Day 4: Amnicon Falls State Park, Superior, Wisconsin
After breakfast in camp, we drive into the twin cities of Superior, WI and Duluth, MN. A visitor is soon struck by a distinct sense of local rivalry between these two cities on the lake. Some locals will tell you that it goes back to 1903, when Duluth (or was it Superior?) determined to field a baseball team, the Cardinals, in the fledgling Northern League. Superior (or was it Duluth?) was not to be outdone, and assembled their own Longshoremen team. Both teams took their civic pride to the ball diamond and many a game ended in fisticuffs.
Others insist the dispute started before even that, in the 1860s, when Duluth-bound ore ships were forced to enter the harbor on the Superior end of a large sand bar, and accordingly to pay hefty entry fees to that city. The situation was not improved when several prominent Duluth businessmen took up shovels and excavated a canal through the sand bar, thereby bypassing the Superior side.Probably, the origins of the feud go farther back than that, and perhaps involve an Ojibwe and a white explorer squabbling over a fish or a camping spot, with each trying to tip over the other’s canoe.
Now, centuries later, the two cities, compelled by circumstances to share the same harbor, are still sore at one another. In the end, it seems blue-collar Superior has gotten all the profitable railroads, ship piers, and factories, while uppity Duluth got the fancy-schmancy art galleries and snooty pasta boutiques. And running water.
These northern twin cities are situated at the mouth of the St. Louis River. A little farther up the river, probably too far for big freighters, is the little burg of Fond du Lac—French for “back of the lake”, which is certainly apt. This is the highest point on the entire Great Lakes chain and freighters from all over the world make their way up the St. Lawrence seaway, through the lakes, and finally here to the back of Superior.Curious about these giant ships, we tour the William A. Irvin. Launched in 1938, the Irvin plied the waters of the Great Lakes, mostly carrying bulk freight such as iron ore and coal to various midwestern ports. But in addition to such mundane cargoes, the “Pride of the Silver Stackers” also hauled the prodigious bulks of the captains of industry—prospective investors and wealthy customers—who slept in her well appointed staterooms, were entertained in the gleaming Art Deco dining hall, and drove golf balls and flew kites from her tidy decks.
After forty years of such service, the Irvin, once considered the utmost in size and technology, was finally becoming outdated and was destined for the scrap heap. But she was spared the cutter’s torch and was instead refurbished as a floating museum. Visitors can explore the Irvin’s upper decks, wheelhouse, guest quarters, engine room, and more. For an intimate glimpse into this facet of Great Lakes history, it is a tour not to be missed.Also brought back from retirement was our tour guide, Ole. At the age of eighteen he climbed the ladder of his first Great Lakes ore carrier and, like the Irvin, spent the next forty years piloting all up and down the chain. Now over seventy, Ole brings a lifetime of vivid stories to what would otherwise be only so much floating steel. Up in the pilothouse, when Ole spins the wheel and starts shouting orders, I fear we might tear away from the pier and head out onto the great inland sea of Superior.
What was formerly a typically dirty and workaday Great Lakes industrial area has now been restored to a somewhat charming and seemingly prosperous downtown and waterfront neighborhood. After lunch in an overpriced burger joint overlooking the famous Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge, we spend a few hours browsing in the art galleries and bookstores and strolling the waterfront. We finally return to Amnicon Falls SP to camp for the night.