You can sail to Duluth, Minnesota from the Atlantic Ocean via a long (2,300 miles) and sinuous route, chartering a series of rivers, canals and passages, through four of the five Great Lakes until you finally reach Duluth Harbor and the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge. Total trip time, about nine days. You can also get to the “Emerald City on the Hill” via U.S. Route 53 in far less time (a little over eight hours from Chicago by car). I did the latter and drove into Duluth on a crisp December day just after the sun had set.
Coming down the hill into the light bespeckled town, I could faintly make out the vastness of Lake Superior and thought to myself, “Man, you don’t get this kind of view of our Great Lake back in Chicago.” It was spectacular. I could not wait to observe and explore the town I had heard so much about. At that moment, I slowed my speed down a bit and turned up the volume – it was Medicine Magazines by Duluth’s own, Low.
One of the first things that I observed about Duluth is that they take their hockey very seriously. It’s a way of life for many Duluthians, with outdoor hockey rinks in just about every neighborhood and park. Frank Gehry would love it here.
Duluth has always been known for its commerce and trade, beginning in 1679 when French explorer Daniel Greysolon Du Luth (the town’s namesake) arrived to help optimize the local fur trading industry. During the beginning of the 20th Century, it was the leading port in the United States, surpassing New York and Chicago. At one point, Duluth was home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world.
Duluth was also the birthplace and home to one Robert Allen Zimmerman for the first six years of his life. He would later move to Dinkytown in Minneapolis where he started introducing himself as Bob Dylan. The house on 519 N. 3rd Avenue East sits on a quiet hillside overlooking downtown Duluth and Lake Superior. One observation… you most certainly don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows from here.
The good majority of Duluth’s economy is driven, both literally and figuratively, by these freighters – commonly known as “lakers” and “salties” (for ocean-going vessels), hauling coal, wheat, and taconite from the Iron Range to the rest of the world.
Originally built in 1905 and most recently upgraded in 1929, the Aerial Lift Bridge is the first of only two vertical lift bridges ever built in the United States and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Canal Park has a maritime museum and is always buzzing with activity. The bridge is raised between 25-30 times daily, letting freighters in and out of port. As the bridge went up, I observed an interesting and apparently customary exchange of friendly horn blowing between the freighters and bridge control as ships pass under, which can be heard from town up into the hills of Duluth.
There are many great restaurants and shops in Duluth to observe, including the historic DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace. One of my favorites was Fitger’s, where there’s a historic hotel, shopping, a brewery museum, and the oldest continually operating industry in Duluth and Minnesota’s oldest brew pub (1881), Fitger’s Brewhouse. Yuuummmm.
My final observation was of the Hawk’s Boots facility in West Duluth, where I met with Greg Benson, CEO and co-founder of outdoor furniture design company, Loll. Greg generously made us some tasty espressos and we proceeded to tour the David Salmela (my new favorite architect) designed building, where he explained its early beginnings, his company’s day-to-day operations, and a sneak peek into the future (look for this exclusive Matter Observed post soon). Very exciting stuff.
On my final day as I left Duluth, my first thought was, “how the heck am I going to get out of here?!” There were 17″ of snow on the ground from the night before, and it wasn’t stopping anytime soon. Chicago most certainly would’ve shut down, but in Duluth it was business-as-usual. Once I had made it down the perilously slippery roads and onto the main highway, I couldn’t help but think of how beautiful and cool the city of Duluth turned out to be, blowing away all of my expectations. From the people, to the sites, to its natural beauty, even in the incredibly cold weather, Duluth is a special place – a place more people should observe for themselves.
A very special THANKS to all the kind people of Duluth, especially my gracious hosts and dear friends, Andrew and Sigrún (and the world’s most creative six year old boy, Odinn), who welcomed me into their beautiful home on the hill.