J. Charles Strinz: Duluth goes long way back with Boeing
J. Charles Strinz
Published July 18, 2003

Minnesota is missing the boat. And the airplane.

The last-minute play to attract a new Boeing Co. assembly plant to Duluth was a valiant attempt, but one of the most compelling reasons Boeing should consider building the 7E7 on the world's innermost seaport is nowhere in the proposal.

Boeing dropped its longtime host city, Seattle, when the corporate headquarters moved to Chicago. And while it's true that the 7E7 might find a practical home in the city of rain, everyone knows the primary motivation for locating there is appeasement. There's a history to consider. Feelings have been hurt. After all, Seattle is responsible for all that Boeing has become.

Or is it?

The Aerial Bridge above Duluth's ship canal is the central icon of the city. How it came to be is a story more Minnesotans should know.

Hatched in 1870, the idea of cutting a canal across the Point was controversial from the beginning. Residents of Superior feared it would change the course of the St. Louis River, filling the channel. Despite their misgivings, the work started.

But on Friday, June 9, 1871, Duluth Mayor J.B. Culver was informed (by a newly installed telegraph) that a federal injunction had been issued to stop excavation of the canal. Furthermore, an Army officer was on his way to serve the papers.

Duluth residents checked the railroad schedules and concluded the Army representative would arrive on the following Monday at the very earliest. It was time to take action.

Working day and night with picks and shovels -- and, it's said, dynamite -- about four dozen volunteers went at the task with redoubled effort. The ditch was finished Sunday night. When the Army officer showed up with his injunction the next day, the official Canal Supervisor, a Mr. Munger, showed him the water flowing through the canal and said, "You stop it if you can. I can't."

But that wasn't the end of the controversy. Another man laid claim to 14 lots along the Point, including the canal.

In September 1889, he posted notice that "the right to passage through the canal connecting the waters of Lake Superior and the Bay of Duluth will be denied by me to all boat and vessel owners" beginning Oct. 15. He strung ropes across the canal several times, but they were either cut by his townmates or broken by ships moving through the canal.

He must have recognized the futility of his claim. Rather than take legal action, Wilhelm Boeing pulled up stakes and left town.

And good thing for Seattle, too. Wilhelm's son, W.E. Boeing, went on to form the company now debating where to build its newest plane. But had it not been for a group of determined Duluthians, Boeing Co. might never have taken off.

Water. Work ethic. Location. Land. All are significant reasons Boeing should set up shop in Duluth.

But as with Seattle, Duluth offers Boeing a chance to come home.

J. Charles Strinz is a freelance writer living in Eagan.

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