Beyond the corn, a world port

This Minnesota city -- Duluth -- could stand up well in a competition with tourist destinations worldwide. What makes it special and a little exotic for a Midwesterner is the contrast with our landlocked lives among cornfields and mostly level do...

This Minnesota city -- Duluth -- could stand up well in a competition with tourist destinations worldwide. What makes it special and a little exotic for a Midwesterner is the contrast with our landlocked lives among cornfields and mostly level downtowns.

Cresting the final climb on the four-lane highway, the view of the seaside city and harbor some 700-feet below on Lake Superior is startling.

"Wow," said a San Francisco visitor who had come from seeing relatives near Swanville in Todd County. "Here we had been in fields and forest all this time and all the sudden we came over the hill and there was this ocean-like scene. I couldn't believe it."

We asked our camping neighbor at the marina, which looked across the shipping channel at the city on a hill, if perhaps it rivaled the city by the Golden Gate.

"Well, yes, in a way," he said. "The hills are about as steep, there are just more in San Francisco."


An issue when visiting Duluth -- unless there for Grandma's Marathon in June, the Bayfront Blues Festival in August or the North Shore Inline Marathon down state Highway 61 in September -- is how to best spend your time with so much to see and do.

There's the Superior Street downtown district with skyways and the Fond du Luth Casino, the 27-mile long Skyline Drive, the lakeside boardwalk and bike path, a railroad museum, a WW II Heritage museum (in neighboring Superior, Wis.), an ore boat/Coast Guard cutter tour, the Great Lakes Aquarium and the spectacular Glensheen Estate (See sidebar).

For many visitors the action is near the water. Canal Park on a tongue of land connecting downtown with the seven-mile long Minnesota Point, a virtual sandbar lined on both sides of Lake Minnesota Avenue by year-round homes.

Canal Park is four blocks wide by roughly six blocks long and packed with restaurants, small shops and lakeside motels.

But the best Duluth has to offer is free. Ocean ships and 1,000-foot long Great Lakes haulers enter and leave Superior Bay under the famous Duluth Lift Bridge, a major city landmark.

With an approaching ship yet a thousand yards out, a bell clangs signaling the bridge deck shall rise. Traffic lights go red; crossing arms come down and a recorded voice warns pedestrians to get clear. An operator emerges from the control house to check for stragglers below.

With the help of counterweights, the road bed begins a 12-story ascension over the Duluth Ship Canal in about a minute's time. Each ship passing, including small sailboats, backs up traffic for blocks both ways.

Over a loudspeaker at the Maritime Visitors Center and Museum comes a detailed report on the arriving commercial vessel. Information is also found in the daily Duluth Shipping News, a single-page free flyer commonly available.


For example, on Aug. 7: "The Paul R. Tregurtha, at 1,013 feet, 6 inches long, is the longest boat on the Great Lakes. She will be here today to load coal at the Midwest Energy Coal Terminal in Superior. She usually carries coal to the Detroit Edison power plant at St. Clair, Michigan, but today she is loading for WE Energies in Marquette, Michigan."

Grain, coal and iron ore pour into the cargo holds from the automated industrial docks around the harbor and St. Louis Bay. Steel, cement and general cargo arrive; some inbound cargos are intriguing.

The Beluga Expectation pulled in a week ago Thursday morning loaded with six wind turbine base units, plus hubs. It had come from Spain and longshoremen would unload the hulking towers for shipment to wind farms in North Dakota, we were told.

Strangely, we read in more detail in the daily report on shipping in the Duluth News Tribune that the two-year-old ship would load turbine propellers for transport back across the ocean.

Worldwide seagoing commerce has been possible since 1959 when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened from the Atlantic Ocean over 2,000 miles inland to the Twin Ports. A series of locks and canals allow a ship leaving Duluth to traverse the Great Lakes "inland sea" while falling 602 feet in 1,000 miles to the seaway channel at Montreal.

On our early August trip, Lake Superior was a lake in recession. Experts expect the world's largest freshwater reservoir to reach a record low in two months. Lakes Huron and Michigan are also shrinking.

The drop in Superior's level is a concern for shippers who must reduce tonnage (hence revenue) to prevent ships going aground.

But for now, the ships roll in the ships roll out, a wonderful spectacle in the heart of the continent.


For more information visit; 1-800-438-5884; or

Distance: 200 miles to downtown Duluth from Willmar (about 3½ hours)

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