Dissing Duluth

J. Proctor Knott (Matthew Brady photo, Washington, D.C.)

Today, it would have caused a Twitter-storm.  On January 27, 1871, a well-liked but relatively unknown Kentucky congressman took the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and (to quote a later newspaper) brazenly “twitted” Duluth, a Minnesota town of a few thousand clinging to the western shores of Lake Superior.

J. Proctor Knott’s beef with Duluth arose from his unhappiness with the common practice of handing over public lands to railroads—in this case, in the form of a bill giving federal land to the St. Croix and Lake Superior Railroad.  Knott believed (or pretended to) that the terminus of the proposed line would be at Duluth rather than at Superior, Wisconsin, a short distance to the south. 

Given a generous 30 minutes to vent on the issue, Knott proceeded to double over the chamber in laughter with a satirical takedown of the pretensions of this northern town.  Where was Duluth, anyway?  he asked.  “Never, in my limited reading, had my vision been gladdened by seeing the celestial word in print.”  But he professed confidence “that it existed somewhere, and that its discovery would constitute the crowning glory of the present century, if not all modern times.” 

The Northern Pacific Railroad’s brochure included Knott’s speech

Claiming to have consulted maps and other oracles to determine Duluth’s location, Knott imagined “one of those ethereal creations of intellectual frost-work. . . one of those airy exhalations of the speculator’s brain, which I am told are ever flitting in the form of towns and cities along the lines of railroads built with government subsidies.”  Despite hearing rumors of cold that could “freeze the smoke-stack off a locomotive,” Knott expressed faux confidence in the “illimitable and inexhaustible” potential of the town.  His prediction that Duluth “was destined to become the commercial metropolis of the universe” and his snarky plea for the railroad line to be built without delay drew, according to reprints of the speech, “roars of laughter.”

The railroad bill never came to a vote, but Duluth had the last laugh.  It was, in fact, at the heart of a wealth of resources and soon fulfilled its promise to become “The Zenith City of the Unsalted Sea.”  Only a few decades later, it could claim to be the greatest shipping hub in the world, as millions of tons of wheat, iron ore, dairy products and lumber passed through its port.  And of course Duluthians (being Minnesotans) held no grudge against the saucy congressman who had, after all, put them on the map with his widely circulated speech.  Proctorknott, Minnesota (now just Proctor) was established in 1894 just a few miles from Duluth.  In 1890, Knott himself, now a former Governor of Kentucky, visited Duluth and good-naturedly acknowledged its “marvelous prosperity” at a banquet in his honor.  The Commercial Club of Duluth proudly reprinted Knott’s original speech on the left-hand pages of a commemorative booklet, with a proud narrative of the city’s accomplishments on the opposite pages.  In 1925, fourteen years after Knott’s death, his portrait was displayed at Duluth’s Exposition of Progress and Iron Ore Golden Jubilee.

James Proctor Knott’s Duluth speeches and related material are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid to the Knott Collection.  A recent donation of more Knott family materials is currently being processed and will soon be available.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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