A walk down history’s stairway | Duluth News Tribune

This story was published in 2006, but the initiative to preserve the Incline Railway stairs has seen new life recently with the support of the Skyline Planning and Preservation Alliance and Duluth Preservation Alliance.
Written By: Charles V. Frederick | 

Over the Fourth of July in 2002, Anthony Bush and his father took a walk. From the spectacular views off Skyline Parkway they followed a curious concrete walkway they found. It knifed between houses, and then dropped downhill on stairs that were sometimes heaved or slightly tipped, or that, in places, had been gently crumbled by time.

“We got so excited,” Bush recalled.

That was because he and his father realized, within a block or two, where they were. They were hiking the route of Duluth’s famous Seventh Avenue West incline railway. It still existed. Not the elevated tracks that once connected downtown to then-new housing developments in Duluth Heights, but the path the tracks had followed — and much of the stairway and walkway that paralleled the landmark rail system between Skyline and Superior Street.

“When we got to the bottom of the hill, we decided to do some research,” Bush said. “We walked over to the library and wound up spending about two hours there.”

For nearly half a century, the incline was the only connection to civilization for Duluth Heights-area residents. Built in 1891, the incline rose 500 feet on dual tracks. In cars large enough for four teams of horses with wagons, riders enjoyed breathtaking views of the city, harbor and beyond.

In 1892, a grand, multilevel pavilion was built at the top of the incline. The DECC of its day, the pavilion hosted afternoon concerts, vaudeville performances, parties and dances.

But in 1901 the pavilion caught fire, and with no firefighting equipment nearby “the fire soon was out of control,” as Duluth transportation historian Wayne C. Olsen recounted in the 1976 book, “Duluth: Sketches of the Past.” The pavilion was leveled. The fire then spread to the incline’s powerhouse. Anticipating what was to come next, the tracks were cleared. Cables melted, as expected, sending a car free-falling from the top of the hill. Engulfed in flames, the car raced wildly, roaring through the gates at the foot of the incline, careening across Superior Street and then crashing into the rail yards across the road.

The incline carried its final passengers in 1939. Like Duluth’s streetcars, the railway succumbed to the growing popularity of automobiles. It was dismantled and sold for scrap.

But the concrete stairs remained. And last year, Bush hiked them once again. But above Third Street, he froze. New homes were under construction where the steps had been.

“Let it be understood, I was happy to see there was such a project under way,” he wrote to Duluth city councilors. “However, it would disappoint me if the walkway … were forever obscured any more than it already has been, considering it is such an important piece of Duluth’s history.

“I propose,” he continued, “in order to preserve the path of the incline railroad, the city should designate” it as an historic walkway. Then, “future Duluthians and tourists can walk there and imagine a place in the past when the area was one of Duluth’s greatest landmarks.”

Super idea. At least two councilors embraced it immediately — but not with money, not with a $300 million retiree health-care liability and other financial challenges facing the city.

But couldn’t it still happen? Couldn’t the historic route and stairs somehow be designated as historic, and then marked with an interpretive sign, maybe one that featured an old black-and-white photo or two?

Absolutely, Maryanne Norton, a member of the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission, told me this summer. “That’s a really good idea, just a sign,” she said. “I will put it on my minutes and bring it up.”

That would be step one in preserving the route. The next would be money, and that’s where the Duluth Preservation Alliance could come in. The private organization could seek grants or other funding for signs.

“What a wonderful idea. It’s certainly a possibility,” alliance member Carolyn Sundquist said.

All good news. And here’s a bit more: The new homes above Third Street won’t destroy a section of the historic stairs, but will simply move them. Using original concrete footings from the incline, the stairs are being rebuilt a bit to the west and will be landscaped and available to the hiking public. “We’re trying to keep it in the tradition of what was here,” property owner John Morrice said.

At least once a year, Bush — a special education assistant at Duluth’s Congdon Elementary School, assistant baseball coach at Proctor High School and a member of the Bayside Vipers of Superior baseball team — tries to walk the old route, but no longer with his father. Keith Bush was diagnosed with cancer just months after that July Fourth hike to the library in 2002. He died in May 2005.

“I just thought it would be a nice idea to preserve this as another city walking trail,” Bush said, walking the route with me this summer. “It’s so hidden. Driving by, you don’t even see it. It’s like it’s a secret path. Part of me doesn’t want it known.”

I knew how he felt. But at the same time, history can’t be forgotten.