Question: How did the Duluth get dubbed the "Zenith City?" And, honestly, what does it mean and why are we so attached to it?
This question comes from one of the News Tribune’s newer reporters. When she sent it to me, I admit that my first thought was, “Oh, everyone knows that!”
Then I realized I didn’t know the answer.
I thought I did — and I vaguely had a sense that someone gave a speech or wrote a book about Duluth and coined the term. But if this were an episode of “Jeopardy!” I’d have wagered zilch, Alex.
Anyway, I’m along for the ride on this one. I’m going to borrow heavily from Duluth historian Tony Dierckins’ research on the topic, which is found at his own Zenith-flavored blog.
So, as it turns out, it was the editor of Duluth’s first newspaper who first used the term.
Thomas Foster founded the Daily Minnesotian ("Minne-so-shun") in 1869 after essentially moving his St. Paul Minnesotian to what would soon become Duluth. He had moved north a year before, shortly after Jay Cooke announced plans to bring two of his railroads here.
On July 4, 1868, Foster “gave a grand oration, during which he first called Duluth the ‘Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas’ and outlined the future of Duluth as the ‘Chicago of Lake Superior,’” Dierckins wrote.
There is no written copy of the entire speech, though portions were later published in Foster’s newspaper.
Foster was a heck of an optimist. At the start of 1869, only 14 families lived at the base of Minnesota Point, Dierckins noted.
Then again, by 1872, Foster had left Duluth, giving the Minnesotian to his sons. He died in San Francisco in 1903, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.
Let’s talk a little newspaper history while we’re at it. Foster’s Minnesotian was the first newspaper in Duluth, but not for long.
In 1870, Cooke helped bring R.C. Mitchell’s Superior Tribune over to Duluth to compete with the Minnesotian because city leaders weren’t fond of Foster’s criticism in the Minnesotian’s pages, Dierckins wrote. (Two years later, those leaders would try something similar in protest of Mitchell’s views.)
In 1875, the Minnesotian, led by Edward and Clarence Foster, merged with an early Duluth Herald — unrelated to the later Herald — to become the Minnesotian-Herald. Mitchell bought the Minnesotian-Herald in 1877, and it ceased publication the next year. The Duluth Tribune resumed daily publication in 1881.
W.S. Woodridge started producing the Lake Superior News in 1878, becoming the Duluth Daily News in 1886. Milie Bunnell established a new Duluth Herald in 1883.
In 1892, the Daily News and the Tribune merged to form the Duluth News-Tribune. The News-Tribune and the Evening Herald were joined under one roof in 1929, and they formally merged in 1982 as the News-Tribune & Herald. The “Herald” name was dropped in 1988, and the hyphen in “News-Tribune” was abandoned in 2000.
As for why the “Zenith” name has endured, I don’t know. That’s more than this column can bite off this week. It’s catchy, though, and it brims with the kind of civic pride Foster seemed to have so long ago.
And unlike Foster, we’ve got a crown jewel of a town here to back it up.