DULUTH -- In the late winter of 1896, one of the worst-kept secrets of downtown Duluth was that a young, attractive and somewhat sleepy-looking woman in pajamas was haunting the ruins of the Temple Opera House.
One witness, who insisted on anonymity but was described as a “prominent real estate man,” told the Duluth News Tribune that he hadn’t considered it might be a supernatural being, so he tried to help her.
“I came within a few feet of the girl and spoke to her,” he is quoted as saying in the March 1, 1896 edition of the newspaper. “Imagine my surprise when the figure faded away before my sight and I found myself addressing space.
“It flashed over me that I had beheld an apparition.”
The Temple Opera House, then located on Superior Street and Second Avenue East, was a relatively new structure on Oct. 12, 1895, when it caught fire and quickly burned. There had been a performance on-site the night of the fire, but seemingly no one was caught in the blaze.
But for a brief period, months after the fire, the lure of a potential ghost-sighting — which first passed word-of-mouth, then made front-page news — drew hundreds of gawkers (and, ultimately, pranksters) to the ruins. Anecdotal accounts mounted, but then the story — like, seemingly, the mysterious woman — disappeared.
Around this time, Duluth was a regular stop for the nationally renowned theater artist — and recent subject of gossip in the New York Times — Daniel Sully. His play “Daddy Nolan” was the final performance on the Temple Opera House stage and, according to a News Tribune reviewer, that night the actor had moved easily between comedy and pathos, and the play “is admitted and recognized as a stage idyll of human life.”
(Two months earlier, the New York Times had reported that Sully's wife was seeking a divorce and accused him of infidelity, cruelty and drunkenness — charges she had also made a year earlier. Sully died in 1910.)
Reportedly, the last of the theater company’s baggage was out of the building in time for the crew to catch the 11:15 p.m. train. An hour later, a detective reportedly saw the “flames pouring from the roof of the theater and turned on an alarm.”
Opera here, opera there
This wasn’t the local fire department’s first foray in dousing an opera house — it was the second in less than a decade.
It all started with the Grand Opera House — a structure that was introduced to readers of the Duluth Daily Tribune on Oct. 29, 1882, along with the high hopes that the arts venue on Superior Street and Fourth Avenue West would “be recognized, when finished, as one of the most complete products of modern thought and ingenuity in the way of a place of amusement yet produced.”
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It would be the best opera house north of Chicago, it was predicted, surpassing anything in Minneapolis or St. Paul — and maybe it did.
It opened to raves on Sept. 20, 1883: The Emma Abbott Opera Company played within the Lake Superior brownstone, St. Louis pressed brick, terra cotta from Boston; A cylindrical tower with a large dome, gable windows, high ceilings, French plate glass, satin curtains.
The Grand Opera House had a brief run: It burned down on Jan. 28, 1889, with no cause determined, and was completely destroyed. It was replaced with the aptly named Phoenix Building, which itself burned to the ground in 1994 and was rebuilt again.
This space is now anchored by Starbucks.
Around this same time, the Masonic Fraternity of Duluth built its six-story Masonic Temple on Superior Street and Second Avenue East, according to the group’s online recorded history. With the sudden loss of the Grand Opera House, the masons added the Temple Opera House to the plans — its grand entrance on the avenue.
The new arts venue opened on Oct. 21, 1889, with popular actress Miss Rose Coghlan starring in her brother’s dramatic and romantic play “Jocelyn.” She had premiered in the role the previous year in Newark, New Jersey, and the New York Times reported that she “was called to the footlights again and again at the close of the play.”
The Temple Opera House was not connected to Temple Opera Block and, fortuitously, there was a fire wall between the structures. This would keep the fire contained within just the former.
'The forked tongue of so many demons'
The entire fire department reportedly responded to Temple Opera House in the early hours of the mid-October morning, but the fire was quick-moving and helped along by a strong wind.
“Like the forked tongue of so many demons they seemed to laugh at the puny streams which were directed against them,” according to the account in the Duluth News Tribune. “For the highest spray thrown fell far short of the top of the building, while those which were thrown through the windows were as powerless to stop the flames as though they had been shot out of a squirt gun.”
The building was destroyed within 30 minutes.
The Temple Opera House's stage manager had left 15 minutes after helping to load up Daniel Sully’s scenery. He was at a nearby saloon, he said, when he saw the blaze tearing through the roof.
Plenty of bystanders saw it burn, and many more visited the ruins in the following days. Two days later, it was announced that there were no immediate plans to rebuild.
Today, this spot is the part of the NorShor Theatre, and the Temple Opera Building is now home to Bell Bank.
The prominent real estate man who first noticed the apparition among the ruins, just more than four months after it burned, had been on a trek home from a lodge meeting at the Odd Fellows' Hall when he was interrupted by the vision around the same time that the high school clock tower struck midnight.
“At first I had decided the thing to be a piece of paper or something, but I was soon undeceived, for a ray of moonlight streamed through the crevice in the wall and showed me that the figure was that of a woman,” he told the News Tribune, adding that his sons had seen her, too.
The News Tribune reported that at least 20 other reputable people — businessmen, doctors, police officers — added confirmations.
Then the watch parties cropped up — one night luring an estimated 300 people to the site of the sightings.
The audience also brought out pranksters who faked sightings or draped statues in billowy white to trick others.
When a man sitting in a wagon near the alley yelled that he had seen something, other watchers saw it, too, and “commenced to throw bricks.”
It’s reported that the burning of the Temple Opera House was “shrouded in mystery,” and a News Tribune reporter hypothesized that “it may be possible that some dark crime was committed on that eventful night which Providence has ordained shall be made known.”
Meanwhile, none of this stopped Dan Sully, who continued touring his show.
A later review of “Daddy Nolan,” when it played in San Diego, described the play as the tale of a “trusting young man being led astray by a smooth-tongued villain, who having obtained a forged check from him, proceeds to put on the screw.” It’s a comedy, a musical, a story of redemption, and Sully used an Irish brogue, performed an Irish jig and otherwise brought down the house.