A News Tribune reader recently shared with us black-and-white-era photographs of a family trip to Duluth — pictures of father, then son, posed in front of what turned out to be a very brief Canal Park attraction.
The 2,000-pound statue of Neptune, Roman god of the sea, was positioned with his muscular back to the ship canal. In one arm, he held a replica of the Ramon de Larrinaga, the first ocean-going vessel to reach Duluth; in the other, a trident.
A cloth is draped around his waist, his left leg lifted up on a rock.
“As you can see,” Ray Lehman, of Afton, Minnesota, wrote in an email, ”the statue was huge and imposing.”
It was. Neptune was 26 feet tall, according to news reports, but it was also perched on a pedestal slightly taller than Lehman — barely a teen in the family photograph from 1961.
When Lehman returned to Duluth in later years, with memories of Neptune, he couldn’t find the landmark. He solved the mystery himself after first finding proof of the statue in a box of photographs.
The News Tribune has written of the woes, but it has been a while, and it's worth sharing again.
Neptune went up in flames.
The News Tribune's Chuck Frederick, reporter-turned-opinion page editor, had a column in the 2000s of the “whatever happened to” genre. He did a deep dive on Neptune in 2006.
Turns out the State Fair Board gave the figure made of fiberglass and weatherproof plastic to Duluth to commemorate the Ramon de Larrinaga and the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
It was an event worthy of a massive gift.
On May 3, 1959, the ship passed under the Aerial Lift Bridge marking the opening of the hub for international trade, according to News Tribune reports.
Though massive, the statue wasn’t durable.
“Within weeks,” Frederick wrote, “small stones thrown up on the shore by Lake Superior’s waves punched holes in the robe,” and then humans did the same.
Frederick reported that the city of Duluth spent as much as $300 a year, which would be more than $2,500 now, repairing Neptune. In 1963, a major overhaul was needed.
“That’s when the statue’s true construction material was discovered,” Frederick reported. Beneath the fiberglass and plastic was papier-mache.
“City crews using blowtorches to dismantle the pipes that held the statue in place quickly set Neptune ablaze,” he wrote. “He was reduced to ashes within minutes.”
As went Neptune, so have gone memories of the statue that stood from 1959 to 1963. Asked about whether Visit Duluth often hears about this old statue, media communications manager Maarja Hewitt said she isn’t familiar with any Neptune mania in recent years.
It’s a bummer finale for the statue that was once described by Duluth Mayor E. Clifford Mork as a “tremendous tourist attraction.”
“Too bad it was never replaced,” Lehman wrote.
Christa Lawler is a features reporter for the News Tribune. Follow her on Twitter at @dntane.