This question comes from the News Tribune newsroom.
Question: What’s the oldest house in Duluth that’s still a residence?
This was harder to answer than I thought it would be.
So, we know the original townsite of Duluth was settled in about 1856, and at the time it was mostly confined to the base of Park Point, just south of the ship canal.
In the 1860s and 1870s, Duluth slowly grew away from the lakefront, and frame structures, shacks and tents soon dotted the hillside before the city’s first brick buildings eventually were built.
From what we can tell, however, none of the earliest houses in central Duluth survive today.
I called the St. Louis County Assessor’s Office to check their records, but Ben Thomas, the deputy county assessor who handles such requests, was out of town. The clerk I spoke with, however, cautioned that records from the city’s earliest days were notoriously incomplete.
In the end, I found the answer on the hallowed shelves of the Duluth Public Library, in three separate books. They pointed us west, to the Fond du Lac neighborhood in farthest western Duluth.
The oldest house in Duluth still being used as a residence — and likely the oldest house in Duluth, period — is the Peter J. Peterson House at 13328 W. Third St., built in 1867.
According to “Duluth’s Legacy, Vol. 1: Architecture,” published by the city in 1974, Peterson came to Fond du Lac, then a separate town, in the 1850s to take part in the fur trade, which by then was on the decline. Fond du Lac itself had been a trading post for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Co. since about 1817, but it closed up shop in the late 1840s.
Peterson’s home was built near Astor’s old fur post, part of which served as the family’s barn until one of Peterson’s sons tore it down. The home’s brownstone foundation came from a nearby quarry on Mission Creek, which provided much of the stone for Duluth’s commercial buildings of the 1880s, according to “Duluth’s Legacy.”
When Thomas from the county assessor’s office called me back last week, he agreed that the Peterson home probably was the city’s oldest. Score one for the library — and your local newspaper, for that matter. Sometimes Google just doesn’t cut it.
Out of curiosity, I called over to the Douglas County Historical Society to ask about Superior’s oldest house and got a hold of Jon Winter, who in turn called the city.
The city’s records show the house at 1521 E. Third St. as being built in 1853. It lies just next to the oldest part of Superior, in the East End from about 16th Avenue East to the Nemadji River.
However, Winter and Brad Theien, Superior’s city assessor, are a bit skeptical, considering that Ely’s Addition, where the house is found, wasn’t platted until 1854, and the house aligns perfectly with the street grid.
The house at 1930 E. Fourth St. was built in 1856, city records show, and five more have an 1860 construction date. In any case, it’s safe to say Superior’s oldest house predates Duluth’s.