006, in "Then & Now: The Budgeteer is Celebrating our 75th Anniversary," a special supplement to the regular Sunday edition of the Duluth Budgeteer News.

What To Read Next
Get Local