Were I able to travel back in time, it would be a long time before I considered leaving Duluth. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, I know. Time travel indicates a travel in time rather than location, but if given the choice, my first hundred destinations would all be right here in Duluth.

I’d watch the frenzied digging of the canal. Visit the fur-trading forts on the river. Ride one of the city’s inclines, and watch the Pavillion burn. I’d like to see, in person, the Aerial Lift Bridge when it was painted black. It must have looked so different.

But I’d want to see the everyday side of Duluth, too. What did 1920s Superior Street look like, for example? If I stood at Lake Avenue and gazed down Superior Street to the west, how different would everything look? Many of the buildings have changed, for sure, but what about the people? Would I notice a difference in their interactions and movements as they went about their day?

I recently discovered something that might help to paint that picture. It is a small red pamphlet, 72 pages long, titled “1929 Duluth Traffic Rules: Safe Driving and Walking Prevents Accidents.”

(Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune)
(Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune)

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The pamphlet had been created in response to the national trend of people discovering new ways in which they could kill or maim themselves and others through the use of motor vehicles. Duluth was not immune to this trend. Automobiles were new to the landscape, and though they held the promise of mobility and possibilities, they also proved to be deadly.

(Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune)
(Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune)

It was originally assumed that if people were simply better informed of the rules, all of those pesky accidents would go away. Hence this very thorough list of traffic rules. The majority of the content in the pamphlet looks comfortably familiar. Always keep to the right. Slow down around schools. Give pedestrians the right-of-way. The pamphlet even has advertisements for companies still advertising today, such as Minnesota Power and Bridgeman’s.

But a few items paint a picture of a different Duluth. Drivers are reminded that streetcars are on fixed rails and cannot swerve out of the way of a car. A full five pages are devoted to the proper use of “lamps” — or headlights on cars — as it had finally been noticed that high speed vehicles had more accidents when they couldn’t see where they were going.

(Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune)
(Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune)

Drivers are schooled on the dangers of driving too fast on sand roads, as well as reminded to avoid roads that have car tracks permanently embedded in the road’s surface. The McKay Company boasts their tire chains will increase your car’s mileage. Remember when chains used to be a common winter accessory?

In what is arguably the most historic portion of the pamphlet, instructions are given for boarding the gondola that used to ferry people across the canal. 1929 was the year construction began on the lifting road platform that the bridge has today.

Placing me back on 1920s Superior Street, I’m not sure how different the movement of people would feel. I thought reading the pamphlet would give me an inkling of a slower era, one in which pedestrians made up most of the bustle of the streets, rather than the vehicles. I thought the vehicles would be a little more chaotic, making up rules as they went along and getting in everyone’s way.

(Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune)
(Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune)

By the 1920s, traffic rules were fairly well established, in most ways the same as our traffic rules today. Whether or not people followed those rules is another story, I suppose. I do know that nationwide, the traffic pamphlets did very little to curb accidents. It turned out the secret to fewer traffic deaths was designing safety features into the cars themselves. Things like shatterproof windshields, seat belts, and even the common turn signal are what saved lives.

My time-travel journey didn’t turn out quite as enlightening as I thought it would. At the very least, I learned that 1929 traffic rules weren’t that different from 2020 traffic rules. Though it would have been nice to get a feel for a Duluth I never saw, it’s also nice to know that the city I love has always been familiar.

Kathleen Murphy
Kathleen Murphy

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at kmurphywrites@gmail.com.