Items of Note Regarding the Historic Duluth Armory & the Spanish Flu

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” — Mark Twain

In 2015 I PUBLISHED the following blog post about the Historic Duluth Armory, which was then celebrating its 100th anniversary. A very early part of that history included the dark events of 1918. Over 300 Duluthians never came home from World War I. Then in the fall, Duluth was quarantined because of the Spanish Flu. Four days after the quarantine, a major fire destroyed as many as 35 communities as it swept through the region on the outskirts of town. The death toll was frightful.

This is the blog post I’d written at that time, worth re-sharing here as we prepare for yet another pandemic.

The life of Bob Dylan is one of legends. The man himself has become something of a mythological figure during the course of his lifetime. One of the signature stories in that legendary life is his trip to Duluth to hear Buddy Holly at the Duluth National Guard Armory the last evening of January 1959. Three days later Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) were dead, killed in a plane crash.

The Armory encounter made an impression on the young Bobby Zimmerman, who referred to it later in interviews as well as in his autobiography. No doubt that tragic crash in an Iowa cornfield made an equally powerful impression. (Read the story here.)

I mention all this because a friend who serves on the Armory board posted on my Facebook wall a link to Zenith City Online noting that on this day in 1915 the historic Duluth Armory officially opened.

From very early on the Duluth Armory has had a storied existence. World War I was in effect, though the U.S. had not fully engaged. Nevertheless the Armory served as home for a full-scale regiment, comprised of the 34th (Red Bull) Division and the 125th Field Artillery.

It didn’t take long for the Armory to get put to use and in 1918 our boys joined the Doughboys to engage in a war many people still don’t understand. 317 Duluth soldiers lost their lives in Europe as a result.

But the worst was yet to come.

That autumn the Spanish Flu epidemic reached Duluth. The flu was so deadly that on October 8 the city commissioners put the entire city on lockdown. People were forbidden from shopping, going to church or congregating of any kind. It was a city-wide quarantine.

Four days after this edict, the Cloquet Fire hit. When I first visited Hermantown (just over the hill from the rim of Duluth) in the late 1970’s, I couldn’t help but notice that there were no really tall trees. I learned then about the Cloquet Fire.

The reality is that the fire burned everything from South to North around the entire outskirts of Duluth. Innumerable homes were lost, and more than 600 died. People who had gone to work that morning were unable to return home that night, many wondering whether their loved ones escaped or were consumed.

Where did all these people go? Most were housed at the Armory and a few other structures where people could be attended to. Unfortunately, the Spanish influenza was in full force, and all these people in one place only contributed to its spread. Over 300 lives were subsequently taken by the flu.

As George Harrison once penned, all things must pass, and certainly these dark clouds of 1918 ultimately lifted after a season. Our current pandemic will also pass, though its impact will likely cast long shadows.


Read: The 1918 influenza pandemic killed thousands of Minnesotans

The Historic Armory Post Card at the top of this page is from the informative Historic Duluth website Zenith City Online, created by Tony Dierckins. Thank you, Tony, for your invaluable caretaking of Duluth’s history.

Information about our tragedies of 1918 came from a presentation by Dan Hartman at the recent Libations at the Library event here in Duluth.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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