Alexander McDougallWhen Alexander McDougall died in 1923, he left a tremendous legacy.
When Alexander McDougall died in 1923, he left a tremendous legacy. He was an inventor with patents in several countries, a businessman who founded numerous successful companies including seven shipyards, and a champion of his adopted Twin Ports communities who was the first to advocate for collaborative efforts between Duluth and Superior to improve the harbor.
With only two years of formal education, McDougall immigrated with his family from Scotland to Canada at age 9 in 1854. At 16, he went to work on the Great Lakes steamers, first as a deck hand and watchman, then as a mate. He earned his master’s papers at 25, becoming one of the youngest captains on the Lakes. His prestigious sailing career moved ashore and settled in Duluth in 1881. There he established a successful stevedoring, marine insurance and cargo business, but he was always looking for new opportunities. He decided to put his experience on the Lakes to work and developed his idea for a new, more efficient generation of Lake barges, one that drew few investors. Convinced his ideas were valid, he built the prototype, Barge 101, with his own money in 1889. The success of 101 attracted the interest of John D. Rockefeller, who agreed to invest in McDougall’s America Steel Barge Co., which would build and operate this new class of barges and steamers called “whalebacks.” At the peak of its operation, American Steel Barge Co., which built 44 whalebacks, employed 2,000 workers, about 15 percent of the population of Superior, on the site that today is part of Fraser Shipyards.
Whaleback construction slowed during the panic of 1893 and McDougall lost ownership to Rockefeller, but his career as an entrepreneur and inventor was by no means over. He pursued a variety of projects in mining, shipping on the Mississippi and cold storage and more. He was one of the founders and the first president of Highland Canal and Power Company, a forerunner of Minnesota Power. Upon the United States’ entry into World War I, he built the town of Riverside in Duluth and its shipyard, launching more than 50 ships in 3 years for the war effort.
McDougall was awarded 34 United States patents between 1900 and 1928. He died at age 78.