Whiskey Row reveals its secrets

There was a lot of whiskey flowing and other activities going on in the settlement's 22 saloons and brothels.

Tim Tumberg walked toward his colleagues across the jumbled archaeological site along Agate Bay in Two Harbors, gingerly holding a delicate find.

"You guys'll want to see this," Tumberg said, extending his hand.

The archaeologists and history enthusiasts were searching for remains from the earliest white settlement in Two Harbors, an area about the size of a city block that housed the men who built a railroad through the area starting in 1883. It was a rough and rowdy place that earned the nickname "Whiskey Row."

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is sponsoring an investigation of the Whiskey Row site before much of it is dug up and hauled away to make room for a long-planned public marina. The work started last week with a search along the surface and will continue with a targeted excavation later this summer.

Local historian Todd Lindahl tells a story about Whiskey Row: Two brothers owned one of many saloons along Whiskey Row. During an argument on Christmas Eve, one flung a full whiskey bottle at the other; the brother died when the bottle shattered his skull.


So perhaps the artifact that Tumberg held out was fitting. It was a section of skull, ventilated by what looked like a bullet hole. Animal? Human? That remains to be seen.

"It was truly a lawless country at that time," said Rick Tokarczyk, Lake County Historical Society administrator. Murders were common, and death by disease and injury was a part of life.

But it was also a booming country, and hundreds of workers were needed to build the railroads that would carry iron ore out of the Northland. By most accounts there were no churches, no social organizations, no wives and no children in the settlement.

There was, however, a lot of whiskey flowing and other activities going on in the settlement's 22 saloons and brothels.

"Anyplace where there is a large number of men, these things spring up around them," Lindahl said. "It's something that's always happened," whether in Duluth, Ely or any town that sprang up quickly and needed a large work force.

"It's rare to find a spot that's so undisturbed," said Tumberg, DNR trails and waterways archaeologist. Whiskey Row sprouted in an attractive spot on Agate Bay and, if not for the wooden and then concrete coal docks that covered the site since about 1888, those artifacts probably would have been lost to history.

On Thursday, Charles Day, owner of Geophysical Subsurface Investigations of Missouri, was methodically using electrical sensing equipment to probe for any differences in ground densities. That could help Tumberg locate former wells, cisterns and outhouses -- all places that often yield rich finds because they were convenient places to toss trash.

"An old privy is like a treasure chest for archaeologists," Tumberg said.


The site is so chockablock with artifacts lying right on the surface that it's hard to avoid stepping on them.

There are shards of crockery both large and small, black leather shoe soles curling out of the ground, single buttons, a leather hat, a clothespin nearly the size of a toothbrush and plenty of shattered liquor jugs. Lindahl spent much of Thursday flagging finds, from a pocketknife handle to the broken-off necks of medicine bottles. Most of it -- including the piece of skull Lindahl found -- is in plain sight.

Lindahl marveled over a peach pit that lay on the ground, a bit swollen and faded but otherwise perfect. It was about 125 years old.

"Someone munched that thing down and tossed it," Lindahl said. The fact that the pit is there at all seems amazing, considering that early Whiskey Row settlers nearly starved to death one winter before the first supply ship arrived in the spring.

Many Two Harbors residents don't know about their town's rowdy roots, and others don't like to talk about it.

"It's the stigma of Whiskey Row," Tokarczyk said. Especially as Two Harbors was maturing, people wanted to differentiate the newer part of town from that area of ill-repute down along the waterfront. The buildings, which were never meant to be permanent anyway, were moved or torn down. Lindahl believes the few that remained before the coal docks were laid were looted and perhaps burned.

Tumberg will use what he, his assistant Grady Larimer of Duluth and Lindahl are finding to paint a fuller picture of the people who lived on Whiskey Row. While a few historical documents and accounts of Whiskey Row remain, some of the accounts are conflicting and most were subject to interpretation.

But the bones and bottles that waited beneath the coal slab all those years won't lie.


"Archaeology is an independent line of evidence from historical documents," Tumberg said. If remnants of porcelain dishes turn up among the more common earthenware crockery, it could mean people had some disposable income. What kinds of animal bones were left behind? What kinds of medicine bottles are there? What kinds of shoes and buttons? And what's with that skull fragment?

After a brief show-and-tell, Tumberg slipped the piece of skull, which was light and porous and stained a rich yellow on one side, into a plastic bag for safekeeping. Every find went in its own labeled bag, ready to be cleaned and examined when Tumberg is back in his offices. He hopes to finish the Whiskey Row field work this summer, though identifying and cataloging each find will take longer.

It all "tells the story of people whose story hasn't been told," Tumberg said.

That's just why Lindahl, who has been studying Two Harbors history for nearly 40 years, is interested, too.

"This is the beginning of the roots of town," Lindahl said. "Very little has been recorded about it, so whatever we can learn is very important."

JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at .

What To Read Next
Get Local