Northlandia: Where is Swan Lake Road’s namesake lake?
Swan Lake Road’s namesake was never in, nor anywhere near, Duluth.
This month’s reader question is about Duluth’s Swan Lake Road, and I’ve often wondered the same thing myself: Bill asks, “Was there ever a Swan Lake in or near Duluth?
Bill recognizes that many roads are named for their original destination. For example, Duluth’s Vermilion Road was once part of the Vermilion Trail from Duluth to Lake Vermilion.
And like Lake Vermilion, Swan Lake Road’s namesake was never in, nor anywhere near, Duluth.
Northern Minnesota has two Swan Lakes, one here in St. Louis County, 115 miles north of Duluth, the other 78 miles northwest of the Zenith City in Itasca County.
Maps of the original road would provide a quick answer, so I asked Ryan Murphy, survey specialist with the St. Louis County Public Works Department, if the county had any. Meanwhile I searched Duluth newspapers, looking for the earliest mention of the road.
Several articles from autumn 1874 published in the Minnesotian provided clues. One described it as “a wagon road from Duluth to the west end of St. Louis County,” making the Itasca County lake the most likely namesake.
Another story included a description of the road written by its surveyor. It explained that Swan Lake Road would begin in Duluth at East Piedmont Avenue (today’s Mesaba Avenue) and Second Avenue East — very near the convergence of Mesaba and Central Entrance — and run 73 miles in a primarily northwesterly direction.
Along the way it would cross the Cloquet River on a 220-foot-long bridge, and then run west to the St. Louis River. A ferry would take wagons across the river, where the road continued west to the Floodwood River, following its banks for 9 miles before heading to the “East end of Swan Lake in Section 4, Town 55, Range 22 west” in Itasca County.
So there it was: Duluth’s Swan Lake Road is named for Itasca County’s Swan Lake.
Ryan found maps verifying this that also show that the road crossed the county line at today’s convergence of St. Louis County’s Highway 18 and Itasca County’s Highway 20.
The surveyor was none other than George Stuntz, a legendary figure in Duluth history. He arrived in 1852 to survey the western Lake Superior region and later surveyed, and built, the Vermilion Trail. Near Lake Vermilion, acting on a tip from local Ojibwe, Stuntz found a chunk of iron ore that later led to the opening of the Vermilion Iron Range.
Like Stuntz’s Vermilion Trail, portions of Swan Lake Road likely followed a path used for centuries by Ojibwe and Dakota.
Those Minnesotian articles also explain why the road was constructed, stating that in Itasca County the road would be built by “(Minneapolis) lumbermen interested in the pinery on the head of the Mississippi.” So the road’s original purpose was to get lumberjacks and logging equipment to Itasca County’s rich timberlands.
It would also benefit St. Louis County, where the leaders believed roads extending from Duluth would ensure the county’s development. Stuntz’s description mentioned the rich farmland and beautiful lakes located along the road.
One was Pike Lake, which the newspaper called “newly discovered.” One story mentioned that a Duluthian had recently pulled a 41-inch-long pike out of the lake, an event which may have given the lake its name.
The St. Louis County portion of the road was built by Ans Northrup, another legendary Minnesotan. Northrup arrived in Minnesota in the 1840s, becoming a lumberman, hotel proprietor and one of Minnesota’s first legislators.
His notoriety, however, came from his brutal, sometimes drunken exploits during the 1862 Dakota Uprising. Northrup moved to Duluth in 1869, and that summer his son George became Duluth’s first murder victim, stabbed protecting his brother from an angry, drunken mob.
By 1874 Northrup was a lumberman, county commissioner and road contractor. Under his direction, the road’s cost nearly tripled, leading to public outcry.
Little of Swan Lake Road remains in Duluth today. Much of it has been abandoned or absorbed by modern roads following its path. Maps indicate Central Entrance from Mesaba to Arlington Avenues follows the 1874 road.
Portions remain in Duluth Heights, one beginning near the neighborhood’s community center at Bass Lake Road, running northeast to Arrowhead Road. Another branches off Arrowhead about two blocks further west, continuing northeasterly to Air Base Road.
Much of Swan Lake Road was likely absorbed by Miller Trunk Highway, now Highway 53. In Independence, about 22 miles north of Duluth, the road reappears running west — and sometimes south — first as County Road 47 and later County Road 166, stopping where it intersects with Highway 5. Ryan found that a mile north of there it briefly runs west as County Road 165, terminating at County Road 170, aka McGonagle Road.
I found only one other remnant, in Itasca County near — where else? — Swan Lake.
Tony Dierckins is the author of “Duluth: An Urban Biography” and the publisher of Zenith City Press, celebrating historic Duluth daily at zenithcity.com.
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