Reassembling a Ghost

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Dan Turner's Substreet image
Dan Turner's self portrait,

If you could take a time machine to the 1990s and watch Dan Turner walking around with his middle school friends, you’d notice something. While the rest of the guys ambled around the St. Paul train tracks and tunnels, Dan would stop and contemplate concrete chunks and rusty remains of steel doorframes. “In your mind, you can reassemble this ghost,” he says. His ghost is the story told by structures that battled infinity and lost.

As an urban archeologist, Dan, '12, resurrects history using the remains left behind. UMD linguistics instructor by day, spelunker into the past when he’s off the clock, Dan’s driven by equal parts preservation and curiosity. Posts in his popular blog Substreet delve into structures across the country and north of the border; the remains of abandoned malls, universities, insane asylums, ammunition factories, roundhouses, and more. "It gives you a feel for how humans construct the world, and how the world really doesn't care." He says he’s looking for something that can’t be found in historic maps and plans, an answer to why. “Plans cover a chunk of the history, but they don’t cover the why, just the what.”

His mission is to excavate the reason behind the construction.

Jump Down a Manhole

Dan Turner at Ely Peek, photo
Ely's Peak,

Bob Dylan advised, "You better jump down a manhole, light yourself a candle" in "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and it's as if Dan listened to these marching orders. The subterranean happenings of Dylan's native city, especially stories of tunnels that were never built, fascinate Dan and serve as fodder for his Zenith City Online's "Duluth Underground" articles.

If he could place Bob Dylan in the middle of one of these posts it would go viral, but inference is not his game. He can, however, put Dylan in the vicinity of a story that answered "the why" in a Duluth "what." During Dylan's 1998 Grammy acceptance speech, he shared a now-famous anecdote about watching Buddy Holly sing at the Duluth Armory, and there's a chance that the singer-songwriter himself popped out of a manhole and into the scene.

"People told me stories about how kids used to sneak into the Armory basement," says Dan. He was doubtful, wondering how that would be possible. But then he learned about the Chester Creek tunnel running underneath the 1915 building, and it all made sense. "I learned that the tunnel has a little hatch that opens up under the Armory. So if someone knew about the concert, they'd have one person sneak down and let people into the concert for free." As Dan tells the story, he adds a layer, "You can almost see it..." and paints a picture of teenagers in the 1950s wearing puffy poodle skirts, shimmying through the tunnel, trying not to get their outfits wet, and then emerging into the world of the concert.

Dan's talent for emoting history elicits enthusiasm, even in people who had no idea they were interested.

Encapsulating Time

Kayla Feige
Kayla Feige interning at Zenith City Online

The linguistics major had a linguistics-related research project. That's how it all started. A few months later Kayla Feige found herself up to her elbows in 5,000 photos - railcars, flophouses, tycoons' mansions - an illustration of Duluth's illustrious past.

Kayla was curious about the number of foreign language newspapers that were published in Duluth at the turn of the last century. She proposed the project for extra credit in Dan's linguistics class and ended up getting the points and an internship at Zenith City Online.

The popular website curates the region's history and its "this day" posts are highly anticipated inbox material. Dan, a contributor and the webmaster, had been talking with the founder and publisher, Tony Dierckins, about the need to archive their media collection. Impressed with Kayla's work on the newspaper project, Dan nudged his student in that direction and an internship was born.

In some ways it's a rescue mission, as many of the photos Kayla scans have never been digitized. "Right now I'm sitting on a box of 400 original photos with no negatives and no copies," Kayla says, describing a slice of her work. The 400 historic photos were contributed by a Zenith City reader, his personal collection, and it's up to Kayla to encapsulate it. Beyond finding the job interesting, she now borders on Dan's exuberance level. "She'll email me in the middle of the night," says Dan, "writing, 'Look what I found!"

In the same way that Kayla's preserving images, Dan is making sure that regional history doesn't disintegrate. He'd heard many misnomers about Duluth's past and his posts originally started as a way to set the record straight. "I'm just going to write the history," he remembers thinking, "because most of these places are not documented in any way." He's written about Duluth's tunnels, silos, and grain elevators, U.S. Steele and Clyde Iron. His most popular post is about the sanitarium for tuberculosis patients perched on the edge of Duluth, Nopeming.

In the process, the linguistics/historian emerged as a preservationist/advocate.

Written on the Walls

DM&IR in Two Harbors, photo
DM&IR in Two Harbors, photo
Two Harbor's roundhouse,

"History is all about advocating. Sometimes it's passive, through education, other times it's active," says Dan. Similar to how an advocate for the homeless gets to know each person he works with, Dan gets to know each structure he writes about and honors it with anger when it's torn down.

The Two Harbors roundhouse was literally and figuratively the center of the small town on the shores of Lake Superior. It was built in the early 1900s for the Duluth, Messabe and Iron Range Railroad (DM&IR). Within ten years the DM&IR had seven buildings on their 30-acre site, and the operation maintained more than 100 locomotives with 24-hour service.

By the time Dan toured, only eight buildings, including the roundhouse, remained. They'd sat unused for 50 years and he described them as "failing catastrophically."

Two Harbors was built by the rail industry. It started receiving iron ore shipments in 1884 and played a pivotal role in World War II. Zenith City Online recapped the action in Two Harbors at that time: "Ore demand increased dramatically during World War II, and in 1944 the DM&IR docks in Duluth and Two Harbors broke loading records three times. The docks set a forty-eight hour loading record by filling sixty ships with 649,275 tons of ore between Sunday, May 28, and Tuesday, May 30. And they didn’t stop. The following day they broke the seventy-two-hour record when the loading total reached 859,959 tons. And from that Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. until the same time Thursday morning, crews loaded 406,484 tons, setting the single-day record in the process"

"Two Harbors helped win World War II. Very few roundhouses could tell that story, and Two Harbors lost it," says Dan. After much discussion, the Two Harbors city council decided that reuse was not an option. The last remnants were demolished in September 2013.

Phantom Facade

Two Harbors Round House
The Duluth and Iron Range Railway roundhouse and yards in Two Harbors ca. 1910. The high school is in the right background. Photo UMD, Kathryn A. Martin Library, NEMHC Collections.

The Two Harbors roundhouse is gone, but before city leaders ceremoniously started the demolition with a gold sledgehammer, Dan carefully told its story. Many other structures, a power plant in St. Paul, a copper mine shaft in the U.P., an ore dock in Ashland, were also documented by Dan before they disappeared.

For those not as observant as he was, walking the train tracks of St. Paul and noticing the remains of structures that are now gone, Dan reassembles the ghost. Making sure that the structure's story, the why, continues to haunt his readers.

More information:

Zenith City Online

Kayla's Zenith City archives

More about the Chester Creek tunnel and other Duluth tunnels

The Two Harbors Roundhouse in






Story by Lori C. Melton, October, 2014

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