The Duluth DepotA Pivotal Point of Exchange in Duluth since the 19th Century
By: Rob Hedburg | November 13, 2018
The Duluth Depot, an iconic part of Duluth’s unique downtown skyline, serves as a pillar of Duluth’s history. The Depot is home to 8 different historical and cultural organizations: The Duluth Art Institute, the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, the Saint Louis County Historical Society, The North Shore Scenic Railroad, The Minnesota Ballet, the Arrowhead Chorale, Matinee Musicale, and the Duluth Playhouse. (The main stage of the Duluth Playhouse now resides in the NorShor Theatre.) Prior to its designation as the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center in 1974, the Depot was a bustling hub of transport in the first half of the 20th century, welcoming a wide variety of people to its halls. Let’s look at how the building came to be, and how it also became a focal point of arts and culture in modern Duluth!
The Duluth Depot itself was the second train depot to be constructed along the 500 block of West Michigan Street. The first was a simple, two-story wooden structure built in 1870 to service Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad and Northern Pacific
Railway customers along the newly completed line from Duluth to St. Paul. Due to the boom in the grain and lumber industries in the 1880s, a deluge of immigrant workers arrived through the gates of the original depot. A larger structure would be needed to accommodate these larger crowds. The footprint of the new depot was built directly adjacent to the old depot.
A conglomerate of six railroads formed to create the Duluth Union Depot Company, which oversaw the creation of the new depot. This conglomerate consisted of the St. Paul & Duluth, Northern Pacific, Duluth South Shore & Atlantic, Duluth & Iron Range, Wisconsin Central, and Duluth & Winnipeg railroad companies. The Boston-based architecture firm Peabody & Stearns designed the replacement depot building with a "Renaissance" style. Construction began in 1890, lasting nearly two years at a cost of $615,000.
At the turn of the 20th century, 26 trains passed through the Depot daily. As the years progressed and the automobile became the preferred method of transportation for many, passenger railroad service in Duluth dwindled. The winter of 1969 saw one Budd Rail Diesel Car depart Duluth with less than ten people on board. Amtrak offered daily train service from the Duluth Depot to St. Paul starting in 1974. The service would a little more than a decade, with Amtrak’s passenger service in Duluth ceasing on Easter Sunday, 1985.
While the Depot’s time as a passenger hub waned, local efforts were made to preserve and protect the historic building. In 1971, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1974, a $4.7 million renovation helped turn the Depot into the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center. A place of heavy traveler interchange had been restored and transformed into a hub of cultural interchange.
To learn more details about the Depot, check out this article from Zenith City Online. Additionally, on your next trip to Duluth, be sure to visit the St. Louis County Historical Society and Lake Superior Railroad Museum to learn more about the rich railroad history of the region!