Duluth has a complicated underground. Some of its people know that many of Duluth’s downtown buildings are connected below street level, and everyone uses the series of tunnels that bring I-35 through Duluth to its final destination at 26th Avenue East. Duluth has planned and built tunnels for various projects dating back almost to its inception.
Few know about when our city was literally undermined by a few silver-hungry men in the 1880s.
That’s why I wrote this story. Enjoy.
Duluth’s Failed Silver Mine
After gold prospectors accidentally stumbled across traces of silver in the stones of the Point of Rocks in 1870, local industrialists dreamed of finding riches below the Zenith City. On December 10, 1883, seven men—including former Duluth Mayor Clinton Markell and Michael Fink, owner of the Lake Superior Brewery—launched a plan to do just that when they organized the Duluth Silver and Copper Mining Company. They began their dirty work just 10 days later.
By March of 1884 their work had extended below Piedmont Avenue (Mesaba Avenue today; Duluth once had two Piedmont Avenues), about 150 feet from where they had begun, thanks to their steam-powered drill and five fortune-hungry laborers.
“Striking it rich” in the Zenith City was not as far-fetched in the 19th century as it may sound to modern Duluthians. It was a time when many such pioneers found new ores—and fortunes along with them. The mine at the Point of Rocks mine had already delivered quality samples of silver, copper and gold. According to some experts who had seen the tests, Duluth could be sitting atop a giant silver deposit.
Just west of downtown, drilling and blasting continued to push downward toward where the hypothetical silver vein had been located. There, after pushing 200 feet horizontally, workers began sinking the shaft downward to intercept the ore.
By the middle of 1884 the vertical shaft, the part of a mine which serves as the main access point to the various mine levels below, was about twenty feet deep. New samples indicated the ore there to be worth a healthy $50 per pound (nearly $1,200 today) and improving. The men were so confident that in October 1884 they proudly showed samples of their Duluth silver to local fairgoers.
Small scale extraction like this would not be legal in most municipalities, but Duluth had passed an ordinance in 1874 giving every property owner in the city the right to sink a mine shaft into his or her own property.
Ten years later, the right to sink a shaft anywhere in village limits was extended, in whole, to the Duluth Silver & Copper Mining Company. Understandably, the miners would first have to obtain the permission from landowners before beginning operations. Other regulations included the requirement that shafts must be sunk at least twenty feet below street level and that the mine must defer to the Street Commissioner in terms of any new industrial traffic.
This legislation, which allowed a specific company to sink a mine anywhere within Duluth, was understandably controversial, but planning multiple access points to an extensive underground mine is widely observed. Most 19th-century mines had five or more shafts extending to their lower levels. If Duluth was indeed atop a giant silver nugget, then it would not be unlikely for there to be a shaft every few blocks if the mine was fully developed. Imagine a mine tower on the Point of Rocks, then another near the downtown Duluth Public Library, and then a third near the Temple Opera Block: this was the vision for Duluth of its miners.
For better or worse, the Duluth Silver & Copper Mining Company never located a profitable vein west of downtown. By June of 1885, all mining operations had ceased below the Zenith City. What was left above ground of the mine was pushed into the mouth of the 200-foot hole and abandoned. A few years later, the city built the first mule corrals for the Duluth Street Railway Company on the site of the mine. Later, the Bridgeman-Russell Creamery was located on the spot.
The mine was forgotten until 1908, when the Wisconsin Central Railroad was tunneling in the same spot to their new downtown depot, later the Soo Line depot. I wrote about that tunnel too!
In the 1960s, construction of I-35 destroyed the Soo Tunnel and the entrance to the old mine with it, but some part of its inner workings must exist somewhere below the Point of Rocks. Anyone got a shovel?