Duluth stats
Duluth stats

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Superior City: Duluth, Minnesota

Table of Contents

Duluth skyline
Duluth, Michigan’s skyline

“It comes down to two things: the professional aspect of a strong medical community and living in a healthy atmosphere.” That’s what Dr. Timothy Rubin says when asked why he chose Duluth over other Midwest cities. “I had an opportunity to stay in Minneapolis, work at another hospital in St. Paul, or move to St. Cloud, Fargo, or Marquette, Michigan but we chose Duluth because of what we perceived as a good place for us to start a family and for me to work with very competent and motivated people.” Talking during his lunch on a mild March afternoon from the Duluth Lakewalk amid the sounds of seagulls, the lapping of lazy waves from Lake Superior onto a pebble beach, and the bustle of others enjoying the mild temperatures, it seems Rubin made a good choice.

Natural resources in Duluth

Its location at the western end of Lake Superior provides Duluth with access to Lake Superior shipping routes as well as the iron rich deposits of Northern Minnesota and the great virgin forests of Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin. Some of the 20th century’s greatest industrialists recognized the value of this spot and here built the communities of Duluth and neighboring Superior, Wisconsin. The likes of Carnegie and Rockefeller, along with regional industrialists Amnicon, Cooke, and Congdon came to the region, added it’s natural abundance to their empires, and stamped their names into the city’s parks, buildings, and institutions. In 1900, Duluth had more resident millionaires per capita than any other city in the country. They built magnificent homes, libraries, office buildings, and city parks, and left a legacy of philanthropy that is continued today, on a reduced scale, by the city’s wealthy elite.

Duluth is perched along a ridge line that runs northeast/southwest overlooking Lake Superior and the harbor. The Duluth/Superior port is the world’s largest freshwater port, offering access to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway. The busy port trades America’s raw goods:  iron, corn, wheat, lumber, and coal. But the mining and manufacturing industries of the 20th century have been supplanted by health care as the city’s main economic force.

Duluth’s health hub

Grandma's Marathon runners pass the William A. Irvin ore boat.
Grandma’s Marathon runners pass the William A. Irvin ore boat.

Duluth’s geographic location makes it a hub for health care. “You would need to go to Minneapolis or Rochester to find the level of care provided by the medical industry in Duluth,” says Marci Jackson of St. Mary’s/Duluth Clinic Health Systems. Duluth’s medical industry is essential to people in Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Otherwise, they would have to drive three to eight hours for advanced medical services. The Duluth Chamber of Commerce statistics state that the three top private employers in the city are health-care providers. The Chamber also estimates that the health-care industry adds over $1 billion annually to the area’s economy.

Duluth’s hospitals, clinics, surgery centers, research facilities, nursing schools, and the medicine program at the University of Minnesota, Duluth work together to create an atmosphere of cooperation and community often only associated with small towns or rural areas. “Hospital management is very concerned with maintaining a high level of patient care,” says Rubin. “And if we have any departmental complaint they listen and help solve problems quickly. There is very high esprit de corps.”

The small size of the city and comfortable pace make it a reasonable place to practice. “Duluth has a low hassle factor. It takes me ten minutes to get to work,” says Rubin, a gastroenterologist. “I can’t speak for every department, but I have a manageable work load. I wouldn’t want more or fewer patients, and the patients that I do see are very courteous, pleasant, and appreciative of the work and care that I give. I wasn’t used to that coming from Minneapolis. Most of my patients here are middle class, hard working, and family oriented. Living in a smaller community makes my wife and me feel safer.”

Lori Bouman, a former ER nurse, would seem to concur. “When I worked at the Hennepin County General in Minneapolis we would sometimes have people waiting four hours before being seen, or 20 to 30 patients waiting for care after seeing the triage nurse. The pace in Duluth is much different. I came to Duluth to escape the rat race. Profession-ally, I’ve been very pleased; I feel there is a lot of room to grow either vertically or laterally into different specialties.”

The opportunities are perhaps due to the growth of the health-care industry. That growth is felt everywhere in the city:  in the bulging help wanted section of the Duluth News Tribune, in the perennial sponsorship of local events, in the continued infrastructure investments of over $150 million in the last few years. The medical industry seems to only strengthen—exceeding even the best aspirations Duluth’s original industrialists probably had for timber, iron, and grain.

Everyone loves the lake!

Ask anyone who lives in Duluth or the surrounding communities what they like most and “the lake” is their first answer. It is a powerful lure. With a surface area of 31,700 square miles—it feels more like an ocean than a lake—Lake Superior defines the city’s identity. But it’s a mostly benevolent master. When other places in the Midwest are suffering under sweltering waves of humidity, the lake acts like a giant air conditioner, comforting Duluth with soft breezes and calm waters. Conversely, Lake Superior also warms, giving Duluth a milder winter than those at the same latitudes but further from the lake. That doesn’t mean the lake itself is necessarily warm. The average water temperature is a brisk 40 degrees. This doesn’t stop people from crossing over the Duluth shipping canal via the 1906 Aerial Lift Bridge to the seven-mile-long white sand beach called Park Point. The nature preserve/city park at the end of the point is used by the city’s residents year round.

Duluthians are an active bunch. Northern Minnesota could seem challenging to people from more consistent climates. With an average high in January of 16.2° and snowfall of 77.5,”  coupled with a July high of 76.8° and rainfall of 30,” Duluth is a rather vigorous place to live. But profound seasonal change is eagerly embraced by residents. Winter blizzards that dump feet of snow and arctic cold that makes the outdoors colder than an average freezer are often met by the local population with cries of joy for snowmobiling, cross country skiing, downhill skiing, ice fishing, ice skating, snow shoeing, and dog sledding.

The spring thaw inspires exuberant gardening. Call it pent up desire over the winter months or the love of green or a passion for produce, but the people of Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin relish home gardening. Local radio shows carry on a conversation year round, the PBS station highlights the best local gardeners, Duluth’s farmers’ market is always active, and by the end of the summer growing season, the word zucchini is uttered with both love and loathing, for they seem to grow the best.

As summer gardeners toil, others are angling, searching for the best spot to fish on the lake and in the streams, from canoes, bass boats, row boats, and in waders. Fishing is often combined with camping. Duluth’s proximity to the Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park, the Boundary Water Canoe Area, the Canadian Quetico Provincial Park, Apostle Islands National Lake Shore, and 15 state parks makes camping, backpacking, and hiking opportunities less than a half-day’s drive from the city. The many smaller local lakes, as well as Lake Superior, support boating and kayaking in great numbers:  jet skis, motor boats, sail boats, and kayaks all share the summer’s ample recreational opportunities.

The fall of the year is another favorite season. The oak, maple, birch, and aspen change colors in strikingly beautiful harmony. The first hard frost, usually in the first week in October, also signals a new harvest bounty as Wisconsin and Minnesota apple growers hold local festivals. November brings big game hunting for deer, turkey, and bear.

The seasons are dramatic, each wholly different from the other. In deep winter it is almost unbelievable that the snow will melt, but by fall, the arrival of winter’s majestic white blanket is often rejoiced. Seasonal change in Duluth adds to the romance of the city. A fully restored Victorian mansion built by a long forgotten industrialist looks best in winter with snow draped on its multi-angled roof. The city ball parks where children play out their major league fantasies in summer are flooded and turned into ice skating rinks to nurture winter dreams of Olympic Championships and Stanley Cup finals. The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon gives way to the summertime Grandma’s Marathon. The lake’s winter ice breaks up and yields the harbor to 1000-foot ore ships and ocean-going vessels from around the world in summer.

Quick drives, clean air and water

Duluth stats
Duluth statistics

Duluth is a small city of 87,000 people with another 34,000 in the neighboring towns of Superior, Hermantown, and Proctor. The medical industry is mostly clustered on the hillside close to downtown. Downtown buildings are connected by an indoor skywalk for shelter from winter cold and summer heat. What is known as rush hour in other American cities simply doesn’t exist here. An errand to the grocery store, the mall, or the book store never takes more than 15 minutes. Accessibility to work, home, and services adds greatly to the standard of living for most people in Duluth, as do clean drinking water from Lake Superior and unpolluted air. In 2002 the American Lung Association listed Duluth as one of the top cities for clean air.

Residents of Duluth who travel to other areas are surprised at the low quality of drinking water, often returning to Duluth with praise for their city’s water taste, clarity, and coolness. The Duluth public works department is constantly upgrading the city’s old water and sewer system. The Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) is creatively promoting alternatives for waste processing. The sewer treatment plant is completely powered by the biologic process through the capture of natural gasses and the incineration of dried wastes, making it independent of traditional power consumption needs. WLSSD also maintains a free yard waste disposal site, food composting facility for residents and restaurants, oil and household hazardous waste drop off center, and an affordable brush and branches disposal area. All the organic materials are composted and sold back in the spring and fall to area gardeners for affordable prices. It’s a program that resident take advantage of by the truckload.

The urban set will appreciate the cultural activities offered through organizations like the Duluth-based Minnesota Ballet, the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra, and sponsored events at The University of Minnesota Duluth, the College of Saint Scholastica, and the University of Wisconsin Superior. The annual multi-day blues festival, headline acts, and conventions centered in the harbor district of Canal Park, partner well with local organizations which sponsor big band dance parties in the grand ballroom of the 1903 Hotel Duluth to offer residents a wide variety of musical entertainment. An active continuing education program is offered quarterly to engage residents’ interests in everything from home repair to stained glass, and from kayaking to creative writing.

Clean air, good water, and reduced commute times allow city residents to enjoy their leisure time outdoors. Some of this time is spent in the 105,000+ acres of city maintained public space. The same wealthy industrialists who cut down the great timber stocks and opened large holes in the ground to extract the iron ore were also great planners and benefactors, offering Duluth large tracts of land for city parks, trails, and green space. Duluth has 125 municipal parks and playgrounds, 22 neighborhood recreation centers, 8 self-guided hiking trails, 27 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, and 45 miles of snowmobile trails. These combined with a lifeguard-staffed swimming beach, indoor pool, facilities for softball, tennis, soccer, baseball, basketball, horseshoes, hockey, and bocce make the city perfect for active people.

Such attributes sold the staff of Outside magazine, which named Duluth one of the top ten dream towns, along with Santa Fe, Boulder, Santa Barbara, and Bellingham, Washington. Outside  magazine correspondent Mike Grudowki writes, “…the ten best outdoorsy communities we found, explored and scrutinized, [were] places where the miles of single track far exceed the miles of six-lane beltway, where you can stroll or pedal to the farmers market, where the arts scene doesn’t stop at the multiplex, where you don’t have to count the number of garages from the corner to tell which house is yours. . . . Places that no one could mistake for Anywhere.”

Rubin certainly wouldn’t mistake Duluth for Anywhere. “A healthy lifestyle is important to us. I like the four distinct seasons and I love all the opportunities here for being outside,” he says. “My wife and I don’t worry as much about crime as when we lived in Minneapolis and I like my colleagues. Everyone I work with is enthusiastic about being in Duluth.”

David Devere is a publisher and free-lance writer who came to Duluth in 1999. He writes and publishes books within sight of Lake Superior.

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David Devere

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