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Hopes and Plans for a Canal Connecting Grand Forks and Duluth


The enterprising people of Grand Forks promoted the idea of a canal to connect their fair city with Duluth. The idea was to make a waterway to carry wheat from the Red River Valley to the Great Lakes and beyond.

The cheapest way to haul heavy goods was by water and the success of the Erie Canal in New York (after 1825) in connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, inspired hopes of a Grand Forks canal.

Early glimmering schemes of making a canal from the Red River to Duluth arose in 1882.

The route to the east would include the Red Lake River through Crookston and thence to the waters of Red Lake and then cutting a channel to the Mississippi River to Lake Winnibigoshish and then to dig through land to the St. Louis River to reach the port of Duluth on Lake Superior.

Critics called it too expensive.

Canal plans bubbled up again in 1892 and 1893. Again, nothing came of it except better knowledge of a potential route.

Finally, in 1899, a Grand Forks lawyer named Ledru Guthrie journeyed to the East Coast and got financial backing from capitalists in New Jersey who formed the Great Northern Canal and Transportation Company.

It seemed that the Red River to Duluth canal might become a reality.

This plan required digging out 150 to 200 miles of channels to connect the rivers and lakes between Grand Forks and Duluth. Ledru Guthrie capitalized the company at $1 million and figured that the canal would be completed after only two years of work.

The canal company publicized its plan as the “greatest enterprise . . . ever conceived” in the Great Northwest, yet was totally “feasible.”

Critics took potshots at the canal scheme, predicting it would cost “several million dollars,” not just $1 million. The Fargo Forum called the canal a “pipe dream” that would never happen.

The Grand Forks Herald editors promoted the plan, but, strangely, on this date in 1899, published an article entitled “The Passing Of The Canal,” noting that the rapid expansion of railways had made new canals look like questionable investments.

The canal scheme dried up, especially since the Great Northern Railroad had completed its tracks from Duluth to Bemidji to Grand Forks in 1898.

The great waterway was a dream that dissolved and became a forgotten hope of Ledru Guthrie of Grand Forks.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Passing of the Canal,” Grand Forks Daily Herald , November 12, 1899, p. 7.

“The Forum is Sorry,” Grand Forks Herald , November 22, 1899, p. 4.

“That Canal: A Company Formed to Connect the River With the Lakes,” Grand Forks Herald , November 18, 1899, p. 5.

“New Water Route In Sight,” Minneapolis Tribune , November 21, 1899, p. 3.

“Grand Forks To Duluth,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune , November 24, 1899, p. 6.

“The Canal Story Sent Out From Grand Forks,” Jamestown Weekly Alert , November 23, 1899, p. 4.

“A Water Way,” Grand Forks Daily Plaindealer , December 2, 1892, p. 4.

“News Comment,” Bismarck Tribune , June 23, 1882, p. 4.

“That Duluth & Grand Forks Canal,” Grand Forks Herald , June 14, 1882, p. 1.

“To The Lakes; The Last Spike in the Connecting Link Between Grand Forks and Duluth,” Grand Forks Herald , August 31, 1898, p. 4.

“Last Spike of the Fosston Branch Driven Monday,” St. Paul Globe , August 27, 1898, p. 2.