Local View: Memories of West Duluth can't be allowed to be forgotten

From the column: "The kids attended Irving and learned to get along with everyone, regardless of ethnic background. Everyone knew everybody from blocks around."

File photo / A group of boys in West Duluth plays with firecrackers in this photo that was published on the front page of the July 4, 1937, Duluth News-Tribune. The boys were identified as Lewis Churnich (lighting the match), John Milnich (holding the can), and bystanders, from left to right, Howard Kranich, Rudy Kurtovich, Walter Zinkovich, Herbert Cornelison, and Kenneth Zimmerman.

West Duluth was an area of town that was populated and built by waves of legal immigrants from every part of the world. Immigrants flocked to the U.S., believing the rumor that the streets were paved in gold!

An outsider would never believe the contributions that West Duluth’s Irving and Raleigh neighborhoods especially made to the city — unless you lived there like I did.

Many of my neighbors and I were born American citizens, brought up in the shadow of the Great Depression and the reality of World War II. Many businesses that employed our parents are no longer there, such as Interlake Iron, the Klearflax rug factory, and Carbolite. Immigrants worked hard for little pay.

Families living in the area came to the churches to learn English, and it helped connect everyone in the neighborhood. The kids attended Irving and learned to get along with everyone, regardless of ethnic background. Everyone knew everybody from blocks around, and we did not care what background you came from. Our close-knit community took care of each other.

Growing up, we were conditioned to believe how evil the administration of President Herbert Hoover was, leaving out that we were in a worldwide depression. We believed that only rich people were Republicans.


Because of our low incomes, the only way a young man could get an education, it seemed, was to join the military to take advantage of the G.I Bill. My generation entered the military in the middle 1950s. When we returned home and were ready to go to school, the iron-ore mines and the steel mill were closing down. There were few part-time jobs available to supplement our military benefits. So, many of us re-upped to care for new families.

We were caught up in the Gulf of Tonkin and the lies that President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey used to drag our country into the Vietnam war, where 58,000 American comrades were killed. I remember the French President Charles de Gaulle warning President John F. Kennedy not to get involved in Vietnam because it was a civil war. That is why France pulled out in 1954 after Dien ben Phu fell.

We were a different breed of kids in West Duluth when I was growing up there. We ice skated and swam in the bay, played street hockey in the winter, and rode our bikes to Billings Park to swim. We were charged 5 cents each way to go across the old Arrowhead Bridge to Billings Park.

I remember walking to school in minus-20-degree weather and often hearing, “Oh, you are from that part of town,” meaning “the West Duluth Ghetto,” as some called it. No wonder so many of us left and never returned.

I was born in 1936 and left Duluth soon after graduation in 1954. I came home on leave to visit the folks from time to time and to do some fish-line wetting up at Island Lake.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not bitter. Like others, I just wish to share long-ago stories of West Duluth that we can’t allow to be forgotten.

Sam Pangerl grew up in West Duluth in the 1930s to the 1950s. He lives now in Spokane, Washington.

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