Read an Excerpt
The Trail from
There ought to be a law against
such scandalous sheets.
—SENATOR GEORGE LOMMEN, 1925
“Wild women infest Superior! Read all about it. Wild women infest Superior!” shouted Iz Cohen. Though the eleven-year-old newsboy had no idea what the headline meant, he kept hawking his copies of the Duluth Rip-saw. Wearing knickers and a visor cap, he paced up and down that Saturday morning in 1924 in front of the old St. Louis County State Bank, making his sales pitch for the five-cent paper until a banker came out, grabbed his papers and chased him away.
That crude act of censorship only affected Isadore Cohen and the Rip-saw’s street circulation; the next act would have all the force of the Minnesota Legislature. Eventually the trail from Rip-saw would stretch all the way to the Supreme Court in Washington. By the time it was settled in 1931, the role of that Minnesota rag in this constitutional drama would be all but forgotten.
Saturday mornings were special in Duluth because that was when John L. Morrison’s Rip-saw hit the street. It was a ragtag scandal sheet in which blazing headlines told of lurid peccadilloes, bootleggers and pols in cahoots with thugs. Outraged at the “unholy and undesirable alliance” between the underworld and officialdom in Duluth, Morrison had decided to resurrect the weekly four-sheeter he had briefly published in Crete, Nebraska. “There is a great wealth of unwritten history lying loose around Duluth,” wrote Morrison in the lead editorial of the first issue on March 24, 1917. “The daily papers are so crammed with advertising that they have no space for it … Then there are a lot of old deadheads sticking in the mud of the old millpond. Right now seems a fitting time to rip them open and see whether they are sound or rotten.” Morrison announced that the paper would be published “when conditions warrant and the head sawyer [editor Morrison] feels like working … A little more steam. Let ’er go, boys. Zip, zip, zip, rip, rip, zip, zip, zip. See the sawdust fly!”
When Morrison migrated to Duluth in 1893, he found a burgeoning city crowded with speculators and prospectors who had contracted mining fever, investing their savings in all kinds of wild schemes and scams, making and breaking fortunes in a matter of minutes. “There was no holding Duluth, thinking in millions, dealing in futures, depending on prospects, building on expectations,” as one historian put it. “The zenith city of the unsalted seas,” its early tycoons called it.
Mark Twain is reported to have remarked that the “coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in Duluth.” With winters of 40 degrees below, Duluth might have remained the sleepy little town which gold prospectors and fur trappers passed by. But Mother Nature had bestowed on it more than arctic cold. The city was a by-product of the vast deposits of iron ore that lay to the north in the Mesabi Range, whose riches lured robber barons, railroad laborers and red-light ladies.
The Mesabi Range (“Sleeping Giant,” the Chippewa Indians called it) was a solid wall of minerals when Leonidas Merritt first discovered the red powdery substance on November 16, 1880, at a site that became known as Mountain Iron Mine. “We are going to build a railway with easy grades for transportation from the mines of the Mesabi to the smokestacks of the Zenith,” Merritt prophesied. Before he could make his dream come true, he and his brothers ran out of cash. After John D. Rockefeller came to their rescue, it was only a matter of time before the Merritts were out and the Mesabi Range was Rockefeller territory. Eventually Oliver Mining Company, with financial support from Andrew Carnegie, formed an alliance with the Rockefellers, and the great ore boom was on. By the turn of the century the Carnegie-Oliver-Rockefeller combination was included in the purchase of the Carnegie equity for a half-billion dollars by a consortium of steel interests, and thus, in 1901, the U.S. Steel empire was born.
Snaking its way for a hundred miles from Grand Rapids in the west to Babbitt in the east and never more than two miles wide, the Mesabi Range gradually became a terraced amphitheater, a series of miniature Grand Canyons hacked out by massive steam shovels as the deep overburden of glacial drift was stripped away. So rich was the iron content in some of the formations that it actually affected the magnetic field on the compass. The statistics are staggering: in its first eighty years, from 1884 to 1964, the Mesabi Range produced almost 2.5 billion tons of ore.
Iron horses were needed to carry the iron ore. Herds of them transformed St. Louis County into a network of crossing, spiraling, climbing roadbeds. The Duluth, Missabe & Northern, followed by other chugging railroads, turned Duluth and Superior harbors into one of the busiest freight complexes and fresh-water harbors on the continent. Ore trains, 180 cars long, pulled by the Mikado and later by the giant Yellowstone mallet locomotives, rolled day and night as the range fueled the insatiable appetite of a steel-hungry nation.
The Mesabi was a sinuous magnet for an immigrant seeking his fortune. In European cities, steamship-line posters lured peasants to work in the Mesabi mines, where the streets were paved with iron, with the promise of gold. First came the Norwegians and the Swedes, then the Slavs, Croatians, Italians, Finns, Germans, Ukrainians, Irish, and Cornish, or “Cousin Jacks,” as they were called. In 1910, more than half of the Mesabi population was foreign-born. Most of the workers were imported from central and southeastern Europe for their brawn and willingness to work in the mines at $2.40 per twelve-hour day.
The immigrants, lonely men without women or a common language, lived in large boarding houses, where they slept in shifts; when the miner on the night shift was working, the worker on the day shift slept. The mines operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. As mining operations expanded, towns or locations sprang up. Eveleth, Buhl, Hibbing, Chisholm, Virginia, Biwabik—it was a Midwestern scene with a Wild West flavor. “The range towns were one long mining camp, the kind you see in the movies. It was a gold-rush town—every detail right down to the gamblers in their striped pants. There wasn’t one single thing missing, even down to the pimps.” The miners would come into town every Saturday—payday—in search of women, gambling and booze. Prostitution was frowned upon but tacitly tolerated, and the women were medically inspected by municipal health officials.
The more ore the miners dug, the more they found. The yield from the open pits was so lucrative, the method so efficient, that miners’ homes, sitting on rich lodes, had to be purchased at inflated prices by the mining companies and literally lifted to new towns built on the overburden, or dump, in order to mine new deposits.
By the turn of the century Duluth had become a company town, made wealthy by the network of railroad lines and the throbbing terminal of hissing locomotives, clanging cars and fleets of deep-bellied whaleback boats that moved the ore across Lake Superior to the belching coke ovens of Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Gary. The city had flowered into its own golden age of elegance. Minnesota’s irreverent novelist Sinclair Lewis must have had Duluth in mind when he located that bumptious booster George F. Babbitt in a Midwestern metropolis called Zenith. Even the family name is derived from the town of Babbitt in the Iron Range country. It was a time when rambling Victorian mansions kept vigil over the city from the elegant Heights overlooking Lake Superior. The lucky few, those who had made their fortunes from the toil of many, lived lavishly on the best that Duluth could import.
But the golden age of elegance began to tarnish as the rough-and-ready character of the range crept into the city. Crooked politicians forced immigrants, many of whom could not read the ballots they were told to mark, to “Vote early and often.” Bordellos flourished, and alliances sprang up between lawmakers and lawbreakers.
It was not exactly the type of community in which a teetotaling, strait-laced Midwesterner like Morrison would feel comfortable. A newspaperman by trade, Morrison had drifted from his hometown, Tabor, in Iowa, to cities in Nebraska and Missouri plying his journalistic skills, and had eventually come north to work for the Duluth News-Tribune. Tall, balding and with a twirled handlebar mustache, Morrison was a puritanical Christian of courtly dress and manners. He had the righteous indignation of such muckrakers as Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, but was more self-righteous reformer than investigative reporter.
Early issues of the Duluth Rip-saw were hard-driving but temperate. The Rip-saw’s primary target was John Barleycorn, and all antiprohibitionists were its enemies. The column “Sawdust and Shavings” poked gentle fun at local politicians. Morrison’s favorite targets were two-bit political hacks and corrupt policemen. In fact, in its first year of existence, the Rip-saw managed to help oust Chief of Police Robert McKercher and “King” Odin Halden, city auditor, both of whom had been unceasingly badgered by the Head Sawyer’s pen. Morrison fought for streetcars, public toilets and higher pay for policemen.
The Rip-saw was relentless. Once it had a victim in its sights, it didn’t stop until its prey was wounded. And all this was done with sharp albeit prudish wit. Fashionable ladies, the daughters of robust pioneers, would be driven down in their carriages, already yielding to Pierce-Arrows and Packards, to pick up the Rip-saw in reserved plain brown wrappers while the hoi polloi gobbled them up from newsboys. Morrison was also a heavy-handed circulation pusher. He was enraged when news dealers ran out of copies of the Rip-saw, and once scolded his Hibbing agent: “We had the stuff that sells papers, and you did not take full advantage of it. Such failures discourage a publisher from digging up special stuff. Eternal vigilance is the price of getting all the nickels out of newspaper sales.”
Although the Rip-saw’s masthead indicated a second-class mail rate, Morrison shied away from delivery by the U.S. mails, fearing interference by prim postal inspectors pressured by the proper Duluth establishment. The Rip-saw was a hot item; each of the 5,000 copies passed from household to household, and even to the Kitchi Gammi Club, the elite social club on East Superior Street overlooking the harbor. There were few returns to the publisher.