Duluth, the Urban Time Capsule

Duluth's streetcar system, 1911

Duluth’s streetcar system, 1911

You never hear much about urban land use or transit oriented development in Duluth–or transit itself for that matter. Those topics seems to be restricted to the Twin Cities and sometimes Rochester. I’ve become much more familiar with the Zenith City over the last three years spent writing the new book “Twin Ports by Trolley—The Streetcar Era in Duluth-Superior”, just released by the University of Minnesota Press.

Let’s take suburban sprawl. In the Twin Cities it has happened in ever wider concentric circles centered on downtown Minneapolis (that includes the development east of St. Paul). In contrast, sprawl has never amounted to much in Duluth. I attribute it to Duluth’s peculiar geography and the lack of post-World War II population growth. Stretched out along the lake, harbor and the St. Louis River, the city is about 25 miles long but only 3-4 miles wide in most places and often less.

Sprawl was not possible on the lake side of the city facing the water, so it had to go elsewhere. Gary-New Duluth, the westernmost neighborhoods, are already 12 miles from downtown, which in itself was a disincentive foro development farther out, so it didn’t happen there. Lakeside, the easternmost neighborhood, is 6 miles from downtown, but little development has occurred east of the Lester River.

To the extent that new growth ocurred, it has mostly thickened the city’s narrow midsection, and much of the new stuff is considerably closer to downtown than pockets of much older housing. The big suburban winner has been Hermantown, with over 9000 people, but still closer to downtown than much of Duluth itself.

It’s true that Superior Street in downtown has lost most of the general retail to big boxes and the Miller Hill Mall. Duluth’s industrial base has also shrunk from what it was. The population, which hovered around 100,000 for decades, is down to 86,000, although I believe that’s mostly due to smaller households.

What I learned doing the book is that Duluth indeed experienced considerable suburban sprawl, but it happened back in 1890, when the new technology of electric streetcars brought outer areas within reach of a half-hour trolley trip. Developers extended speculative streetcar and cable incline lines to Hunter’s Park, Woodland, Lakeside, Duluth Heights and Bayview Heights, all outside the city and well beyond the limits of existing development. Duluth annexed all those suburbs in 1891, but to this day there is open land or only thin infill between them and the rest of the city. Even so, those neighborhoods are now historic, so it’s not like they’re McMansion subdivisions.

The Duluth incline railway climbed the hillside to reach the Duluth Heights real estate development.

The Duluth incline railway climbed the hillside to reach the Duluth Heights real estate development, out of sight beyond the hilltop. There is still considerable vacant land there.

A second suburban wavelet occurred about 1915, in the runup to World War I. A pair of planned company towns, Riverside and Morgan Park, appeared along the St. Louis River, within the city limits but miles beyond the developed area. They were built to house the employees of the McDougall-Duluth shipyard and the U. S. Steel plant. Even today, one passes through much vacant real estate to reach them.

Thanks to this early sprawl and generous city limits, Duluth has always had very low population density. In my book is a table I found in the Duluth Street Railway records (which have survived intact at UMD) that compares Duluth to the Twin Cities in 1928. At the time, Duluth had more land area than either Minneapolis or St. Paul. Its population density per square mile was 1735, compared to 7662 in Minneapolis and 5613 in St. Paul. Not surprisingly, its streetcars were only 57 percent as productive as in Minneapolis, which explains why they were replaced by buses in 1939, while Minneapolis’ lasted until 1954.

Empty land along Oneota Avenue between the ore docks and West Duluth.

Empty land along Oneota Avenue between the ore docks and West Duluth.


Open country between West Duluth and Morgan Park

Open country between West Duluth and Morgan Park

On the positive side, a stable number of households has preserved a residential landscape that has changed little since the days of the streetcars. They don’t have a teardown epidemic, so it’s a time capsule available for anyone to view.

7th Avenue E. at 9th Street in 1937. Take the streetcar out of the picture and it looks the same today.

7th Avenue E. at 9th Street in 1937. Take the streetcar out of the picture and it looks pretty much the same today.

With some exceptions, the Duluth Transit Authority bus system is doing what the streetcars used to do. One of the city’s strengths is that its oblong shape concentrates ridership and funnels everything through downtown, even though downtown isn’t as strong as it once was. There’s no such thing as an outer freeway belt that ignores the downtown, although the I-35 freeway now separates it from the harbor. Time and the automobile have taken their toll on the retail and commercial sector, but because sprawl has been minimal, residential Duluth looks more traditionally urban than any other small city I can think of.

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.

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