Duluth’s Emerson School, named for poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, served the Central Hillside, or Observation Hill, neighborhood as an elementary school at 1030 West Third Street for over 90 years, from 1892 to 1982. In the early years, the neighborhood around Emerson was largely made up of immigrant families, predominantly Italian-Americans—hence the nickname “Little Italy” for the area around Eleventh Avenue West and Third Street.
The construction process began at the December 6, 1890 meeting of the Duluth School Board, when the board ordered staff to advertise for bids for excavation and construction of the foundation for Emerson School. The school system was also in the midst of building Central High School, so it was a busy time. The need for more school buildings was evident in a statistic that was discussed at the same meeting: the number of children enrolled in Duluth public schools at the end of that November was 3,349, an increase of about 600 over the previous November.
At a board meeting on January 20, 1891, proposed designs for Emerson were submitted by three architects. The board took them under consideration, and at their meeting the next week they announced their acceptance of the plan proposed by architect Adolph F. Rudolph. Rudolph was well known by the board. He had been commissioned to design Endion School in 1889. Later, he would produce drawings for Lowell School in Duluth Heights and in 1901 the Duluth Public Library at 101 West Second Street.
Rudolph’s plan for Emerson was modeled on the Endion plan, with some changes that would make it “architecturally unpretentious, so far as ornamentation goes.” According to the January 28, 1891 Duluth Evening Herald:
The school will cover an area of 8,200 square feet, the four faces of the building being 100 feet long. The slope of the site is such that four extra rooms are planned for the basement, making sixteen rooms in all. The materials to be used are Cleveland gray stone and brick. The cost is estimated at $35,000.
Emerson, according to the school board, would be ready to open to students in January of 1892 and would relieve the crowded situations in both Jackson School (5th Avenue West and Third Street) and Adams School (17th Avenue West and Superior Street).
By April 27, 1891, work on the foundation of Emerson was underway. The foundation work was being done by Fredin and Wilson of Duluth. The heating equipment contract went to C.S. Wentworth Co. of Superior. And the general contractor selected was James McMillan of Minneapolis, who had an office in the Miles Block in Duluth.
At the beginning of the 1891/92 school year, Duluth School Superintendent Robert Denfeld told readers of the Duluth Evening Herald just how crowded the city schools were:
The Jackson School has 452 scholars and is in a very crowded condition. About November 15 we are in hopes of using the Emerson building, which will relieve things somewhat. . .the Emerson school district will include the territory between Eighth and Thirteenth avenues west, although we may have to make it extend as far as Seventh avenue and make the Jackson district come a little further east.
By early November, 1891, the seats and desks for Emerson had arrived and workers were starting to install them. Like all the other Duluth elementary schools, Emerson would have students through the eighth grade. Emerson opened on January 4, 1892.
In May of 1892, Emerson graduated five eighth graders who would move on to Central High School. Emerson added a kindergarten class, taught by Florence Williams, in 1902. Like other Central Hillside elementary schools, Emerson changed to kindergarten through sixth grade when Washington Junior High School opened in 1911.
Just a few years after Emerson opened, there were problems with the sanitary system. The original system was the Smead Dry Closet (U.S. Patent No. 314,884). In 1897 it was replaced with the Smead Automatic Flushing Latrine (U.S. Patent No. 588,609), installed by W. Marquardt & Co. of Duluth. The building was finally connected to the sanitary sewer around 1910 or 1911. There was also a problem early on with a shortage of water in the building. In May of 1892, a water pipe was laid from a spring located at Eleventh Avenue West and the Boulevard down the avenue to Emerson School. Then in 1893 Emerson was connected to the city water main. But there were problems with low water pressure at various times while the school was open.
Some events or incidents that occurred during Emerson’s early years follow:
Maggie Meining, the 12-year-old daughter of Louis Meining, 920 West Fifth Street, died of scarlet fever on December 19, 1894. His other four children had all also contracted the disease. It was rumored in the neighborhood that they had caught it at Emerson and there was talk of closing the school until the contagion ended.
On May 9, 1895, Emerson was struck by lightning during the school day. Some blackboards were shattered, but no one was injured.
According to the Duluth Evening Herald of June 9, 1897, “a revolver in the pocket of Willie Catlin, a scholar in Miss Rasmussen’s room at the Emerson School, was discharged yesterday in the school room, the ball grazing young Catlin’s hand, passing upward obliquely and burying itself in the wall about two-thirds of the way to the ceiling.” Paul Sturm, who occupied the desk next to Catlin, probably escaped injury because at the time he was leaning over to retrieve something from the floor.
At the start of the 1902 school year, Emerson students put on a display of vegetables and flowers they had grown over the summer. That spring, Principal Eleanor M. Thompson had encouraged the students to grow vegetables and flowers to keep them interested and “off the streets during their idle period.”
In September of 1907, Emerson was being fumigated by the city Health Department to avoid an epidemic of diphtheria. Four families sending children to the school had contracted the disease since the opening of the school year.
Antoinette Saucier, an eighth-grader at Emerson, won a national essay contest in March of 1910. The contest, sponsored by The World’s Chronicle, a current-events magazine for young readers, asked students to write and submit essays on “public health.” Her essay, titled “Do It for Duluth,” related positive steps the city had been taking to improve the public health situation. Saucier had just come to America from France two or three years earlier and could only speak French when she arrived.
In 1920, Duluth elementary schools offered evening classes for immigrants to prepare for citizenship. At Emerson that fall, 20 people took the class, which was sponsored by the Italian Ladies’ Social Club.
Emerson underwent some changes in the relatively early years. In 1894, the retaining
wall was built and the grounds around the school were graded and seeded. Later, some improvements were suggested and advocated for by the Fifth Ward Hillside Improvement Club, also known as the Fifth Ward Improvement Club. The club was organized at a meeting on August 2, 1909, and soon began meeting at Emerson School on the first Tuesday of each month. The club was involved with many improvements to the neighborhood, some of which affected Emerson. Beginning in 1912, they advocated for the city to make improvements to what was unofficially known as the Emerson School park, an undeveloped piece of land on Third Street between Ninth and Tenth avenues west that was used by the school. During the winter of 1913/14, the club volunteered to maintain the area for skating. When the city refused to add lights to the rink, the club arranged for lighting to be installed. After much prompting by the club, the city made it a park in 1914 and named it Observation Park.
Another community group concerned about Emerson School was the Observation Community Club, which was organized on February 10, 1921, at a meeting of 75 men in Emerson School. One of their first projects was to sponsor a dance that April at the Maccabee Hall, 21 Lake Avenue North. But they soon took on more serious projects. In January of 1922 they approached the school system with an idea for adding a gymnasium and auditorium and for other remodeling at Emerson. At a meeting with the school board on April 14, 1922, the club recommended “new rooms for the building, an assembly hall, new gymnasium, and the replacement of the present stairways.” The board eventually agreed, and by October of 1922 the board was requesting bids for construction of an L-shaped addition on the eastern end of the building. The work was begun late that year and completed in 1923. The Duluth News Tribune of November 16, 1922, describes the scope of the project:
The plan calls for a gymnasium and shower bathroom in the basement and an auditorium above it. Work has already started on the excavation for the basement. Naufft & Bergstrom are the contractors. In addition to constructing the new building the old building will be completely altered and decorated. The old staircase has been labeled as dangerous, rickety, and a fire trap and will be taken out. A fire-proof, modern stairway will replace it. The old arch entrance of the building also is doomed to go and doorways of the latest pattern will be put in. The gymnasium is to be the last word in recreational halls. Special compartments have been erected for girls’ and boys’ shower bathrooms. The ceiling of the gymnasium will be high, as will be the ceiling of the auditorium.
The total cost of the project, as reported in the 1922/23 annual report of the Board of Education, was $143,059.35.
The newly remodeled and expanded Emerson School served the families of the Observation neighborhood of Duluth for the next 60 years. The school was closed in 1982 and the building sold to a local realtor for $2,500. He converted it to apartments, but in 1993, after failing to pay back taxes of $67,000, forfeited the property to St. Louis County. In 1994, members of the Emerson Tenants Cooperative purchased the school from the county for $10,900, made improvements to the building, and continue to live there.
Issues of the Duluth Evening Herald and Duluth Herald on “Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub,” Minnesota Historical Society, www.mnhs.org.
Issues of the Duluth Daily News and Duluth News Tribune on GenealogyBank, www.genealogybank.com.
“Annual Report of the Duluth Public Schools,” various years, Duluth Public Library, Dul 379.779 D88a.
“Minutes of the Regular Meeting of the Duluth City Council, various years, Duluth Public Library, Dul 352 D88p.
Photograph of Emerson School, 1895, Duluth Public Library slide collection.