by wjw on July 24, 2015


aerialbridgeAs the photo will attest, my wanderings have taken me to the city of my birth and the original source of my literary inspiration, Duluth, Minn.  Alas, the sign on the city limits, “Birthplace of Walter Jon Williams,” seems to have been taken down for repair.

(And honestly, who else do they have?  They make a big deal about Bob Dylan, who was born in a hospital here, but Dylan actually grew up in Hibbing, 75 miles away.

(When Duluth wishes to draft me for their literary festival, I stand ready.)

The city was named (apparently by people who couldn’t spell) after one of the first Europeans in the vicinity, the adventurous French trader Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhute.  The same bad spellers apparently went on to found Duluth, Georgia.  (The Georgians must have got tired of naming everything after Button Gwinnett.)

When I was growing up, Duluth was a modestly decaying city in a spectacular setting, built on a hill overlooking Lake Superior.  At present industrial decline seems to have been arrested, and the downtown, while still having its fair share of empty storefronts, seems devoted chiefly to banks and financial service companies.  There are a lot of new buildings. Somebody must have money, though I don’t know who.

The city’s principal landmark is the Aerial Lift Bridge, shown above.  Originally passengers were swung across the channel in a kind of basket hanging from the upper beams, but early in the last century the basket was replaced with the lifting span, much (I imagine) to the relief of commuters.

When I was a child the bridge was an enormous, horned black structure of highly ornamented Victorian iron, and I was a little afraid of it.  I dreamed about the bridge through my teen years, where it loomed as an ominous symbol of Something or Other.  The dreams vanished after I walked across the bridge as an adult, and found out it was just a bridge.

By which time it was no longer black.  At one point the city decided to illuminate the bridge at night, and there was a big ceremony, carried live on television, in which the floodlights were switched on— and nothing happened!  You couldn’t tell the difference.  The city decided to paint the bridge silver so it would show up better in the spotlights, and after several decades they’ve finally got the formula right, and I can now see it from my hotel window.

Next to the bridge, in my youth, was the gaudily labeled Chun King building, seen here on the right.  There was manufactured millions of servings of frozen Chinese food, all at the command of that wily Oriental businessman, Jeno Paulucci. (Jeno later invented the pizza roll, sold by the Lone Ranger and Stan Freberg.)  The Chun King company has gone on to the Western Paradise, but the building is still there, and still owned by Paulucci’s estate.

I’ve been wandering about in the footsteps of my childhood, viewing my childhood homes, and wandering through the woods where I wandered as a child.  The trees have matured or fallen down, and I could find very few of the trails I remembered, although possibly they are visible only to someone three feet tall.

I’ve also been sampling specialties of the local cuisine: lake trout, walleyed pike, and some damned good steaks.  Steaks here still taste like beef, which is not the case elsewhere.  I’ve twice had dinner at the Pickwick, a 100-year-old classic Midwestern chop house, with its lovely view of the sailboats on the lake, and if that wasn’t enough to engender a fit of nostalgia, I don’t know what would.

The town seems less Finnish than I remember.  There were Finnish-language radio stations (on the Iron Range, actually) that played a lot of damn polkas, and Finnish editions of the Daily Worker, the IWW’s Industrialisti, and the pro-independence Päivälehti, which could be published in the States free of Russian censorship.

And as for my original source of literary inspiration, it doesn’t seem to have inspired anything this time around.  I’ve often thought I could do something with the Utopian aspirations of the original Finnish colonists, but the idea never cohered. Perhaps the idea needs to simmer a while, or perhaps it’s just been too long, and I’m too removed from my childhood.  

Up to the Iron Range next, and a great many cousins.


Peter Melton July 24, 2015 at 7:39 pm

Other Duluth notables:

The band Low. Not a household name unless you came of age in the “alternative” era, but very well worth hearing.


Aerostitch makes high quality motorcycle gear, including a signature suit that will provide protection from high speed crashes. The company is located in what looks like an old industrial building on 8 S 18th Ave W. and they hold an annual “Very Boring Rally” as an alternative (there’s that word again) to macho two-wheel gatherings like Sturgis. https://www.aerostich.com/visit-us

Maybe some of these people are Fins?

Love the travelogue so far!

Kristin July 24, 2015 at 7:52 pm

Welcome back to Duluth! You picked the perfect time for a visit this year – we *finally* got a summer, which hasn’t been the case for several years. Tsk, I will have to talk to our fine mayor about getting the “Birthplace of Walter Jon Williams” sign re-posted.

The newest building you noted being constructed is the Maurices headquarters. Hotels comprise everything else. Brewpubs are cropping up like mushrooms at street level.

I suspect your visit to the Range will be…interesting.

Cheers from Duluth,

Foxessa July 26, 2015 at 5:12 pm

My brother just returned to his Wisconsin home after doing the same thing in Minnesota and ND.

Me, I just seem to keep going south or east . . . .

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