July 2006
Lake Superior Magazine

Not-so-secret Twin Ports Treasures
Hometown Boy Paul Lundgren’s Off-beat Tour

Call me Paul.
Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my ashtray, and nothing of interest on television, I decided to wander among the less-traveled parts of the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin. It is a way to explore my home turf and parody a classic whale-chasing adventure novel.

Fear not, dear reader, for the Herman Melville in me lacks the stamina to drone on for several hundred pages. I’ll be as brief as possible, for my sake and yours.

I am a lifelong Duluthian who has spent a great deal of time exploring his hometown and its neighbor across the bay. I have accumulated some peculiar travel suggestions because I am a peculiar man. Let’s begin.

Our Playing Field
Thanks to perfect histories of economic booms and busts, Duluth and Superior have developed a blend of big-city amenities and undeveloped forests that even lifelong residents never reconnoiter fully. It’s an ideal balance of historic architecture, occasionally bizarre commerce and parks, parks and more parks.

I’m assuming you are familiar with the more obvious attractions: the Duluth Lakewalk, Glensheen the Historic Congdon Estate, Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center, Spirit Mountain, Great Lakes Aquarium, Lake Superior Zoo, Willard Munger State Trail, Fairlawn Mansion & Museum, Skyline Parkway and so on. Wonderful sites all, but our quest is for lesser-known attractions.

To really know the Twin Ports is a lifelong journey. To come even close to finding most of what is worth experiencing requires either skipping an awful lot of workdays or convincing someone to pay you to write about your adventures. (I prefer a mix of both.)

Accepting that there will always be more to see and do, I now reveal a few hidden treasures of Duluth and Superior. Hold on to your hats, there’s some geographical hopscotch going on here. You might experience some turbulence.

Natural Attractions
Wisconsin Point vs. Minnesota Point – Let’s begin at the two spits of land that nearly connect the two cities and form the natural entry into the harbor from Lake Superior. While Minnesota Point is a well-known attraction with a beautiful sand beach, Wisconsin Point often is a forgotten twin. But Wisconsin Point has a lot of things going for it.

Perhaps a point-by-point comparison is the best way to make the argument that these two sandbars are equally remarkable.

Housing: Minnesota Point has about 500 homes. Wisconsin Point has two lighthouse-keeper residences. Advantage: Wisconsin.

Lighthouses: Wisconsin Point has a 90-year-old lighthouse at the shipping canal between the two cities. Minnesota Point has a crumbling, decrepit, 148-year-old lighthouse in the middle of the woods, along the Park Point Hiking Trail. It was saved from demolition because it marks the official Zero Point for all surveys of Lake Superior and is the oldest remaining architecture in Duluth. Advantage: Minnesota on that one.

Traffic: Minnesota Point has about as much traffic as a normal street in Duluth, sometimes congested when the Aerial Lift Bridge is up. Wisconsin Point generally has two to nine cars at any given time. Advantage: Wisconsin.

Public beaches: Minnesota Point has several public beaches, including one with a beach house, volleyball courts and lifeguards. Wisconsin Point has no designated public beach; it’s all wide open with no artificial amenities. Advantage: Kind of a tie. It depends on what you’re into.

Like the Wisconsin Point vs. Minnesota Point debate, Superior stands in the shadows of Duluth when it comes to parks in general, but it shouldn’t. Sure Duluth has more parks – over 100 of them, amounting to more than an acre of park for every seven residents, according to city figures – but the Superior Municipal Forest is as good as, and bigger than, any park in Duluth.

With 4,500 acres of wilderness, 16 miles of trails, and a sweet archery range, there’s plenty of room for hikers, bikers and dog-walkers in summer or skiers, snowshoers, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers and ATVers in winter or birdwatchers and other outdoor enthusiasts all year round.

The Millennium Trail is quite short for a paved bike trail at only 1.6 miles, but other trails tangle through every section of the park, at points following the shorelines of Pokegama and Kimballs bays, providing magnificent views across St. Louis Bay to Clough Island and Duluth.

I recommend the 4-mile-long Chase’s Point loop trail, with views of Spirit Mountain and Clough. If you’re lucky, like I was once, a woodpecker will follow you for about half a mile.

The Superior Municipal Forest is most frequently accessed from the north, via Billings Drive. There’s also a tricky-to-locate eastern entrance on 42nd Street, but if you’re looking for Chase’s Point you’ll want to leave Superior-proper on Highway 105 to Oliver and use the south entrance on Riverside Drive.

As long as you’re out this way, you might as well head over to Gary/New Duluth via the Oliver Bridge.

Completed in 1918, this double-decker highway and railroad bridge carries rail traffic on its upper deck and auto traffic on its lower deck. You can’t actually see a train above you while driving across, but you sure can hear it.

Although the bridge has become less of a novelty since its timber planking was replaced in 2001 with steel-reinforced concrete, overall it still looks quite a bit like the relic it is.

One warning: The political beliefs of Oliver Bridge graffiti artists do not necessarily represent the views of the cities of Duluth and Superior, their people, Lake Superior Magazine, this author or any mature person.

Now, back to our journey. Once you’ve crossed the bridge and landed in Gary/New Duluth, you won’t want to miss the local gun emporium.

Shopping & Touring
Located in a former bank, complete with the original vaults, the Puglisi Gun Emporium may look like a firearms museum, but there’s no admission fee and everything’s for sale.

Though Jack A. Puglisi and his son John are mainly purveyors of shotguns, it’s easy to see they’re open to carrying a variety of unique items, from birch-bark canoes and woodcarvings to paintings and bronze statues.

One recent acquisition is a set of 200-year-old armor for an Indian war elephant. It’s displayed on a wrought iron manikin that stands about 9 feet high. The armor is believed to be one of only two sets on public display in the entire world.

Another recent acquisition is a Colt model 1883 Gatling gun worth about $185,000.

John said that through the years the emporium has carried guns used in the Revolutionary War, Civil War and World War II, as well as guns that belonged to famous people like Benjamin Rush, Clark Gable, Robert Stack, Gary Cooper and John Philip Sousa.

Merchandise generally comes and goes pretty quickly, but John says the elephant armor might be kept for a while because “Pop likes it.”

The interior of the emporium itself is a sight to behold. The guns are kept in display cases originally used by Bagley Jewelers in the early 1900s, and the ceiling has four murals depicting a young couple raising a child, teaching him to shoot a bow and growing old together.

John said most of the emporium’s sales are through the Internet to people all over the world. Its doors are closed on weekends and evenings, and the location is out of the way, so there isn’t a lot of walk-in traffic.

“We’re probably better known out of town than in town,” he said.

Next stop down the road is a tour of the Lake Superior Brewing Company. Located in the King Building in Duluth’s West End neighborhood, with no visible signage from the street, this small brewery has been producing quality microbrews since 1994.

My tour guide was Don Brewington (yes, that’s his real name) and the first words out of his mouth were, “Would you like a beer?”

When I called to schedule my tour, Don noted, “the samples flow freer after five o’clock.” So I scheduled a six o’clock tour and was not disappointed.

Brewington’s tour of the facilities and overview of the brewing process take less than an hour, but my group was able to engage him in conversation afterward and draw the experience out to about four hours. The Bob Dylan CD playing must have made three laps before being replaced by the Irish punk band, the Pogues, which really got the party started.

Brewington is one of three full-time employees at the brewery. His jobs are bottling the beer and handling some shipping and receiving. Dale Kleinschmidt is the founder and head brewer, and Levi Hansen is the assistant brewer. The company makes about 60,000 gallons of brew per year and has four main products: Special Ale, Kayak Kolsch, Sir Duluth Oatmeal Stout and Mesabi Red along with half a dozen seasonal brews and High Bridge Root Beer. Almost all of the beer is sold in Minnesota and Wisconsin. New state and city laws allow the brewery to sell you a “growler” of beer or root beer. That’s a 64-ounce bottle with a short but very tasty shelf life.

Nothing goes better with a good beer than a little accordion music, which, for me at least, raises questions about the origins of that Northland standard. In the Twin Ports, the answers to those questions are in Superior.

Helmi Strahl Herrington, Ph.D., has chronicled the history of the squeezebox back to the days before it was squeezed. One thousand of her accordions – purportedly the largest collection on consistent display – can be seen at A World of Accordions Museum in the basement of the Harrington Arts Center.

An accomplished accordion player with a doctorate in musicology, Herrington leads many of the museum’s $10 tours herself. Calling in advance is highly recommended; the tours are generally given only from Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (There are a handful of friendly dogs and cats roaming around the museum, so those with allergies should pack inhalers.)

In addition to the 1,000 accordions on display, there is a wide range of accordion-related items, such as figurines, accordion patents and artifacts. Hundreds of her other accordions are not on display, Harrington says.

A special event this fall will be a traveling exhibit from the Deutsches Harmonika Museum in Germany. Also the Midwest Regional Accordion-Concertina Festival will be held in August, with music performed in the beautiful 1,000-seat Hanni Strahl Concert Hall in the arts center’s main floor.

Finally a little side track of a shopping experience yet to be fully discovered. Heading east just beyond the Fitger’s Brewery building in Duluth is a small shop called Coppola Art Imports. Entering the two small rooms that make up the whole of this store is like walking inside a kaleidoscope of Italian colors. You are surrounded by floor-to-ceiling examples of flamboyantly painted dishware. Owner-artist Antonino Coppola will likely be there to greet you, perhaps with his father who with local friends may be singing along with the Italian folk songs on the stereo. Imported, hand-painted ceramics from all parts of Italy cram every inch, and Antonio will gladly tour you through his home country via the different styles displayed.

Also an artist, Antonio has ceramics that represent Duluth and the region. It will be hard to leave here without a least a wee demitasse cup and saucer.

Eating and Drinking Establishments
It’s no secret in the Twin Ports that the Anchor Bar has top hamburgers and is the ultimate cheap-o dive bar. So deeply established is this knowledge in the local mindset that the Anchor should be disqualified from a list of hidden treasures. But still, it’s one of my favorites, so I’m adding it anyway.

Historically, the Anchor is the oldest drinking establishment on Superior’s downtown Tower Avenue strip in terms of operating under the same name. It’s been called the Anchor since the mid-1940s. Cluttered from floor to ceiling with nautical-related items – including old life preservers, photos of ships, a gas mask and several difficult-to-identify things – the Anchor is known not only for its décor and burgers but also its refreshingly unfriendly service and Monday night beer special ($2.50 pitchers because it’s “Philosophy Night”).

When I say “unfriendly service,” I don’t mean to imply that patrons are routinely insulted; I’m merely conveying that you will not find the T.G.I. Friday’s-style of annoyingly perky college kids doting on you here. You’ll get a no-nonsense woman wearing Brett Farve sweatpants. If you need change for a $100 bill, you will hear a swear word.

If you dislike eating in smoky bars or feel claustrophobic trying to find a table in a cramped room with many sharp objects protruding from the walls, I have other suggestions.

For burgers that many argue are as good as or better than the Anchor, try Gronk’s Grill and Bar in Superior’s Itasca neighborhood.

There’s less of a crowd, a more spacious atmosphere, and faster, friendlier service (if that’s what you’re into). Located beside ATV and snowmobile trails and the customers those bring, the knotty pine and stone wall décor is garnished with outdoor sporting equipment and items like fishing rods and lures. The interior, once with eating spaces resembling small hallways, has been redesigned and opened up.

The most popular menu items, besides the ample burgers, are the variety of shaved beef sandwiches – prepared on site – and the onion rings, which, I’m told by a regular, taste best just before the fry oil is changed.

In summer, there’s cool outdoor entertainment from a chainsaw artist who sometimes works in the parking lot.

Here are a few more:
• Not far from Gronk’s, buried off the main street in a residential area, is Eddie’s World Famous Ribs. Not only are the ribs there fantastic, the classic car memorabilia almost keeps pace with the Anchor’s nautical theme.

• In between Gronk’s and Eddie’s, just off Highway 2/35, is the Choo Choo Bar. It’s actually built out of an old railroad car. ’Nuff said.

• On the more refined end of the spectrum is the Boathouse Restaurant on Superior’s Barker’s Island. The whitefish tacos are the menu item I keep hearing about, but so far I’ve only partaken of the honey-lacquered quail, which is exquisite. The bright, cozy interior with huge windows takes full advantage of its waterside location. Rumor has it that the family schooner will be parked outside for viewing when not touring.

• When it comes to pizza, the established local favorite is Sammy’s, with several locations in Duluth and one in Superior. With all due respect, I think the pizza at the Shamrock in South Superior is a little better, but it’s quite a bit more out-of-the-way – unless you’re on a trip out of Superior to Pattison Park, which you should be.

• Speaking of convenient locations, the Vietnamese Lotus Inn is just a few doors down from the Puglisi Gun Emporium. Not yet 3 years old, the Lotus has quickly made a name for itself by serving outstanding, authentic Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine. During my recent visit I ordered the beef pho, which is a giant bowl of rice noodle soup. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you it’s got to be about a half gallon of soup, and the best I’ve had.

• “Can I get a square meal at a round table?” was the question one old coot recently asked at the Kitchen, a top breakfast spot just a few blocks from the foot of the Blatnik Bridge in Superior. The answer was yes. Great food and Marilyn Monroe cardboard cutouts are the specialties at the Kitchen, open Monday through Saturday from 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. I mention the hours because if you stop there when it’s closed, the place looks like it’s been out of business for years. The nonsmoking section is made up of just one table, but the overall air quality is still good.

• Another great breakfast spot is the Sunshine Café in West Duluth, which has the best omelets in town and menus that are highlighted with multi-colored markers. As with all restaurants in Duluth, it is smoke-free.

• The Pickwick and the Kom-on-Inn are Duluth’s oldest bars. Both are beautiful inside and full of the city’s storied history. The Pickwick, located downtown by the Fitger’s complex, is also a restaurant and somewhat upscale; the Kom-On-Inn, located in West Duluth, is not a restaurant and not at all upscale.

• Every Saturday afternoon, from 3 to 7 p.m., Duluth’s only strip club is turned into Duluth’s only jazz club when Billy D’s Route 66 Quartet takes the stage at the Saratoga Club in Canal Park. This is always a good time, and I’m proud to recommend it, but if you stay for the strip show, don’t credit me as your tour guide. I will deny everything.

Astronomical Adventures
The Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium at the University of Minnesota Duluth hosts free one-hour presentations on most Wednesday nights. UMD professors impart their wisdom and project the night sky on the 30-foot planetarium dome using the Spitz A3P star machine.

The machine can project nearly 1,500 stars and has projectors for the planets, the sun, the moon, the ecliptic, celestial coordinates and even a satellite. There is also a collection of telescopes that are occasionally brought outside for observing.

Left to one’s own naked eye, one of Duluth’s best stargazing locations is Brighton Beach in Kitchi-Gammi Park, near the northeastern edge of the city. The rocky shores provide the perfect ambiance for sitting with your pant-legs rolled up, staring off into outer space and wondering just what this universe expects from you.

And it’s a good place to make out, too.

Whether viewing stars or the lights of Duluth and Superior at night or viewing the lake or its own magnificent gardens during the day, Enger Tower Park is an “attraction” that’s well recognized but not as visited as it should be. The 80-foot tower was dedicated in 1939 by no less than Norway’s crown prince and princess (Olav and Martha, respectively) to honor Bert Enger, the native Norwegian and successful Duluth furniture maker who donated from his estate the land made into the park and the nearby Enger Golf Course. The parks amazing stroll-through gardens, complete with plant-identifying plaques, is a sampler for the variety possible in our northern gardens including dwarf conifers, hostas aplenty and 4,000 daffodils to brighten spring. The tower and the stony bluffs and the cliff-edge gazebo overlook the cities and lake. Picnic sites and grills can be found here and the gravel, wood-chip and asphalt paths are mostly accessible. Good to know for families: there are public restrooms.

The end of this adventure is no end at all – and you probably had your fill of Moby Dick references in the first paragraph of this article – so let me just conclude by saying there are a whale of options in the Twin Ports that go beyond the obvious (unlike my puns). With all the adventure to be found at the head of these unsalted seas, there will always be new things to explore.

It’s nice to know my work is never done.

Paul Lundgren is a freelance writer who was born in Duluth and fully intends to die there.