Thirty years ago, motorists whizzed right through Duluth on their way to Minnesota's North Shore, putting it into their
rear-view mirror as fast as they could.
That changed in the early 1990s, when the rejuvenation of Duluth's lakefront started to transform this working-class port
town into the belle of Lake Superior.
Now, it's packed from summer through fall, and rooms at its hotels and B&Bs can be hard to come by. It's a Cinderella story, really.
Remember all those summers when you looked longingly at Lake Superior, wishing you could swim in it for more than a minute
without going numb? The summer of 2012 wasn't one of them.
Non-stop, beastly hot temperatures mellowed the waters of the big lake, turning it into the world's largest swimming
Water-surface temperatures pushed 75 degrees on the notoriously cold stretch between Duluth and Grand Marais. That's the
in a century and 20 degrees higher than normal for mid-summer.
It took a servant a day and a half to polish one of their chandeliers. It took three Norwegian craftsmen three years to carve their woodwork.
Still, it's hard to begrudge Chester and Clara Congdon their nice things, because apparently they were very nice people.
Chester gave 11 miles of Lake Superior shoreline to the people of Duluth and made sure it was preserved for them in perpetuity. Clara donated her time and resources to the Methodist church; her servants ate the same meals she did and were paid twice as much as others.
When the ore boats start arriving in Duluth, the tourists soon follow.
Fifty years ago, ships were part of the industrial landscape on Canal Park, and no one thought they were all that romantic.
But things have changed. Today, these hulking big boats are to Duluth what killer whales are to Sea World. Because, boy, do they make people come running.
In Duluth, you can lead a child to water — but just try leading her away.
“Mom, it’d be worth moving to Duluth just so we could go to this beach a lot,’’ said my daughter Madeleine, jumping from rock to rock at Brighton Beach.
Duluth, once the ugly duckling of Lake Superior, now is one of the best places in Minnesota to take children. On Canal Park, the lineup of tourist attractions can keep a family entertained for days.
Like robins and maple sap, Lake Superior ore boats aren't much affected by the never-ending winter that humans find so annoying.
On March 20, the Mesabi Miner was the first boat to leave Duluth's harbor, as it was in 2012, except four days later.
It slipped back under the Aerial Lift Bridge that weekend, along with the Canadian-flagged Tadoussac, making its first ore run from winter layup in Thunder Bay.
One March, I went up to Duluth but woke up in Siberia.
Twenty inches of snow had fallen overnight. A savage 70 mph wind was howling around the glass-walled lobby of the Willard Munger Inn. Swirling snow had turned the air white.
But then my niece and I noticed cars crawling along Grand Avenue. Then more cars. So we bundled up and got in our car, and to
our surprise, made it all the way across town to Lester Park.
When it's not cold or snowy enough in Duluth, the natives start to grumble.
This Minnesota port on Lake Superior loves winter, though it's not for weaklings.
The breezes that earned it the nickname "Air-Conditioned City'' will chill your bones in winter, and if you don't keep moving, you'll wind up as stiff as the bronze sculptures along the lake.
In 1890, Duluth was a treasure chest waiting to be opened.
It sat at the foot of Lake Superior, connected to the steel mills and cities of the East by water. White-pine forests lay to the south and west, and rich veins of iron ore to the north. It couldn’t fail to make money for the men who came to tap its riches, and it didn’t.
John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan swooped in, made killings and took the profits back to New York. But other millionaires — in the 1910s, Duluth had more per capita than any other city in the world — stayed, building mansions that remain as monuments to a bygone opulence.
Most people don't think of Duluth as a beach town.
It's a little chilly, for one thing. But the port city has six miles of sandy beach along the largest freshwater sandbar in the world.
Just over the Aerial Lift Bridge, Park Point is where Duluthians play. They hike and run on a two-mile trail through forest and dunes. They paddle canoes and kayaks. They hang out on the beach, watching waves in winter and braving them in summer.
In summer and fall, festive Canal Park draws the crowds. But when cold winds blow in winter, a brewery suddenly looks much
Started in 1882 as Fink's Lake Superior Brewery, Fitger's was a mainstay in Duluth, surviving Prohibition but not industry consolidation. It closed in 1972 and almost was razed, but the sprawling building on the lake reopened in 1984 as a hotel, restaurant and shopping complex.
Now, the complex also boasts a day spa, a nightclub, a dinner theater, a brewery and a coffeehouse — everything anyone could want for a little getaway, all under one roof.
If Duluth wasn't already one of the best hiking cities in the nation, it definitely is now.
Creeks, ravines, bays and lakefront have given it spectacular terrain for the Congdon Park, Park Point and Western Waterfront
trails (See Walking in Duluth).
Now, 45½ miles of the Superior Hiking Trail stretch from Jay Cooke State Park to the northeast end of Duluth, roughly
following the same ridges and glacial beach terraces used by Skyline Parkway.
Once, a wind-whipped sand spit was not the most desirable address in Duluth.
The Ojibwe preferred the lush estuary of the St. Louis River, which flows into Lake Superior at what today is Duluth-Superior Harbor.
The French explorer Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, for whom the city was named, didn’t waste much time on the lakefront when he arrived in 1679. Nor did the early fur traders, who hustled straight up the St. Louis, which, via the little Savanna River, connects Lake Superior to the Mississippi.
It's a hot Saturday in Duluth, and it seems as if every tourist in town is on Canal Park.
But a few have found their way to a quieter spot, on Amity Creek above downtown.
Just off Skyline Parkway, some 10-year-olds are having a great time climbing rocks and splashing in a pool beside a waterfall, thanks to a mother who went to college in Duluth. She's brought her daughter's soccer team to play and cool off between tournament games.
On Duluth's Hawk Ridge, a bird in the hand is worth at least two in the sky.
They're impressive when spotted overhead. But up close, it's easier to get to know a bird — say, the northern goshawk, a fierce predator whose image once adorned the helmet of Attila the Hun.
As she held a young goshawk by the legs, naturalist Willow Maser struggled to make herself heard above its high-pitched screeches.
If you love to hike and you like Duluth, this is a good time to get to know a new part of town.
West Duluth always has been a hub for bicyclists on the Willard Munger State Trail, paddlers on St. Louis Bay and skiers on Spirit Mountain and in Magney-Snively Park.
Now, it's a hiking destination unlike any other: Hikers can immerse themselves in wilderness, then return to their starting points by way of bicycles, city buses, taxis and motel shuttles.
A few steps into the forest, and it hit.
The tang of cedar bark and pine needles, moistened by droplets of mist from waterfalls. The loamy richness of earth carpeted by ferns.
It was that north-woods perfume all Minnesotans instantly recognize, a powerful eau de outdoors that gladdened my heart and also made it sink with the realization that I'd stayed in the city far, far too long.