Tall Ships and Small Ships in Duluth’s Harbor

Get ready because Duluth is about to experience the Tall Ships Festival!

From August 11th to the 13th, thousands of people will visit Canal Park and the Duluth Harbor to catch a glimpse (and maybe a tour) historic tall ships – majestic sailing vessels from our nation’s maritime legacy. As the festival website puts it, the festival is “a rare chance to catch a glimpse, step aboard, and even set sail on some of the grandest ships of yore.

To celebrate this amazing event, The Duluth Experience is offering daily kayak tours designed to get you on the water with these amazing historic vessels. Check out the Tall Ships Kayak Experience page for details.

Before the Tall Ships were the Small Ships

We marvel each and every summer day in Duluth as gargantuan freighters and ore ships like the 1,013-foot long Paul R. Tregurtha pass through the shipping canal and enter the Twin Ports. There is no question that it is an amazing sight to behold – and let’s face it… watching the “lakers” and “salties” pass in and out of Duluth never gets old.

Then every three years we get the Tall Ships Festival. And it really is amazing to watch these historic sailing vessels enter the Duluth harbor. By the way, don’t miss Thursday’s Parade of Sails.

As we prepare for the Tall Ships Festival this year, however, we also like to remember that before the tall ships were the small ships.

Duluth Experience Tall Ships Kayak Tour

The Duluth Experience Tall Ships Kayak Experience provides a fun, unique way to experience the Festival of Sail. Image: Max McGruder.

Related: Experience The Tall Ships Kayak Adventure

A Look at Small Watercraft from Duluth’s History

Exactly when the first small watercraft were used in what would later become Duluth is hard to pin down. Long before the arrival Daniel de Greysolon Sieur du Lhut and other early European explorers in the 1600s, the St. Louis River Estuary – located at the head of Lake Superior – with its vast wild rice beds and abundant fishery was a an important site for Indigenous trade and settlement. In fact, people started utilizing the Duluth area as soon as the glaciers began receding 14,000 years ago!

Most evidence of early camp sites and small craft usage from that time is either gone due to erosion, climate change, and human activity or hidden by current development. No doubt, there are archeological sites left to discover! If you have an interest in exploring the many Indigenous contributions to our region’s history, we encourage you to visit www.duluthstories.net and check out their interactive historical map.

Another challenging aspect of uncovering early watercraft information is the historic fluctuation in Lake Superior’s shoreline. Glacial Lake Duluth would’ve been located at the top of Duluth’s ridge line – approximately where Skyline Parkway is today. Climate change around 7,500 to 500 B.C. caused the shoreline to shift and receding lake levels reached an all time low with the tip of the lake being located as far north as present day Silver Bay. Evidence of boat usage along that lake shore, then, is long submerged under water.

Luckily, camp and settlement sites from the Woodland Period (1,000 B.C. to 1,750 C.E.) have been discovered in northeastern Minnesota and the greater Duluth area. These sites contain evidence of fishing and wild rice harvesting and, presumably, the use of dugout canoes in the St. Louis River Estuary and what we now call the Duluth Harbor.

In more recent history the the Ojibwe inhabited the Lake Superior region and established settlements at Spirit Island, Spirit Mountain, Indian Point, Rice’s Point, and Minnesota Point. Ojibwe oral history describes an epic migration from the Atlantic coast to the western Great Lakes region and what would later become Duluth. With the Ojibwe came the birch bark canoe.

Usually constructed in summer months, the birch bark canoe was a wonderful creation with birch bark and either cedar or tamarack roots. By fall, the canoe was the best way to harvest Manoomin (a.k.a. wild rice). Its light weight design allowed the canoe to pass easily through the rice while it’s occupants used ricing sticks to knock the mature rice into the canoe.

Ojibwe women gathering wild rice

Ojibwe women gathering wild rice. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.

Related: Birch Bark Canoe Build Time Lapse Video

During a time with no car, let alone horses, the canoe was also the best choice for long distance travel. It was quicker than walking, and allowed for the easy transportation of food or cargo. Due to its light weight, it was easy to portage (a portage is either a land based short cut between two navigable waterways or an overland route used to avoid hazards). In fact, the Ojibwe had at least four portages in the area: Little Portage on Minnesota Point (where the canal is today), Grassy Point, Rice’s Point, and the 7-mile Grand Portage used to avoid the rapids and falls of the St. Louis Gorge.

Beaver pelts were moved en masse by canoe and were used in the making of hats back in Europe and later in the American colonies and states. French fur traders known as “Voyageurs” adapted the Ojibwe birch bark canoe and developed 30-foot long Montreal Style canoes for open water travel on Lake Superior. These canoes could carry an impressive load between 2 to 4 tons (maybe 16 men and many pounds of supplies and pelts).

After the war of 1812, the Americans began taking over the fur trade from the British (who had previously taken it over from the French after the 7 Years War) and built a river side trading post at Fond du Lac. Transporting goods to and from the fur post by canoe, would’ve been pretty easy.

Flash forward roughly 70 years to 1886 and Duluth is now a city. All kinds of small watercraft are being used in the harbor – for commerce and for recreation! The Duluth Boat Club was established that year by 11 men who built a boathouse between 5th and 6th Avenues West (roughly where the Bayfront Festival Park stage is today) and started out with 16 rowing shells.

With increased shipping traffic and plans for a bridge, the club moved to multiple locations along Minnesota point, starting in 1903. And by all accounts the club was pretty darned successful. It expanded to Spirit Lake and the St. Louis River Estuary in 1907 and boasted a membership of 1,400 by 1912. Duluth resident and grain trade baron Julius Barnes secured much of the club’s financing and was responsible for hiring coach James Ten Eyck Jr.

Duluth Boat Club

Rowers from the Duluth Boat Club. Photo: Duluth News Tribune.

With miles of safe harbor to practice in, Eyck led Duluth’s rowing teams to 20 national championships, including the 1916 national championship right here in the Duluth harbor. By 1926 this epic part of Duluth’s history faded as the automobile grew in popularity and the club disbanded. Luckily, in 1955 the club was revived as the Duluth Rowing Club. Check out the Duluth Rowing Club webpage to learn more.

Today you’ll see all kinds of small ships in the harbor – sailboats, canoes, kayaks, and stand-up-paddle boards. During the summer you can watch – or get involved in – the sailboat races that are held every Wednesday night. Or if you want to paddle your own boat you can join a kayak adventure with The Duluth Experience!

Experience your own “small ships” and “tall ships” fun on our Tall Ships Kayak Adventure!

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