As part of the research for my ongoing Mary MacDougall historical mystery series, I came across a memoir by Mary FitzGibbon called A Trip to Manitoba. It was published in 1880, and can be downloaded as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg. It’s the young woman’s account of her arduous journey to Manitoba in the mid-1870s, to work as a governess for a contractor on the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Along the way from Toronto to Manitoba, she stopped in Duluth–the hometown of Mary MacDougall and yours truly. Here’s her Pre-Yelp review of Duluth, c. 1876:
“Duluth, situated on the rocky north, or Minnesota, shore of the extreme western end of Lake Superior—otherwise St. Louis Bay—was apparently planned in expectation of its one day becoming the principal centre of commerce between America and Canada—in short, the great capital of the lakes. Everything is on a large scale. The streets are broad; the wharves and warehouses extensive; the hotels immense; the custom-house and other public buildings massive and capacious enough to accommodate any number of extra clerks when the rush of business shall come—a rush which is still in the future. During the day and a half we spent there, the hotel omnibus and one other team were the only locomotives, and a lame man and a water-carrier with a patch over his eye the only dwellers in Duluth we saw; while the people from our boat seemed to be the only visitors who woke the echoes in the sleepy place. It was like a city in a fairy tale, over which a spell had been cast; its very cleanliness was depressing, and so suggestive of disuse, that I think a mass of mud scrapped off the road might have given some appearance of traffic and life to the scene.
“There are people in Duluth, however, though it is difficult to say where they hide themselves; for some of our party went to service in a little church on a hill, and came back charmed with the eloquence of the clergyman and the sweetness of the voices in the quartette choir, to say nothing of several pretty girls they noticed amongst the congregation. Still, Duluth will always seem to me like a city in a dream. On the opposite, or Wisconsin shore of the lake, is Superior City, a pretty, half-built town, rising slowly into commercial importance. Unfortunately we were unable to cross to it.
“I cannot leave Duluth without speaking of the ‘girls’ in the hotel, as they were called, in order not to wound the sensitive democracy of the Yankee nature, which abhors the name of servant. There were three in the great dining-saloon, whose superabundance of empty chairs and tables gave even greater dreariness to the house than its long, empty corridors. Pretty fair girls they were, neat in dress, but so tightly laced that it was painful to look at them. Their slow, stiff, automatic movements were suggestive of machinery, and in keeping with the sleepy spell cast over the town. All the lithe, living gracefulness of their figures was destroyed for the sake of drawing in an inch or two of belt. Watching them, I attacked my breakfast with greater energy, to prove to myself that there was something substantial about the premises.”
Miss FitzGibbon is a surprisingly sharp, good-natured, and witty observer, and catches Duluth’s proclivity for self-importance rather well. Jay Cooke, Lincoln’s financier, aimed to turn the town into the new Chicago. Though that never happened, at the time of the Mary MacDougall stories (c. 1900), there were more millionaires per capita in the Zenith City than in any other town in America.