Before the days of Interstates (motorways), the USA was criss-crossed by a series of long, long roads with their lengths measured in hundreds and even thousands of miles. Probably the most famous is US 66 or Route 66 running from Chicago, Illinois to St Monica, California, a distance of nearly 2,500 miles. US 61, more often called Highway 61, ran from New Orleans to the Canadian border, more or less due south – north and following the course of the Mississippi. It was over 1,500 miles long when built but nowadays the route really only exists in relatively short, disconnected stretches. It is suggested that the original route provided some inspiration for the great singer songwriter Bob Dylan. It was the route that connected his homelands in the extreme north (Duluth, Minnesota) to the home of the Blues in the deep south.
Being a lifelong Dylan fan and having been born in the same year as himself and being in Minnesota, a trip to Duluth was a must. The chance to see the place where he came from and how it may have influenced his music was not to be missed. So a two day, one night, trip was planned and on Thursday morning Margaret, myself and our son Oliver, set out northbound from Minneapolis on the interstate I35 interstate, which in these parts replaces the old Highway 61.
Our first stop was at Tobies Bakery in Hinckley at about the mid point of the journey. It is, I have read, a required stop for anyone driving between the Twin Cities of St Pauls – Minneapolis and Duluth and the North Shore of Lake Superior. I have never seen so much sugar disguised as pastries in my life. My choice was a caramel roll with pecans. This was made from a flattened sheet of soggy dough, covered in caramel syrup then rolled into a pastry about 6 or 7 inches across and 4 or 5 inches high. Pecan nuts were then stuck all over the surface and icing applied over the top. The whole thing weighed about 10 lbs, or so it seemed. As for calories, there were at least enough for a whole months bodily requirement. And all for about $2.50, approx. £2. Try as we might, none of the three of us could finish our pastries in one go. We drove in comparative silence for the next hour to Duluth.
Duluth is at the extreme western end of Lake Superior and is a major port. At the other end is the Canadian town of Sault St Marie where gigantic locks enable passage of ships, some over 1000 ft long, onwards into Lake Huron and eventually to Montreal and the Gulf of St Lawrence. That is particularly relevant for us as in two weeks time we will be in Newfoundland, smack bang in the middle of that Gulf.
On entering Duluth, we followed signs to the harbour which took us to the oldest part of the city. The old warehouses and offices have been converted into bars, restaurants and tourist shops. The dominant feature is the giant metal lift bridge known as the Aerial Lift Bridge. The bridge is over the entrance from the lake into the harbour. To let ships through, the roadway is lifted vertically between the two metal structures on either side of the water. It’s a fine sight watching a whole roadway, about 400 feet long, being bodily raised nearly 150 feet.
We crossed the bridge and drove along a straight road running between two rows of houses that stand on a long sand barrier that separates the lake from the harbour. The houses ended in some grassy parkland. We stopped and climbed over a tree covered sand dune to reach the shore of the mighty Lake Superior. Although it is called a lake, Superior, which signifies it is the “superior” or most northerly of the Great Lakes, has all the feel of a sea. It is over 350 miles from where we were standing to the other end and about 160 miles wide. The waves crashing on the shore, on this a relatively calm day, were not quite ocean waves but not far short. There were signs that some swimming took place here, but with an average temperature in the lake of 40F (4C), it was not tempting.
By now the effects of the sugar shots of mid-morning were beginning to wear off. So we retreated to the restaurant area back over the Arial Lift Bridge. Our chosen eatery was the Northern Waters Smokehaus, which had rave reviews. They were not wrong. It was rather modestly sited on one side of a converted old office block. There was an option to order for takeaway or to sit on a few high stools beside the window. We chose the latter. NWS smoke a wide range of produce and many were displayed in the chill cabinets. There was smoked hams, smoked salmon, smoked trout, smoked salami, indeed almost smoked anything. Talk about spoilt for choice. I had to have smoked trout and delicious it was served in a big slab in a large ciabatta with fresh salad. The Smokehaus was the kind of place where you wanted to come back again and again and try out all their products.
While eating our lunch, I noticed a poster advertising a train excursion along the North Shore. Being a train fanatic this was very tempting. To my delight the others agreed. It was now well after 2pm and the next and last train of the day was scheduled to leave at 3. A quick car journey and we were at the Duluth Depot, home to the North Shore Scenic Railroad. Tickets were bought and we walked down to the track.
The train consisted of a series of old railcars, all beautifully restored. The car we entered was a Chicago suburban double decker coach. We selected upper deck seats so that we could get the best panoramas.
The train had to back out of the station for about ¼ mile to reach the through line. This first part of the journey took us past dozens of coaches and locomotives waiting for restoration. Once on the mainline, the train set off through the city and onto the northern shoreline of the lake. It bumbled along at no more than 15mph through swanky lakeside suburban housing. A commentary gave interesting information about the history of the line and landmarks that we passed along the way. The line is now little used but in the past it had been primarily for goods trains. Today most of the trains are like ours, for tourists.
The journey was not very long, no more than six or seven miles. The train stopped on the bridge over the Lester River close to the point where it flows into the lake. It then reversed for about ¼ mile to a point where there was a short stretch of double track. By chance, we were exploring the train at this time and were in the carriage that was about to be come the lead carriage. There we got talking to the train conductor who was supervising the coupling of the locomotive.
Jack Kemp turned out to be a retired protestant church minister and messing about with trains was now his absorbing hobby. When we told him about our Scottish roots, he told us that had met Bob Maclennan, the Scottish Liberal Democrat former MP and now member of the House of Lords. They were both young men and were travelling in Turkey, a country that we know well. They got on well and travelled together back to Scotland staying at the Maclennan family seat in Sutherland. An interesting story.
In the evening, as we were setting out for dinner, our route took us along the side of the harbour. The Aerial Lift Bridge was open and looming out of the evening gloom there was a 1000 foot plus bulk carrier, the Paul R. Tregurtha. As I learned later, it is the largest ship operating on the Great Lakes and was carrying coal for a power station in Detroit. It was a fine sight watching it slip through the gap under the bridge and fade out into the waters of Lake Superior on its five day sail to Lake Huron and along the St Clair River to Motown.
In search of a decent breakfast, Fitgers Brewery seemed to have all that was required. The brewery is a large brick building of about five storeys overlooking the lake. Today the brewery part is limited to a craft brewery on the first floor. The rest of the building is an hotel and gift shops. We got a seat in the window of the restaurant with a panoramic view over the lake.
And it was here that we came across the first reference to Duluth’s native son, Bob Dylan. I had been slightly amazed at the lack of references around the city to the great man. At the end of a rather dark hallway there was a display case advertising the Bob Dylan Way. This turns out to be a walking trail through the central area of the city establish in 2006 on the occasion of Dylan’s 65th birthday. Although established with City money, the on going maintenance, signage, etc, is being funded by a few enthusiasts. All rather low key.
Heading along the North Shore on the original Highway 61, now designated a scenic route, took us to the port town of Two Harbors. This has the main loading dock for iron ore. There are two high gantries of around 2300 feet each in length and 80 feet high. Along the top are four railway tracks that carry the trucks laden with taconite (a form of iron ore) and dumps it into pockets or hoppers suspended inside the gantry structure. When a boat arrives for a load it simply ties up to the gantry and the pockets are emptied into the holds of the ship. It’s a very efficient operation as the ore can arrive at any time and so can the boats.
Lake Superior North Shore is a great area for outdoor pursuits. There are plenty of campsites and log cabins. Every few miles there are rivers tumbling down from the Iron Range Mountains to the north. The most dramatic that we saw was the Gooseberry River Falls. For the last mile, the river descends over a series of waterfalls and rapids. There are excellent paths that get you to great views on both sides of the river. Also the underlying basalt rock provides relatively safe climbing for budding mountaineers.
For our last stop we travelled a few miles further along the lakeside to Split Rock Lighthouse. This lighthouse is a little over 100 years old and was in use from 1910 to 1969. It stands 168 feet above the lake and the beacon has a range of 22 miles. The lighthouse was commissioned after a disastrous storm in 1905 which sank or damaged 29 ships in the vicinity. The anchor of one of those ships, the Madeira, is on display. The position of the wreck is marked by two white buoys close to a cliff some ½ mile northeast along the coast.
And so we started the journey back to Minneapolis but not before a brief stop at the Castle Danger Brewery to pick up a few samples of their beers. We bought a couple of Growlers (4 pint glass flagons) and a few other bottles, glasses and memento. It really was now time to hit the trail. This time we took the new US 61, a fast road a little inland of the original.
On the drive back there was time to reflect on Bob Dylan or, more precisely, the lack of Bob Dylan. Apart from the worthy but less than impressive Bob Dylan Way, there was nothing. When he was quite young his family moved north to the township of Hibbing in the Iron Range Mountains. The house he lived in there is identified but not open to visitors although the street is now called Bob Dylan Ave.
One of his songs, “Something there is about you” on the album Planet Waves, talks about “the Great Lakes” and “Walking the hills of old Duluth”. That is the only reference that comes to mind from anywhere in his vast catalogue that talks about his homeland. My guess is that, apart from normal influences of family things, little of his home life influenced his career in music. But one event that happened in Duluth did change his life.
On the 30th January 1959 at the age of 17, he went to a concert in The Duluth National Armory. The star of the show was Buddy Holly. Also on stage were The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. It was two days before the event that has become known as “The day the music died”. Bob Dylan was mesmerised. There is a photograph showing him right at the front, clinging on to the edge of the stage with Buddy Holly looking down at him. He has acknowledged that this was a life changing moment for him.
Later that year he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and a year later he dropped out and moved to New York. The rest, as they say, is history.
I’ve since learned that the Duluth National Armory has been undergoing major renovations. Next week it will re-open as a music resource centre. A fine tribute to Bob in his 75th year.