Summertime charms shine brightly

Duluth: When the snow melts and warmer weather arrives, it's easy to see why this Minnesota city has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the upper Midwest.

Destination Minnesota

July 11, 1999|By Harry Merritt | Harry Merritt,Sun Staff

If you have a mental image of Duluth, Minn., most likely it's of a remote and frigid spot on the nation's winter weather map, a place you wouldn't want to visit even if someone paid your way.

But Duluth in summer is a great delight -- a cool and sunny place of beauty and many surprises. And it's the gateway to the lakes and woods of northern Minnesota and the splendid North Shore of Lake Superior.

Duluth was founded as a railroad town in the mid-1800s. It became a bustling port and industrial center, especially after the discovery of iron ore on the Mesabi Range (about 50 miles north of Duluth) in the late 1800s. At one time, Duluth, "the Zenith City of the Unsalted Sea," boasted more millionaires per capita than any city in America, and the turreted brownstones they left behind are among the finest examples of turn-of-the-last- century architecture in the upper Midwest.

By the late 1970s, however, hard times in the steel industry -- the chief user of Minnesota iron ore -- caused a near-depression in Duluth and the Iron Range. U.S. Steel, the city's major industrial employer, closed its steel mill. Layoffs were numerous, with unemployment climbing past 15 percent. Thousands of people left.

It was a grim time; to many, it appeared Duluth's luck had run out.

Then something wonderful happened. Duluth's leaders decided to bet their city's future on its one superb, priceless asset: Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes and one of the largest bodies of fresh water on Earth.

Down came shabby old buildings and other urban blight. In went the Lakewalk: miles of boardwalk and paved bicycling and walking paths winding gently along Lake Superior, with fountains, gardens and one of the best collections of public sculpture to be found in any small city in America. Downtown streets were paved with brick, old-fashioned light fixtures were installed, and skywalks were built to connect stores, businesses and government offices. And many old buildings, such as a long-abandoned brewery, were brought back to life as places to eat and shop and sleep. It was a huge undertaking, and an expensive one, costing tens of millions of federal, state and local dollars.

The effort transformed Duluth, and made it one of the most popular travel destinations in the upper Midwest, luring more than 3.5 million people a year.

On the lakefront

Duluth is more than its lake, of course, but the lake -- the one the Chippewa called Kitchi Gammi, or "great water" -- is the biggest draw. The Lakewalk connects many of the lakefront's most popular attractions, such as:

* The symbol of Duluth, the Aerial Lift Bridge, spanning the Duluth Ship Channel and connecting the city with Minnesota Point. At regular intervals, and with considerable noise, the Lift Bridge rises to admit boat traffic to the port's busy Ship Channel.

* The Army Corps of Engineers' Canal Park Visitor Center and Marine Museum, with exhibits about the history of the Great Lakes shipping, and good places to watch ore carriers and other bulk freighters go through the Ship Channel.

* Fitger's, the former brewery, now home to a luxury hotel, attractive specialty shops and restaurants, and the delightful Fitger's Brewhouse, which offers tasty, inventive sandwiches and several beers brewed on the premises (try the Boundary Waters blueberry beer or the Big Boat Oatmeal Stout).

* Leif Erikson Park and Viking Ship, which honor the state's Norwegian heritage.

Along the lakefront there are horse-drawn carriage tours, bicycles for rent and many hotels -- with a full range of prices -- with outside dining areas.

Nearby Canal Park Drive has the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace, another restoration with shops selling tasteful Minnesota souvenirs and original works of art by Duluth-area and Native American artists. It also has the Lake Avenue Cafe, one of the best restaurants in town. Old Town Antiques Mall is a good place to find old books on Minnesota and bric-a-brac, even a stray pope portrait.

The hulking, brick-red William A. Irvin, all 610 feet of it, was the flagship of U.S. Steel's Great Lakes fleet for four decades, until 1978. Saved from the scrap heap, it now sits near the lakefront as a floating museum.

Near the Irvin and "the DECC" -- that's local-speak for the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center -- be sure to sign up for the Vista Fleet's sightseeing cruise. The tour takes an hour and 45 minutes, stopping at midpoint to pick up or discharge passengers at Superior, Wis., across the St. Louis River from Duluth. (Duluth and Superior are the Twin Ports in the same sense that Minneapolis and St. Paul are the Twin Cities.)

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