Sunday, July 21, 2019

Morgan Park, Minnesota: A United States Steel Town


USS Plant, Morgan Park, c.1925, courtesy of the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center, Duluth

Recently on a very warm Thursday evening, I went on a tour of Morgan Park, a part of Duluth, Minnesota, led by local historian Bob Berg. The similarities between historic Morgan Park and historic Homestead struck me, as both were one-company towns for the same company. Both towns were built around the United States Steel mill, although the Homestead Works was much larger (15,000 workers vs.3,000), and Homestead is older and had a larger population. The significant difference is that Morgan Park was completely planned and built by the company.

U. S. Steel Company. Map of Duluth: Morgan Park, Duluth Minnesota. 1918

Even today, visitors come to Morgan Park to see what a planned company town looks like. The streets are laid out along the river flats, like the lower part of Homestead. Railroad tracks run along the St. Louis River in Morgan Park, just as they follow the Monongahela in Homestead. Homestead is older than Morgan Park, having grown significantly during the 1890s when Carnegie modernized and expanded the mill. Morgan Park is post-Carnegie, a town built and named after the man who bought Carnegie Steel in 1901 and renamed it United States Steel, J.P.Morgan.
Neighborhoods of Duluth: Morgan Park, Lake View Building, Duluth, Minnesota. c.1916

To take advantage of Duluth's proximity to the Mesabi Iron Range, USS started planning and building the town in 1913, and by 1915, the Duluth Works of USS was fully operational. The company handled the trash pickup, lawn care and snow removal, health care, and police and fire protection. When it was built, Morgan Park had the most up-to-date school, hospital, and community center in the nation. The company also built two churches, one Roman Catholic and one generic Protestant--deciding that the members of the various denominations needed to share. In its early years Black people were not allowed to live in the Park, so they, the Serbs, and other Eastern Europeans immigrants lived in nearby Gary-Duluth. In a way, Morgan Park was like Munhall during early USS days, the place for management and skilled workers to live, and also other workers, but in the lower-rent units. In Morgan Park's case, many of the original residents were Scandinavians; in Munhall's, WASP, including Welsh, and German. 

As with Homestead, the age of steel came to an end with the conversion of USS to USX. The works, then owned by the City of Duluth, closed in the 1970s and almost all of the public buildings built by the company, including the mill itself, were demolished. (The Homestead Works, still owned by USS, was closed in 1983.)

The most striking aspect of Morgan Park is that all of the residential buildings were built of concrete block, produced at the company's own cement plant in town. Bob Berg said that he remembered the fallout of white grit from the cement plant to be worse than the smoke from the steel mill. It stuck to everything. (I remember the black flecks and grit from Homestead mill smoke coating window curtains and laundry hung outside. The Morgan Park steel mill undoubtedly produced some of this as well. The air pollution must have been significant.)
Neighborhoods of Duluth: Morgan Park, view of neighborhood, Duluth, Minnesota. c.1916

Photos of the new Morgan Park show mostly treeless streetscapes with concrete-block houses of several different styles. There were single-family houses as well as duplexes and four-plexes. The latter were comprised of four units in a row, with the taller, larger units in the middle. Residents called these four-plexes "sheep sheds" because of their resemblance to barns for sheep. Window mullions on all residences were arranged in the then-fashionable "tick-tack-toe" Prairie School /Art and Crafts design. All the trim was painted USS green.

Today, trees have grown up, the homes are privately owned, and only the Protestant church and Lake View Building remain of the large public buildings.
The Lake View Building today houses the Iron Mug Coffee and Ale Shop and other businesses.
The portico of the Lake View Building, showing the glacial escarpment in the distance. This steep hill runs along the shore of Lake Superior all the way to the Canadian border. The shape of the city of Duluth has been described by Duluth native Anders Christensen as "a long wienie stretched along the lake." The city is 27 miles long and only a few miles wide, with Morgan Park on its southwestern end.
The interior of the Protestant church, currently belonging to a United Church of Christ congregation. The building is not concrete block, but stone.
The site of the demolished Catholic church, with school at left, former priest's residence in the trees at right.
The entrance to the now-demolished steel works, across the street from the church site.

The site (next to the mill entrance) of the company's General Office Building, now demolished.

Looking toward the former mill entrance on 88th Avenue West. The semicircle in the pavement is a holdover from the days when the street was a boulevard. In the next block was the school and across from it, the workers' club house, now a community center and park. Morgan Park had "clubs" for both workers and top management. Homestead's workers' club is of course the Carnegie Library, still very much in use.

Front of an unpainted "sheep shed" four-plex. The units have been altered to the tastes of the various owners.
Rear of a "sheep shed" four-plex
The small end unit of a "sheep shed", for sale for $52,900. The listing says it's 840 square feet with two bedrooms. The difference in the condition of this unit's roof and that of the one next door shows a potential problem of individual ownership of parts of what is basically one building.
A true duplex, up/down
Four styles of single-family houses. The layout was either foursquare or saltbox, and the exteriors were all concrete block, but the different roof styles provided variety: hip, gable, shed, etc. These houses are on the west side of the town, closer to the steel mill. Only one retains the original concrete block exterior. I think (because of the island) that this photo is shot toward the left of the old photo of a street above.
The alley behind the houses shown above.
Morgan Park saltboxes have layouts similar to Homestead workers' houses, but they're detached and somewhat larger.
A row of garages built when workers in the more modest houses began to acquire cars. Many of the houses built for management have their original garages.
A single-family house built for management on the east side of town, away from the steel mill. This house has its original Arts and Crafts-style mullioned windows.
A large house built for management, beautifully restored. Large management houses often had six bedrooms, four on the second floor and two on the top floor.
This handsome bungalow is a couple of doors down from the house shown above, at the end of a cul-de-sac. Some people think that these houses were built for the mill superintendents. It's quite possible, as these houses are on the edge of town, overlooking the St. Louis River, as far from the mill as one can get.
A large single-family home in near-original appearance with its green trim, unpainted concrete block exterior, and Art and Crafts-style window mullions. Obviously, the satellite dish isn't original.
Even though the steel mill and cement plant are long gone, Morgan Park, a close-knit community, is holding its own.  The lawns are mowed, the alleys are tidy, and the streets are clear of trash. The people who live there care about their town. The population remains steady at around 5,800.

Older, urban Homestead's population, including Munhall, is around 13,000, quite a drop from the population during the heyday of the Works. But although Homestead has fallen on hard times, a group of dedicated residents and business people are slowly turning it around.

These two old steel towns--Morgan Park and Homestead--show how Rust Belt towns can survive and be remade into vital new communities.

3 comments:

  1. Trilby It looks good except the front photo of the townhouse is actually the rear. Also there were unskilled laborers too, they lived in the cheaper townhouses without basements.

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  2. The photo of the end unit of the townhouse is, I think, the front. At least that's the side facing the street. The "for sale" sign is visible on the right-hand side of the pic.

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