A Continental Crossroads

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Many places refer to themselves as a “crossroads” of some kind. In fact, every sign welcoming motorists to the state of Indiana refers to the state as the “Crossroads of America”. Indiana’s claim to being the “Crossroads of America” has to do with some of the earliest long distance highways, including the Lincolnway, which pre-dates Route 66, passing through Indiana. Even now it is a place many have to drive through to get to destinations like Chicago, Detroit, and Louisville.

Duluth’s claim to be a “continental crossroads” seems even more substantial than Indiana’s. The North American continent includes Canada and Mexico, as well as the United States. Duluth makes this claim based on railroads and waterways. Duluth was an important rail hub in the heyday of the Minnesota lumber industry around 100 years ago, with lumber from points north being hauled to Duluth to make connections to other areas, both by rail and by ship via Lake Superior.

With this history, one of Duluth’s major attractions is their historic depot. This depot, located in the center of town, contains several museums, including an impressive rail museum. Many old trains are on display here, and visitors can view the inside of many of these trains, including the passenger and dining cars, as well as the conductor’s cars.

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One of the most impressive trains on display here was an old snowplow train. This particular model, was used to plow large amounts of snow, as much as 12 feet high. Seeing this is not too surprising given Duluth’s cold and snowy climate. Residents of Duluth undoubtedly put up with more cold and snowy weather than I would ever imagine wanting to experience.

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Duluth is a place I had never been to before. In 2007, I did visit Bayfield and the Apostle Islands, which are only 90 miles away. But, I never did visit Duluth. I did not specifically avoid coming here, but I did not seek it out either. I guess that would make it kind of a “neutral” place for me. We all have a lot of places like that. Places we would not make a specific point to visit, but would not avoid. Duluth is quite far North, and out of the way of most American road trips. In fact, on the trip here from Minneapolis along I-35, there were plenty of billboards advertising resorts in Canada, specifically Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Duluth turned out to be kind of an interesting place. It is still very much of an industrial town. Many industrial towns in the Midwest have experienced a certain amount of decline, leading to the term “rust belt”. From what I saw here, the decline seems to have not been as bad here, and there still appears to be a significant amount of industrial activity. I almost wonder if this town looks a lot like the other industrial towns in the country looked like back in the 1950s or so before much of this happened.

There also are kind of neat bluffs just outside of town. They kind of remind me of the river bluffs I would encounter along the Mississippi River along I-90, in a completely different part of Minnesota. The town appears to have mostly been built in the lower terrain right along Lake Superior, giving it a neat lakefront. I still wonder if people hike up these bluffs on a regular basis, the way Boulderites regularly hike the Flatirons.

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But what about Duluth’s claims to be a “continental crossroads”? Well, the fact that it is an important shipping port definitely backs up this claim. It was out of Duluth that the tragic voyage of the Edmond Fitzgerald left in 1975. This voyage, intended for Cleveland, was one of a number of journeys taken along the Great Lakes from Duluth over the years. From points north and west, it is the nearest access point to the Great Lakes, which provides shipping access to the Atlantic via the Erie Canal. Also, with a good number of ports along Lake Superior being in Canada, Duluth’s importance undoubtedly stretches beyond the United Sates.

But, does this make Duluth any more important than I had previously thought? Maybe not? I mean, there are tons of airports near an international border that can call themselves “international airports” by virtue of their location more than their flight availability. And, almost every town that refers to themselves as a “crossroads” of some kind have some kind of story to back up their claims. The truth is that, the world is full of crossroads. Routes and trails have criss-crossed the continent for a long time, and along these routes and trails, many important connections have developed in quite a few locations, each with significance in the history and development of our nation. This is actually one of the things that made our country great. It is not once place that made us who we are, nor is who we are just one thing. Everybody had input. And, more importantly, everyone had the right to decline input as well. Minnesota is quite different from Texas, which is also quite different from New York. Each place developed differently, and each “crossroads” across this great continent has their own unique way of life based on what kind of “crossroads” they are.

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