Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas
Did you know that Pie à la Mode was invented (yes, invented) in Duluth, Minnesota? Well, it was, and if that doesn't qualify the city as an interesting place, nothing will. But it is. Located on the extreme western point of Lake Superior, the greatest Great Lake (the largest freshwater lake in the world, in fact), it's where the St. Louis River empties into the lake creating a natural harbor. This was a natural transportation artery for the Sioux and Chippewa people after they were pushed east by European settlers. Explored by French trader Pierre Esprit Radisson in 1659 for the purpose of expanding the fur trade, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, another Frenchman, came in 1679 to establish routes for the trade. In 1856, the city was named "Duluth" after him.
Due to changing fashion trends in Europe, fur prices collapsed by the mid-1800s. Thanks to abundant lumber, copper, grain and the railroad industries, it was not the only thing the area had to offer and by 1869, Duluth was the fastest growing city in America. A canal was dug in 1871, allowing ships easy access to Duluth's natural port. Iron ore shipments began to flow through it in 1892 and increased at an amazing pace: five million tons in 1900; 15 million tons by 1905; 30 million by 1913. Shipping volumes increased further when financier Jay Cooke (who helped finance the Union war effort during the Civil War) persuaded the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad to make Duluth its northern terminus in 1861. It became the busiest port in the United States, surpassing even New York City in gross tonnage. Minnesota iron ore shipped via Duluth-Superior (and neighboring Two Harbors) made the majority of steel that built America in the 20th Century.
In response to the industrial boom, Duluth flourished. Its growth included the founding of ten newspapers and six banks, and an 11-story skyscraper (the Torrey Building) was built. In 1905, the city was said to be home to more millionaires, per capita, than any other city in the world. Though Duluth's steel production did not commence until 1915, U.S. Steel announced eight years prior that it would construct a $5 million plant. The city's population was speculated to surge as high as 300,000.
The Diamond Calk Horseshoe Company was founded in Duluth in 1908, later becoming a major manufacturer and exporter of wrenches and automotive tools. The Marshall Wells Hardware Company expanded in 1901 by opening branches in Portland, Oregon and Winnipeg, Manitoba, and its company catalog totaled 2,390 pages by 1913. The Duluth Showcase Company, which later became the Duluth Refrigerator Company and then the Coolerator Company, was established in 1908. Opening in 1916, the Universal-Atlas Cement Company, which made Portland cement from the slag by-product of the steel plant, became the nation's most significant manufacturer of the product.
Droves of European immigrants flocked to Duluth, drawn by the plentiful jobs in both mining and industry, further swelling the population. The Aerial Ferry Bridge, originally built in 1905, was converted to a vertical lift bridge in 1930, instantly becoming the biggest and quickest in the world.
Ranked as one of the most outstanding engineering feats of the century, the St. Lawrence Seaway opened to deep-draft navigation in 1959. This system of locks, canals and channels linked the Great Lakes region to world markets, opening up even more trading opportunities. The Duluth-Superior name instantly became well-known among the world's grain traders.
The up, however, was followed by a down in the 1970s, when high grade ore from the nearby Minnesotan iron ranges dried up and the cost of bituminous coal (needed for steel production) became excessive. At the same time, cheap imported steel flooded the market. Several key industrial companies and other corporations closed, causing widespread unemployment, an economic downturn and a precipitous drop of some 15,000 in Duluth's population. Sadly, the Canal Park area gradually became a graveyard of empty warehouses and junk yards.
To its credit, the city recovered, redefining itself in the process. In 1984, a plan was implemented to turn the waterfront into the kind of aesthetic district that would attract people from other places. Empty warehouses were transformed into shopping districts and dilapidated manufacturing plants were turned into shops, restaurants and micro-breweries. Museums, art galleries, an aquarium, a zoo, a symphony orchestra and sports teams emerged as city priorities continued to shift. Industries such as education, finance, mining, communications, aviation and advanced manufacturing have facilitated the city's resurgence. Healthcare is so huge that one in seven residents are employed in the industry. No surprise, Duluth is rated first for quality healthcare in the U.S. among cities its size.
This brings us to the biggie: tourism now steers Duluth's economic engine. Some 3.5 million visitors each year contribute over $780 million to the local economy. The Canal Park and Lakewalk areas are well-known to vacationers, many of whom come to see the huge freighters steaming into port, which remains busy with regular shipments of grains, coal and taconite (a low-grade iron ore). Today, Duluth is commonly referred to as a "getaway spot" and "one of American's premier destinations." In 2014, Outside Magazine named it the "Best Outdoor Town in America."
With the ships as a primary draw, Canal Park, then, is central to the action. Located east of downtown Duluth; it's where one goes for the best freighter watching; and it's the recreation-oriented district where the bikers, joggers and segwayers pedal, run and glide. It's a testament to Duluth's new personality and its conversion from the industrial age into the new one, with an eclectic variety of restaurants, cafés, hotels and unique shops, especially those dealing in antiques and other novelties. Visitors can also view the lighthouse pier, and visit the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, the Great Lakes Aquarium and the William A. Irvin Floating Ship Museum. It's a happening place with an endless smorgasbord of things to do, see and experience.
The only thing that could make this pie better is a scoop of vanilla ice cream. In other words: horse-drawn carriage rides. And actually, that service already exists. "Horse-drawn carriages have continuously operated in Canal Park for over 30 years," says Ken Lindberg of Superior, Wisconsin, who owned and operated Top Hat Carriage Service for the past 17 years.
"I witnessed draft horse use on our family farm until we moved when I was seven years old," he explains when I inquired of his background. "I never got my hands on the driving lines except for a few minutes occasionally under Dad's supervision. I was impressed by Dad pulling blizzard victims' cars out of the ditch with his team of Belgians. I was also impressed when I watched a neighbor dig a house foundation with a slip scraper behind a draft team. After leaving the farm, we went to an acreage with ponies, puppies, chickens, riding horses and a milk cow. I did a couple Air Force tours and ran my own office machine repair business. I'd always had the desire to demonstrate large animal use to others, especially children. Well, the perfect opportunity arose shortly after taking a job as a Registered Nurse, when I answered a newspaper ad for a Duluth carriage business for sale."
That was back in 2001 when Ken bought Top Hat Carriage from Russ Geyer, also of Superior. Russ claimed to be the "first one" operating in Duluth and Ken had no reason to doubt it. "I was able to continue nursing in the winter and run carriages in the summer," Ken explains. "Then I retired from the medical work at age 66 and have continued with the carriages.
"Several [carriage] companies have come and gone over the years," Ken explains. "Shortly after I bought Top Hat, 9/11 happened, the dot-com bubble burst, followed by a general downturn in the economy. We then saw fewer visitors from foreign countries and distant U.S. locations. They were soon replaced by more Midwestern customers, especially those from the Twin Cities." Duluth rebounded, yet again, and its horse-drawn carriage service endured.
Like his predecessor, Ken has been at it for 17 years. "What has evolved," Ken concludes, "is a carriage culture of safety and cleanliness, passed down through the years. The various owners have self-monitored and critiqued each other and mentored the new owners as they appeared. I was fortunate to have inherited Chris Sterner, the main driver for Russ Geyer. He taught her well and she taught me well. She was a taskmaster, and I appreciated it. Sometimes I wasn't sure if she worked for me, or I worked for her. That's how strict a schoolmarm she was. She had a degree in education and used it with authority. I've taken what I learned from her and others, added innovations of my own and have come up with strict (thanks Chris), orderly and methodical procedures that eliminate almost all chances for misbehavior by new trainee horses. Of course, pairing new horses with experienced drivers and new drivers with experienced horses is rule number one. Prior horse experience is helpful, but since our procedures are so regimented and predictable, even some with no previous horse experience have easily become excellent drivers.
"I'm proud of my record of clean and safe operation for 17 years ... no accidents, and we provide a lot of information and directions to out-of-towners. We clean up after ourselves and also after other litter bugs in our areas of operation. We are an unpaid 'Clean and Safe Team.'"
Passing the Baton
Tim Carroll, Lyle, Minnesota, bought his first team of draft horses in 1990. When a mechanical logger high-graded a nearby property leaving a mess of downed timber, Tim asked the landowner if he could skid out some firewood with his team. Before he finished the job, Tim had been stopped repeatedly and asked if he did horse logging for hire. It was the start of Cedar River Horse Logging, a going enterprise that has been buzzing right along ever since. (See the Winter 1997-'98 DHJ.)
He's logged with horses as far away from home as Idaho and Virginia. He's tackled special logging projects on the Leopold Nature Preserve and the Sisters of Saint Francis at Assisi Heights convent. To add value to his operation, Tim incorporated a portable sawmill, kiln-drying capabilities and furniture building. He's also taught horse logging seminars and provided internships. Tim has served terms as both the President and Vice President of the North American Horse & Mule Loggers Association and has spent the past couple decades as a resolute spokesperson and promoter of horse and mule logging as a tool for sustainable land management.
Several years ago, Ken Lindberg was a student at one of Tim's horse logging seminars (one in which Ken used his carriage horses). The two must have hit it off as Ken began assisting with Tim's logging camps and schools, handling airport pickups and drop-offs of students and interns, and other tasks that required time away from the woods–where Tim clearly prefers to be during logging season.
That part hasn't changed for Tim–and isn't likely to change. He is passionate about his logging. But an idea planted by none other than Ken at logging camp took root and has precipitated a very big change. Ken had suggested that Tim and his wife Doreen buy a Duluth carriage company that was offered for sale. When the couple decided to go for it last year, the deal went south. That's when Ken proposed that they just buy his carriage service.
"We made the decision to buy the business, but spent last summer learning the ropes," explains Tim. "We set up an LLC this last winter and purchased the business in April." The carriage "season" in Duluth–based on weather and tourism volumes–runs from May 1 to October 31, so the Carrolls are well into their inaugural season as owners.
They employ several people as drivers, grounds crewmen and helpers (with Ken serving in an advisory capacity). Tammi Nelson, a friend of the Carrolls and Hostess for Top Hat, says the most surprising thing about the enterprise is how happy it makes the people. "Horses warm peoples' hearts," adds Doreen, who serves as a driver when not working as an Operations Analyst at Mayo Clinic (shortly after receiving a hug from a first-time passenger).
Tim trucks the horses in each day from a nearby boarding facility owned by Kathy Watters. It allows them to be able to turn the carriage horses out for regular rest periods. Tim has also set up a couple of his logging camp tents, which gives his crew a place to hang their hats in between shifts. Being a former carriage operator herself, Kathy can especially appreciate having a place for downtime away from the job site. "Tim and Doreen are amzaing people," she says. "They care about the horses and they love working with them."
Some of the horses are veteran logging horses; others are not. As Tim reminded me, "You can take a good farm horse and make a logging horse out of him, but you can't necessarily take a good logging horse and make a good farm horse out of him."
The idea of doing summer carriage rides wasn't about supplementing Tim's logging business, as I'd assumed. Up until four years ago, he had actually been logging year-round. He says the summer logging, however, started to take a toll physically. Thus, the prospects of still being able to work with his horses and making a living, without the heat, insects and fatigue of warm weather logging was appealing. Rest assured, however–he has every intention of continuing to log during the winters.
Tim has a lot of energy and even more ideas, most of which involve his horses. Having dealt with hundreds of landowners and state or federal governments; having conducted countless horse logging seminars; and managed untold horse logging internships, the 56-year-old understands public perception better than most. That will prove to be a useful skill with his carriage company, as it involves being almost entirely front and center of the public eye.
Asked how he's so easily made the transition from producing board feet to serving the public, Tim's reply was: "You're always serving the customer. I am enjoying it. I got a pretty good taste of it last year. We've had a lot of surprises this year, but I have owned a lot of businesses and the same is true in any trade–you just need to adapt and overcome."
What kind of surprises? "The most rewarding thing I have experienced is that our customers are so happy," he says. "People are here on family vacations, honeymoons, for weddings, anniversaries and other special events. Many people come here and enjoy a carriage ride for the first time. That is a blessing."
Another revelation has been the need to educate. "I think it's critical that we maintain a presence in urban settings to enlighten the public about draft horses," he says. "These people vote and make decisions that affect all of us. If we don't get the public tuned in and caring about horses and what we do with them, we're in trouble."
To that, Doreen adds, "What we do does a lot more for educating the public about horses than even our seminars."
Emily Larson, who has held the office of Mayor of Duluth for two years, seems to have a pretty solid grasp of what a horse-drawn carriage service brings to the table–especially one set for tourists. "Warmth and accessibility," she says. "The lake is why people come. Horses just add a unique opportunity; a reliable and engaging way of experiencing it and the surrounding area."
If she sounds like she's personally experienced a ride, you'd be right. "It's actually an annual tradition for us when certain family members come to town," she admitted. "It's awesome, fun, pleasant, unusual and special."
Mayor Larson is no stranger to the concept of tourism, nor of its importance. It's a priority, in fact, of hers. Prior to her current office, she was President of the Duluth City Council. She served as a Commissioner on the Duluth Economic Development Authority, a board member of the Great Lakes Aquarium, Visit Duluth, and the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission, and was the Council conduit to Parks and Libraries.
And, if you also picked up on the Twin Cities native's fondness for Duluth, she earned her undergraduate degree from the College of St. Scholastica (in Duluth) and a Master’s Degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. She is also a graduate of Intermedia Arts Creative Community Leadership Institute and served on the Advisory Committee that developed the Duluth Energy Efficiency Program.
When I asked what advice she'd have for other destination cities in regards to horse-drawn carriages, she said, "Don't sacrifice the concept just because it won't be perfect. Try it. Experiment. Peoples' faces light up when they see horses, so just don't give up on the idea."
Designated (by Insurify) as Minnesota's 5th greenest city, Duluth has relatively recently acquired a reputation of being "green," environmentally conscientious and connecting (or reconnecting) with the earth, which definitely contributes to its attractiveness to visitors. Several citizen groups–such as Sustainable Duluth, Environmental Association for Great Lakes Education and the Sweetwater Alliance–are just a few of the many organizations actively working to keep the area eco-friendly. Transit via horses, even if only for pleasure, seems a great fit.
When the Ship Comes In
Favorable weather and ships coming in or going out seem to be the best recipe for a "good day" in Duluth's carriage ride business.
As part of his "adapt" approach that has served him so well, Tim will soon offer motel pick-ups and restaurant drop-offs. Actively supporting other area businesses and identifying ways to collaborate for mutual benefit is not new to him. He also recently added booking capabilities to his web site, allowing customers to schedule rides as well as pay for them up front.
For the latest reinvention of himself to occur in a city well-versed in doing the same, may be just coincidence. Or it may be fate. The need for capable ambassadors to represent the horse, and horse-use is undeniable, as is the fact that the planet's population continues to grow ever more metropolitan. Addressing public perception has never been more crucial. Fortunately, that's a situation that Tim Carroll is well-equipped to handle.
Clearly buoyed by the changing of the guard, Ken Lindberg confides, "I can't think of anyone who could fare better in the long run than the Carrolls and their business partner Tammi Nelson. Their combination of horse and human personnel management skills are second to none. I admire their resourcefulness and problem-solving abilities.
"The carriage business is hard work and not for everyone, but I hope there are always carriage horses in Canal Park. Any gap in continuity that eliminates the horse culture here for a time would not be good. 'Tradition,' as the character Tevye proclaimed in Fiddler on the Roof ... that's the ticket. It's what's gotten us safely to where we are today."
Visit Duluth. If you become a millionaire, move there (Yesterday's barons of business left plenty of large stately mansions from which to choose). Watch the lake and ocean freighters come and go, visit a museum, take a carriage ride and by all means, have a scoop of ice cream on your pie.
For more information about Top Hat, visit their web site at www.tophatcarriages.com