Looking back at Duluth
Oct. 27, 2017
by Ivan Raconteur

I recently had the good fortune to spend some time on the North Shore in the area where I was born.

While I was growing up, I expected that was where I would live as an adult because it is such a fascinating place.

Economic necessity changed my plans, however. A downturn in the economy resulted in an unemployment rate of 15 percent in Duluth by 1980. In addition, the Iron Range was experiencing similar challenges at that time, which sent a flood of people who had previously been employed in the mines to Duluth to enter (or try to enter) the workforce.

Therefore, after high school I left the city to continue my education and find work. I always intended to move back to Duluth, but I have never quite made it.

One of the consequences of leaving one’s hometown is that it leaves us with a picture of the area that is a snapshot in time.

Throughout its history, the city has evolved and adapted, but in my mind it looks the same as it did the day I packed up my old Chevrolet Impala and headed south.

During my recent visit to Duluth, an old friend and I visited some of our old stomping grounds.

Although he has lived briefly in other places, he has spent most of his life in Duluth and is an excellent source of information about changes that have taken place since I left.

Some of the old landmarks that helped to define the area are gone.

The Arrowhead Bridge, an ancient, creaky wooden structure that wound its way between West Duluth and Billings Park in Superior was demolished soon after I left town.

I can still hear the sound of car tires making their way slowly across those old timbers, and I can see the old toll booth and drawbridge in the center of the span.

Gone too is the impressive railroad trestle that used to cast a shadow over the neighborhood near Central Avenue.

The cozy old library that was the source of many dreams during my childhood is gone.

I recall walking there with my old man on cool autumn evenings, holding his warm hand. He whistled as we walked, and I looked up at the stars and felt very small.

The library smelt of polished wood and hundreds of books just waiting to be explored.

It was a quiet place, except for the sound of the machine that punched dates on the cards of books being checked out by patrons.

The city’s three middle schools, including the one where I learned to swim, are gone now, too, replaced by a flashy modern centrally-located facility.

Although many landmarks are gone, much about my hometown remains the same.

The iconic Aerial Lift Bridge still greets visitors as they crest Thompson Hill and get their first view of the city.

The gaunt stone form of Enger Tower still looks down on the city from above.

My friend and I traveled along Skyline Parkway, an area we frequented when we were young.

Climbing hills, walking in the woods, and exploring the rocky shore of Lake Superior were all part of the fabric of my youth, and we did all of those things during my recent visit.

Duluth is, and has always been, a city of contrasts.

There are blue collar neighborhoods that have been home to generations of immigrants who came from Europe seeking a better life.

There are other neighborhoods that started as playgrounds of the industrial elite, powerful men who came from the east and made their fortunes in the lumber, mining, and shipping industries that dominated the region’s history.

Even today, some of those houses look more like museums than homes for real families.

There are also contrasts between the parts of town where the locals live and those that cater to the ever-increasing tourist trade.

The region that once exploited its natural resources now uses its natural beauty to support a new economy based on tourism.

The area has always adapted to change. Duluth was incorporated in 1857, but the first Europeans began exploring the area in the 1600s.

The Anishinabe have called the region home for 500 years, and before them, the Dakota, Fox, Menominee, Noquet, and Gros Venture peoples all spent time in the region.

Located in the center of a continent, Duluth features a busy international port and is visited by ships from around the world, even though it is about 2,300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

Shipments of coal, iron ore, and grain have passed through the Twin Ports on their way to distant destinations.

Duluth’s cultural, artistic, and academic diversity, and the contrast between its industrial past and the polished face it shows to tourists, combined with the area’s natural beauty, make it a pleasure to visit my hometown, even though the current view sometimes clashes with the images engraved in my memory.

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