The Port of Duluth is the western terminus of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the largest port on the Great Lakes. With a population of over 86 thousand people, it is the seat for St. Louis County, Minnesota. It lies at the mouth of the St. Louis River on Lake Superior, across the river from Superior, Wisconsin. The two ports combine to surround the Duluth-Superior harbor.
When French Daniel Greysolon, sieur Du Luth, visited the area, it was inhabited by the indigenous Lakota (commonly known as the Sioux) and Ojibwa peoples. Paleo-Indian cultures had lived there for thousands of years, and the “Old Copper” people followed. While Pontius Pilot ruled Jerusalem, the Woodlands people built burial mounds, created pottery, and grew wild rice here.
Frenchmen first came to the area in 1659 looking for furs, but sieur Du Luth claimed the area for the French in 1679. The fur-trading outpost of Fond du Lac was soon established on the St. Louis River, and it remained active until the mid-1800s. German immigrant John Jacob Astor built a store on the St. Louis River. While the enterprise struggled at first, Astor convinced the US Congress to ban foreigners from trading in US territory, giving his American Fur Company a boost in 1816.
George P. Stuntz was the first to settle the area in 1852. In 1854, a treaty with the Lake Superior Ojibwa (also known as Chippewa) established an Indian reservation to which they were moved upstream from Duluth. Stuntz was soon followed by miners looking for copper, and the Port of Duluth was laid out in 1856.
Prosperity came to the area when a railroad extension and the Duluth Ship Canal (1871) made lumbering and development of iron ranges profitable. A road connected the Port of Duluth to Minneapolis/St. Paul. Before long, eleven villages grew up on both sides of the River, establishing the roots of what would become Duluth. But in 1857, as copper became rare, the local economy shifted to harvesting timber. Then a national economic crisis forced almost 75% of the early settlers to leave the area.
On January 1, 1869, only fourteen families were there to celebrate the New Year. But the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad linked Duluth to St. Paul and opened the north and western regions to mining for iron ore. By July 4th of the same year, 3500 people were there to celebrate. The Port of Duluth thrived after that.
In the 1900s, the Port of Duluth was for a time the busiest port in the United States, surpassing even New York City in gross tonnage. In the early 20th Century, US Steel established a huge plant and a company-town at Morgan Park, now a neighborhood in Duluth, bringing thousands of people to the area in search of work.
During the 20th Century, the Port of Duluth attracted immigrants from around the world. It was home to a large community of Finnish people. Settlers also arrived from Ireland, Italy, England, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Ukraine, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Russia.
Throughout most of the 1900s, the Port of Duluth was a busy industrial city and seaport. World War I brought a shipbuilding plant, and the Riverside neighborhood grew up around it. World War II brought similar growth, and population reached its peak of over 100 thousand people in 1960.
The closing of the US Steel plant in 1987 due to foreign competition was a heavy blow to the Port of Duluth. The closing started a movement of industry out of the city. Shipbuilding, heavy machinery manufacturers, and the local Air Force base closed. By the late 1990s, unemployment had reached 15%.
With industrial decline, the Port of Duluth shifted its focus to tourism. At the beginning of the 21st Century, Duluth’s Canal Park is a tourist center of red brick streets, skywalks, and waterfront restaurants, cafes, and shops created from old warehouses.
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