Early Day History

Header for Early Day History - Tower Weekly News historical article series.

This was a series of articles printed in the Tower Weekly News between March 14, 1914 and April 24, 1914.

Early Day History

It has been thirty years—come St. Patrick’s Day, since Charles Johnson, Elisha Morcom, Henry Kellow and wife, Frank St. Vincent, Hart Hewitt, Mrs. Fred Williams, William LaBeau and wife, the latter now of Ely, and others, breezed into Tower. It is almost a third of a century now since these people heard of the chances for fortune in this, the then far northern country.

They were men from Michigan and Quinnisec, in particular. It was a week’s journey then. The party came to Superior and from there to Duluth and Tower. From Duluth out they rode on sleds in the open, March weather and arrived in the Town of Breitung, Soudan, on the “Seventeenth of St. Patrick’s Day.” Others came and went at the same time but these were miners and transients who did not stay. At times it is said there were as many as 200 people at one time en route for Tower and Soudan. Tower in those days was composed of but few houses and not worthy of its later dignity of city. Soudan and the iron mines were the Klondike of those days.

Later on in 1884, on July 31, the railroad came and the days of toil for men and teams on the freight route were ended and Tower began to hum. William Bassett was the first mayor of Tower. He had the contract for toting for the Minnesota Iron company from Duluth up. He was a veteran of the civil war and went out with a Wisconsin regiment. The first planing mill was brought to Tower in April, 1882. The machine weighed 1600 and it took five and a half days to get it here from Duluth. Liveryman Ted Wheeler, was then in the toting business for himself and he it was who took the job of bringing it here. The first contracter north of Duluth was a man named O. W. Saunders, of Washburn, Wisconsin, who eventually became worth $200,000 which in those days was an immense fortune. But later he went broke. He had camps in and around Cloquet at first and harvested the great field of pine then growing as a virgin forest. Small wonder he became rich.

The freight charges in those days differ somewhat from the present prices. It cost $3.00 to get a hundred pounds to Tower from Duluth. A sack of flour, of 100 pounds, could be laid down here by team for $10. A regular mail service was kept up and the outside world was heard from twice a week.  Today we growl if the daily papers are a few minutes late.


The teamsters from Duluth and Tower who made the trip with supplies for this place had no picnic. The winters were no better then than now. Liveryman Ted Wheeler, tells of how at night the horses were kept from freezing to death by one of the party at a time staying up all night and keeping a huge fire roaring near the horses. At fifty below as it was many a time a horse or a man could not remain in the open without great suffering and so camp was made near a plentiful supply of wood and the fire kept up until the next morning- and all was in readiness to begin the trip. It took three days and two nights to cover the more than one hundred miles between Duluth and Tower by wagon road. But few cabins were scattered along that lonesome trail and the stopping places at night had to be figured on. The Cloquet river, 18 miles out of Duluth was the first halt. Then came White Face river, St. Louis river, Wine Portage, Embarrass Lake and Tower. It all looks easy as one reads, but it is a long trail to team over and with roads only fairly passable in the winter time.

In 1882 Mr. Wheeler brought in the first load of freight. He was accompanied by John Owens, of the Seller-Owens Co., who later built the first sawmill here. The first boiler was hauled up from Duluth in January, 1883. It took two teams six days and nights to get it here in the 20 to 50 below temperatures then prevailing. Four horses driven by Mr. Wheeler brought the boiler in. This sawmill sawed lumber for twenty-six of the homes in Soudan and here, some of which are now standing. In the fall of 1884 the mill burned.


Many of the early day comers who are here yet, walked in from Duluth to Tower. Only in the winter could teams be used. In summer the swamps were many and long and no horse could negotiate the trail and so those desiring to come, adjusted their packsacks and started on afoot. Albert Kitto, Charles McNamara, Capt. Ball and George Bolsdun rode and walked here in the year of 1884. They followed the right-of-way of the Iron Range railroad. At night they slept by the side of the trail and carried their food with them. It was while crossing the Saint Louis river on logs that Mr. Kitto fell in the river and got a cold bath. At Athens while wading along muskeg a woman’s shoe was found embedded deeply in the mud as it no doubt had been pulled from the foot of the wearer while crossing the swamp. No owner was ever found for the shoe.

W. H. Congdon was one of the pedestrians who came to Tower via the oyerland route. He walked in from what is now Allen Junction. He was but a lad then as he came to Breitung on July the 7th, 1884. He left- Two Harbors with three other men on the 4th day of July and it was three days later that he arrived here. The other, three men have long since dropped out of sight. He was an Iron Mountain, Michigan, man and had relatives in this section to whom he came to meet. Only a pioneer town greeted him, and which he has watched grow into a city and t0 himself a business to be proud of.


The first violent death came to a man named Brown, who was accidentally killed in a cut on the railroad by a cave-in. He was caught by falling earth and crushed beneath the car he was loading and while at work in what was then known as Old Breitung. Following this came the first murder. An Italian named Fietri Franci was shot to death by a man named Bartooli, a brother Italian, and in a saloon brawl. The building in which be was killed stood opposite to the Presbyterian church and is now used by Messrs. Talle & Fogelberg as a warehouse. The murder occurred on September 1st, 1884. Bartooli was arrested by policeman Smith and it is said admitted that he killed him, but later, the courts cleared him of the act. He was taken to Duluth for trail but eventually got clear. About this time an Indian was shot in his canoe on the river below the boat houses by a white man. The Indians got ugly about this murder and would have raised trouble but for great diplomacy on the part of the white man. A near massacre was on but was happily avoided. The murderer was not known and got out of the country no doubt. The killing was wantonly done.

This writeup of the early days would not be complete for this issue without the mention of Father Buh, who celebrated his eighty-first birthday on St. Patrick’s Day. We all know Father Buh, now of Ely, but once of Tower. He is one of the early pioneers of the district. It is more than probable that his Ely friends and hundreds of others looked after it that there was a proper observance of the anniversary.

The aged priest has witnessed a wonderful change in this district. From the days of the wild Indian to electric street cars is but a step in life but it took years of hardship first and the reverend Father has seen it all come, and all will hope for many more years of usefulness and happiness for him.

Briefly, Father Buh came from Austria to America and to Saint Paul in 1865, and from there to the north country with more Indians than white people here ahead of him. Coming to Biwabik before the arriyal of the railroad and to Ely in 1888 when there were not a half dozen houses in the now city of 5,000. Father Buh christened the first white child born in Biwabik, and the little girl was christened Mary Biwabik Murnik, and to whom was given a city lot in honor of the first arrival.

Three times has Father Buh visited his old home in far away Austria, and yet has hopes of another one if all goes well.


On March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, there was an old settlers meeting in Soudan. There were but three present—four in fact for the four were the three first in Tower and the fourth was the last arrival, a NEWS representative.

It was the anniversary day, now thirty years ago, when Frank St. Vincent, Elisha Morcom and Hart Hewitt first breezed into this district to open up the Soudan mine. It was not a premeditated meeting but was brought about by this reporter. In Mr. St. Vincent’s room in the machine shop on a bench the three sat and in memory went over the trip from Quinnisec to Tower, now thirty years agone.

Every detail was recounted of that memorable time and the stories mostly ran to the cheerful side of it all. For thirty years now, Frank St. Vincent has been employed at the one place. He is foreman of the blacksmith shop at the company’s mine in Soudan. He has never missed a payday in all these years—even when once upon a time he accidentally chopped off two of his toes. Mr. Morcom wore a bit of green ribbon in his buttonhole and smoked a good old clay pipe in honor of the double celebration. For thirty-six years Mr. Morcom and Mr. St. Vincent have been friends and they have a fund of early day stories that are indeed interesting. Mr. Morcom is the foreman of the Soudan shops. In memory of the anniversary of their coming, he sent St. Patrick Day postcards to the seven who came together and also to those who came immediately after. The seven who came on the first load with him are: Hart Hewitt, Frank St. Vincent, Mr. and Mrs. H. Kellow, Chas. Johnson, and Mrs. Fred Williams, wife of postmaster Fred Williams of Soudan.

In those days the miners were paid in actual money—not checks. A man named John Mullman had the dangerous job of delivering the greenbacks from Duluth to Tower. An undertaking of that kind today would be thought about before undertaking it. Thousands of dollars were transported nailed up in a box and hauled by team over the long, lonesome trail through the limitless forest. So far as the driver knew, there was a highwayman behind every balsam, or a gang of holdup-men at every bend of the road. To lighten the load and bulk of the money on one of the trips, the company sent up bills of thousand dollar denominations. What a “pie” a shipment of that kind would be to the average cracksmen of today. However, Mullman was never molested and later on when the railroad got here, payments were made by the check system. The trip was made regularly and it seems strange that the worse never happened to Mullman who now lives in Duluth.

One of the queer requisitions for supplies sent down to Duluth in those days was one sent in by the company’s clerk. The weather then was much like that of today, brisk and healthy. Thermometers were mads then of mercury only and below temperatures of 40 degrees below zero, froze up and did not register. This clerk ordered sent up, a six-foot thermometer with the zero at the top so that all might know just how cold it really did get. There were jokers then even under those trying pioneer times.

Our own inimitable Joe Bracco is one of the pioneers of the district. He came in 1884 and in his characteristic way tells about the freighting cost of a car of necessities— Milwaukee beer, in those, the other days. From Milwaukee to Duluth the freight rates were $40 and from there to Two Harbors teams hauled the fifty barrels composing the car at a price of 60 cents a barrel, or $30. From there on to Tower another hundred dollars went to the teamsters and all told $170 went for freight alone. But in cases of necessity money does not count.

In speaking of drink, it might be of interest to know that the first well dug in Soudan was completed in 1883, and was dug by John Owens. The well today is furnishing cheer for men and teams as well as it did now thirty one years since.


The first train arrived in Tower on July 31st, 1886. Thomas Owens, now Superintendent Owens, was the first engineer to pull in. The first conductor was Henry Black, who is now dead.

The first train of ore loaded in Soudan and the first pound to go to the same was wheeled up on a wheelbarrow by a man named John Wolf who was allowed this great honor, while every citizen in Soudan at that time heaved in a chunk by hand—”for luck.” There were ten cars in the first train and ordinarily the train would have gone out on Friday, but the date of shipment was changed as Friday was considered unlucky and so Thursday was decided upon instead. From later returns one can tell whether Thursday has been lucky or not. It was a gala day and everybody was there. The Indians came and gave one of their powwow dances in the altogether. The son of the man after whom Tower was named was there and gave the Indians presents to placate them and to enthuse them kindly towards the white men. In those days the white man was in the great minority and it was a William Penn act in thus dealing with them. Mr. Tower, Jr., afterwards became ambassador to Belgium where he remained for many years, later resigning and coming to America to reside in Pennsylvania where he is now seeking the governorship of that state.

The first year of mining in this district about 63,000 tons of the best metal in the country were shipped out. Later in the shipments increased for a time, and at one period it is said that in 1890 there were 1800 miners on the payrolls of the company, and also there was a population of about 7,000 people in this neck of the woods.


It may be of interest to some to know just how the Iron Range rail road came to be extended from Tower Junction to Tower. The road was built as far as Soudan long before it reached here. Sellers & Owen, who built the first saw-mill here were obliged to haul their product to Soudan by team that it might be loaded on the cars for shipment to market. This was an added expense and also quite a task at times as the roads were not then as now. And so this company decided to ask the Iron Range officials to extend the line to Tower. The officials told them that for $2,000 spot cash the road would build into Tower. This was a poser as that amount of money was a rare sight to them. However, being pioneers and good fighters they struck out  among their friends and see if the amount could be raised. It was a hard fight and they met up with great discouragements, but in the end they succeeded. J. D. Murphy dropped a hundred dollar bill into the hat. Richwine & Murray put in two hundred. Oppel & Sons did their share and finally when it came to a showdown they were yet $68.00 shy of the necessary amount. Then Capt. Morcom says to them, “Bring on your railroad, I’ll furnish the sixty eight.” and the road was built to Tower. The Iron Range officials were fair about it and told them that the two thousand would all be returned to them again in freight bills on all outgoing freight. And it was done by them as said.

It will soon be thirty years since Mr. and Mrs. Albert Holter came to Tower. They came on the rail road but they are pioneers of the early days. Mr. Holter is the engineer at the North American mine and has a fund of early day stories that are interesting. He has drilled this country for iron and at one time he thought he was about to lose his scalp. There were at that time some 1800 or more Indians in the district and some white men had stolen blankets from an Indian home. Mr. Holter was in the bottom of a test pit when upon looking up he saw the mouth of the pit rimmed with red faces all peering down at him and apparently in need of another scalp. It looked bad for a minute but the men who took the blankets were found and made to deliver them back and All was serene again. In those days a man named George Wheeler was the government blacksmith over on the reservation and the drills used were required to be taken across the lake in a rowboat for Wheeler to sharpen. This was a trip requiring a couple of days to do. Today the drills are sharpened with a machine faster than a dozen men can do it by hand. The first compressed air drills came in about 1886 and were not met up with favor by the men as it took their work from them. It is said that the first air drill made a hole three feet in three days—with no fault of the machine, either. It cost Mr. and Mrs. Holter $6.65 each as carfare from Superior to Tower by rail in those days. What a roar today from us if that rate were charged.


The first steamboat on Vermilion lake was a sidewheeler and plied the waters of the lake in 1886. It was built by the Linch Bro’s. and the boat would carry perhaps fifty people. On July 4, 1886 it carried a load of excursionists out to Birch Island for the day, and the round trip fare was a dollar. The remains of the first sailboat may yet be seen in the marine graveyard along the lake near the present planer building of the Trout Lake Lumber Co. The lumber to build this boat was all whip-sawed. To a Klondiker the word whip-sawed has its significance. Two men and a cross-cut saw do the’ saw-mill act. One stands on the log, and the other one stands beneath it. The log of course being held up off the ground on tall wooden horses. One man pulled down and the other up on the old saw and thus rudely cut out boards or lumber of any size that was needed or the log would produce. It was a hard way to start a lumber yard, but it was the only way then. The nails to build this boat were all band forged as no nails were available nearer than Duluth and then they need be packsacked here to get them.


The first white child born in this vicinity came to Mr. and Mrs. Wm. LaBeau. It was a son and who is now chief of the Ely police force. As a reward for this great honor, the patriotic citizens of this city gave to the lad a city lot free.


One may talk of high-priced land in Iowa and Illinois today but these are faded off the map right, here in Tower, and thirty odd years since too. Sellers & Owens bought eight acres of land from the Minnesota Iron company upon which to build a saw-mill. The price paid for it was $250 an acre. The land was the home of bulrushes and bullfrogs and is yet for that matter as it lies between the depot and the local sawmill of the Trout Lake Lumber Co. A mill was built here the second one, as the first one burned down. Here it was on July 6, 1887 that Mr. Sellers was killed. It was shortly after dinner that the mill started up and An a few minutes a swiftly revolving saw bursted and killed him.

Dick Cullen was in town this week looking over the scenes of his earlier actiyities. Mr. Cullen well known to many in Tower. His hair is white and Father Time showing its handiwork on his physique, but his heart is as young as it was in 1883 when he toted from Duluth to Tower a couple of hundred pounds of “chuck” together with a toboggan and snowshoes. He walked all over Tower looking at the old places now much changed by age, but the same to him as they once were. He is interested in some timber land near here and is here to look it over. He had on a cruising outfit and presented look of the days when men were indeed men to penetrate this lonesome wilderness in search of wealth.

Mr. Cullen came on his first trip on a land hunting expedition. There was a big land sale on in Duluth. He was the first one to get here and got his pick of the best at that time. He was a much younger man then and the hardships of those days were as nothing to one of bis build and nature. In his wanderings here he goes to the spot where the first building was ever erected in Tower and showed a NEWS man the rotting remains of the first house to be built here. It is there yet, but its history is to be written. Over the hill from the Iron Range depot a short distance the scene of the mining days activities is brought back again. Here Mr. Cullen stood and related that he arrived at that spot one cold night in February 1883, with deep snows on the ground. The Minnesota Iron Mining company had built the house to house their men, about fifty in number. The building was of logs and with possibly half of it floored with hewn logs for a floor. Inside was comfort, cheer and something to eat. But he was told that they did not keep prospectors, cruisers or anyone but their own men and told him to hike. Tired, hungry and cold, Cullen loaded his 200 pounds of baggage on his toboggan and donned his snowshoes. It was three miles to Donaldson’s place, the then Indian agent. The trip was of necessity made, as to camp out then without shelter was to perish. He arrived at the agency in due time but about half perished. At that time there were some 800 Indians on the reservation and Mr. Cullen says they were Indians and to him they looked to be at least eight feet high. They had not then been “Christianized” and were truly magnificent men. But the process of robbing them of their health had begun for there was whiskey among them when he arrived. With painted faces and their war bonnets on, they were preparing to slaughter the handful of white men in the district. Cullen says he believed himself to be about to be scalped at any moment as the Indians were dancing their “Hooyah Heyah whoop” songs and things looked bad. He got out of there pursued by a horde of them who stole a mackinaw off of his toboggan as he ran. For thirty miles into the great lonesome he snowshoed on up into 67-15, where he located ten forties. He had “stepped” the distance all the way that he might 6nd the old surveys, which he did, not missing the marks of the engineers of fifteen years previously but a short distance. But he got his land, which together with timber and all he purchased went later for $50 per forty and cleared up $2,500 on the trip. Cullen was offered $3,0011 year by Warren & Co., of Minneapolis lumber men to cruise this country for them but did not accept the job. Tower he thinks is one of the natural beauty spots and always he has kept its memory green and with hopes of some day going over again the places he once dared to negotiate when white faces were far apart.

While standing watching the great trip hammer at work in the Soudan shops not long since, Frank St. Vincent, who for thirty years has been an employee in the shop, related to a News man the story of the day, now eighteen years agone when the shop was a slaughter house and three men were lying dead on the shop floor and several other workmen cut, bruised and bleeding strewn here and there over the place.

It was eighteen years ago the 17th of March, last, when the aw-slaughter occurred. Some of the men of that day are in the shops today, wearing the scars of that memorable time. The old trip hammer, the innocent cause of death and injury, still stands as for thirty odd years it has pounded metal in to shape as directed. Not a scar remains on it from the awful explosion which followed one of its blows in the long ago. Here and there about the shop are dents and holes grim reminders of the day when blood flowed there as in war. The workmen who survived, shudder today as they look at these dents and marks, souvenirs that remind them, sadly, of the day on which they were placed there with so much force.

In those days it was customary to break up all old gaspipe and it was usually done under the trip hammer. A crew of men were at work doing this when the death call came. A blow on the gaspipe from the hammer and Hell broke loose on the instant.

Men were blown over and whirled like leaves before a storm. Pieces of gaspipe richocheted about the shop and there were dead and dying on all sides.

Some miner had concealed dynamite in the pipe and the hammer blow had revealed it when too late.

Strange as it may seem, the one holding the pipe under the hammer was not killed. His feet were filled with pieces of gaspipe, but otherwise he was uninjured “Kid Nettle” held the pipe for the hammer to hit. The trip hammer kept going right along pounding as no one was left to control it. Frank St. Vincent recovered first and returned from where he was blown, and shut the hammer off Charles Nelson, “Hoboken” Williams and Jake Recheiver were dead, William Morehead had the veins of his neck severed and he was taken to the hospital in a wheelbarrow. Frank Cundy was badly hurt by flying scraps of gaspipe. Frank Mohaving had a hip bone cut out; Willian Martin’s legs were ripped open; Joe Scallar’s head was cut badly; a man named Overstein had his fingers cut off, and blood was spattered everywhere.

Today the old pipe left is laid away in the loft over the office on the hill. But few know it is there or the murderous history it had a thrilling part in once upon a time.

It is needless to say that no more pipes are broken up in that manner today or since.

Who the party was who placed the dynamite in the pipe will probably never be known. Whether it was done maliciously of course, it cannot be said but it was an awthing to do, and a warning to all who handle the deadly stuff to be careful with it.