The steepest streets in Duluth

Looking out over downtown from atop Duluth’s steepest street – Fifth Avenue West, at its intersection with Sixth Street, April 2012. (Andrew Krueger / News Tribune)

This blog chronicles many things that have changed in Duluth over the years, but here’s an entry on something that’s as much a topic of discussion today as it was 50 years ago – the steep streets downtown. They certainly can keep life interesting – take this mishap from 1984.

Back in February 1998, the News Tribune looked at life on what often is cited as THE steepest street in town – Fifth Avenue West, above Mesaba Avenue. Here’s that story:

A DIFFERENT SLANT OF LIFE

PEOPLE WHO LIVE AND WORK ON DULUTH’S STEEPEST STREETS TAKE THE UPS AND DOWNS IN STRIDE

By Chuck Frederick, News-Tribune staff writer

Angela Szymecki leaned into the hillside and climbed slowly to the top of the mercilessly steep street. Her leg muscles screamed as she clutched a railing and reminded herself not to slip. She didn’t want to fall. Not here. Not on Fifth Avenue West, perhaps the steepest of Duluth’s many steep streets.

In a city built on the side of a hill, a city that is sometimes compared to San Francisco, thousands of Duluthians live and work on the hillside. Many of them think nothing of it. They buy four-wheel drive vehicles, take roundabout routes home during snowstorms, and then turn their front tires toward the curb when they park.

But on some streets people can’t help but think about the hill. They can’t help but wonder, “If I fall down will I stop rolling before I splash into the harbor?”

“It is dangerous walking up and down this hill,” said Szymecki, a two-year resident on Fifth Avenue West, which has a 25 percent grade between Fifth and Sixth streets. That compares to a 19 percent grade on the steepest ski run at Spirit Mountain, the Gandy Dancer.

“I slipped just the other day,” Szymecki said of her steep street. “And on just a little piece of ice. That scared me.”

Living and working on the face of a dropoff can be hairy. Concessions must be made to the terrain. Difficulty in moving around during the winter is something you just come to accept.

But it also can be fun, some residents say. There’s something very Duluth about it, something rugged and adventurous, a pride that comes from knowing you live somewhere others don’t dare visit.

Unless they’re looking for an extreme workout, most joggers choose the same route across Fifth Avenue West, rather than up or down the steep street. Between Fifth and Sixth street, the avenue’s grade is 24 percent. (Bob King / News Tribune) Note that many of the trees lining the street in this photo from January 1998 are no longer standing in the present-day view atop this post.

Bruce McLean feels that rush. From the back of Szymecki’s home, his voice is dripping with an attitude flatlanders will never understand.

“Did you mention the goats?” he shouted before stepping into the front room, grinning. “The billy goats we saw walking up here the other day? Did you mention them?”

“Very funny, Bruce,” retorted Luke Szymecki, Angela’s 16-year-old son and Bruce’s friend.

“I rode my bike down that hill once,” McLean continued, still grinning. “Only once. I looked back up and decided to sell it to a passerby at the bottom of the hill.

“My girlfriend is afraid to drive up it,” he said, being a little more serious. “I’ve got to walk down there and meet her and then drive her car up for her. It’s crazy.”

“And it’s just crazy to park here,” Luke said. “I assume your car would just end up at the bottom of the hill every time.”

Mail carrier Jack Harmon has been parking his postal truck on Fifth Avenue West for 14 years.

“It can be difficult,” he said of this portion of his route. “But the city takes pretty good care of the streets and most of the people do real good to keep their steps clear. I’ve gotten so used to (the hillside), I actually look forward to the exercise. I’ve gotten to know the people there so well, too. If I didn’t deliver there, I’d miss our little chats every day.”

Arne Sather delivers mail to the top half of the avenue. He, too, has come to accept the hill as just another part of the job. He has even developed a sense of humor about it.

“The guy who used to have this route, he wound up with one leg shorter than the other,” Sather said, his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. “You have to do the route backwards every couple of days to keep yourself even.

“But the best thing to do is park and walk,” he said, more seriously. “Driving on those hills is tough. There are days you just can’t control the truck there.”

You don’t have to tell that to the city workers who plow Duluth’s steepest streets. Tony Budisalovich has been plowing Fifth Avenue West for 10 years.

“I’ve slid from Sixth to Fifth in a second and a half,” he said. “I’ve done full-circle spins. You just hold on and go. There’s nothing you can do. It’s like on a skating rink. It happens so fast. It’s over with before you can really get scared. But afterward you shake. You just sit there and shake.”

Budisalovich likes to drive his grader backward up the avenue — not because it’s easier to climb the hill, but because he wants to see where he’s going if he should slide back down.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “I’m waiting another three years for another guy to retire. Then I can take his route. Let someone else take a turn at this.”

Shoveling, driving and even just walking can be a challenge on a steep street, says Angela Szymecki, seen here in January 1998. She lives near the top of Fifth Avenue West, perhaps the steepest of Duluth’s many steep streets. (Charles Curtis / News Tribune)

Most of Duluth’s steepest streets are in Central Hillside, Goat Hill and Lincoln Park (West End). But a pair of streets near the top of the city’s steepest list are found over the hill. St. Paul Avenue and Minneapolis Avenue, both in the Woodland neighborhood, ranked fifth and sixth with grades of 20 and 19 percent, roughly the same as the Spirit Mountain’s steepest ski run.

That doesn’t surprise Doug Sanders. He has lived at the bottom of Minneapolis Avenue, near Isanti Street, since 1942, back when the avenue was first nicknamed “Steep Minnie.”

Sanders remembers neighbors throwing ashes from their coal furnaces onto the road to help motorists climb the hill.

“People who lived up there had to get up the hill,” he said. “Those ashes and clinkers helped.”

Sanders also remembers sledding down the avenue as a boy, back when there wasn’t as much traffic and cars didn’t go so fast.

“We’d keep one kid at the bottom of the hill as a lookout, and then down we’d go,” he said.

Kids still play on the hill, zooming down on their bikes, sleds or in-line skates.

“I’ve seen the neighbor kids take their Roller Blades down it,” said Mary Kettelhut of Minneapolis Avenue. “That’s horrifying. I pray no cars are coming across at the time.”

A block over on St. Paul Avenue, the steep hill stopped bothering Jennifer Lewis the day she bought a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Gone are the days when she had to shout into the back seat to remind the kids to hang on because Mom was turning into the driveway.

“We don’t have any problems, but we still see a lot of cars getting stuck here,” Lewis said. “They’ll try to make it up the hill, but they’ll get stuck, so they’ll have to back down, and then they’ll slide and wind up getting stuck in the woods. Then someone has to call a tow truck.

“It is hard to make it up and down some days,” Lewis said. “But it’s where we live. We love it here. We make the best of it.”

- end -

Mail carrier Jack Harmon makes sure he sets his parking brake before delivering mail to a house off Fifth Avenue West in January 1998. After 14 years on the route. Harmon says he’s accustomed to steep streets. “I actually look forward to the exercise,” he says. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

Here’s a list that ran with the story back in 1998:

Duluth steepest streets

Some streets in Duluth are actually steeper than the steepest run at Spirit Mountain. The Gandy Dancer ski hill has a 19 percent grade. These streets are at least that steep:*

Streets and grade

1. Fifth Avenue West between West Fifth and West Sixth Streets — 25% — Rises 80.788 feet in 320.239 feet

2. 17th Avenue West above West Third Street — 24% — Rises 37.616 feet in 158.707 feet

3. W. Seventh Street above Piedmont Avenue — 21% — Rises 54.820 feet in 256.960 feet

4. 19th Avenue West above Old Piedmont Avenue in Goat Hill. — 21% — Rises 42.343 feet in 197.869 feet

5. St. Paul Avenue between Isanti and Anoka avenues — 20% — Rises 51.114 feet in 260.366 feet

6. Minneapolis Avenue between Isanti and Anoka avenues — 19% — Rises 61.307 feet in 318.738 feet

7. West Fourth Street above Piedmont Avenue — 19% — Rises 65.854 feet in 338.615 feet

Minneapolis Avenue in the Woodland neighborhood, seen here in January 2002, has gained a legendary reputation for its steep slope that rivals the steepest run at Spirit Mountain ski resort. The street is usually a haven for kids on bikes, in-line skates and sleds. (Justin Hayworth / News-Tribune)

Here are some other steep Duluth streets:

– Eighth Avenue West above West Third Street — 18% — Rises 58.420 feet in 319.687 feet

– Fourth Avenue West below Mesaba Avenue — 17% — Rises 51.312 feet in 307.957 feet

– First Avenue East between East Sixth and East Seventh streets — 17% — Rises 51.408 feet in 306.421 feet

– Park Street between Livingston and Morningside avenues — 17% — Rises 48.723 feet in 289.757 feet

– West Sixth Street above Piedmont Avenue — 16% — Rises 32.522 feet in 199.730 feet

– 26th Avenue East between London and Greysolon roads — 15% — Rises 46.058 feet in 314.733 feet

– 22nd Avenue West above Piedmont Avenue — 14% — Rises 20.838 feet in 154.139 feet

– Fourth Avenue East from Superior to First streets — 13% — Rises 39.190 feet in 297.699 feet

– 19th Avenue East above Superior Street — 12% — Rises 35.249 feet in 293.994 feet

– 21st Avenue East between London Road and Superior Street — 11% — Rises 35.767 feet in 311.500 feet

– Mesaba Avenue above West Seventh Street — 10% — Rises 38.888 feet in 390.875 feet

– Piedmont Avenue above Seven Corners — 9% — Rises 27.560 feet in 317.032 feet

– Piedmont Avenue below Seven Corners — 7% — Rises 32.743 feet in 437.008 feet

*There may be steeper streets in Duluth than some included here. These lists are not intended to be “Top-10” style rankings. Some streets were included solely because they are well-traveled, allowing easy comparisons to steeper but lesser-known roadways.

Source: The Lake Superior College Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineering Technicians.

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Share your steep-street stories and memories – and tell us if there’s a steep street missing from these lists – by posting a comment.

19 thoughts on “The steepest streets in Duluth

  1. Critical injury last night at bottom of Minneapolis Ave. hill. Long/skate boarder vs. parked car. I will never hesitate to try to talk someone out of this if/when I see someone making their “approach” it again. Lucky he’s alive.

  2. You have first ave listed, I think you MEAN second ave between 6th and 7th streets. Parts of second ave still has cobblestones below 6th street that are showing through the blacktop unless it’s been fixed in the last few years.

    • The list does not include every steep street in Duluth; First Avenue East probably was included because it’s a more-traveled street than Second Avenue East. There still are cobblestones on parts of Second Avenue East.

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  4. I’ve told numerous friends over the years I grew up on the hills of the mid-west San Francisco (1st ave east). With a manual transmission rear-wheel drive, and 6 months of snow covered streets, there wasn’t anything I couldn’t get a car through.

  5. My aunt used to live at the top of Voss Ave. That’s crazy steep! My mom would have to park half way up in the winter and walk the rest of the way.

  6. I grew up on 11th Ave west & Superior St. We attended Emerson School on 11th West & 3rd street…We walked to & from School each day as well as go home for lunch then back. In the winter months we would take 3-4 steps then slide backwards a couple of steps–thats how steep the hill was. We also had to walk in the Ave as steps/sidewalks were not always cleared. We always had to leave home earlier then needed just to make it before the bell went off….Not complaining as it was enjoyed by us all..Fresh air, giggles, friends all suffering the same experience…School–well that was another story.

  7. I remember back in the day when grain semi’s would lose their brakes and. Crash into buildings on Superior or Grand. Ave.

  8. What about Tyrol Street, just off Hutchinson Road, in Piedmont. If you ride a bike south on it, the road literally disappears!

  9. I lived 1/2 block east of 22nd Avenue West on Piedmont. The price I paid for missing a bus to Denfeld was running down 21st Ave West to Grand. It was one of those heart stopping challenges. I never stumbled, but if I had, I always wondered if I would survive. Of course walking back up, which I did one time pushing my cousin’s year-old-child in a stroller was an herculean task. I think one of the reasons I love to come back to Duluth so often is I miss the hills.

  10. We lived at 513 N. 5th Avenue West ( between 5th and 6th street) in the early 1950′s and yes it was a steep! I don’t think it was even paved then, just gravel and a mess both in winter and summer especially after a good rain. I too had the morning paper route on the hillside in that area, it was definitely a walking route. My dad had to park his car at the bottom of the hill there on 5th street in the winter. My sister broke her leg sliding down the sidewalk on the east side of 5th avenue after hitting the pipe upright on the railing there. I was trying to buy my first car in 1955 and while driving up from 4th to 5th street found out the clutch was bad, actually it was a good way to see if the jalopy could make it! Oh yes it was also fun in the winter to look out at the cars coming down Lake Avenue while sitting in class at Washington Jr. High, some were doing 360′s as they slid down the hill. Those were the days….

    • I remember that house was there up till the Model Cities project tore everything down. I believe the foundation is still there.

  11. I grew up on 5th Ave West – below 5th street – and delivered the Duluth Herald 5 days a week and my route took me to 5th Ave West and 6th Street. I took a toboggan ride with a friend from 6th street once, we rode down the gully between the street and sidewalk, my friend flew off when we hit Pittsburg, I hung on an flew through 5th street and then down the middle of the Ave down to Fourth where I came to a stop in a snowpile across the street. We also used the old runner sleds on the sidewalk going down 5th Ave from 5th street and after the Munger terrace entrance we would slalom between two trees and continue into the Munger Terrace front yard. I only did the toboggan run once.

  12. I had Duluth Herald (evening) and Duluth News Tribune (morning) paper-routes from 1962-1965 that covered #2, #3, #4, and #7 hills described in this article–plus a few of those that made honorable-mention. The morning route that started at Joe’s Standard also required me to travel Voss St which should also rank in the Top 10. Another part of the route covered 21st Avenue West between 5th and 6th St that was a treat–later learning to drive a three-in-the-tree H-pattern 59 Ford UP the hill without slipping, burning out the clutch, etc. The paper routes might have been good training…..I’ll do my 16th consecutive Grandma’s Marathon at age 60 this June.

  13. I lived on 4th street where it became a dead end at the top of Goat Hill on 18th ave West. The city plow, after putting chains on, made it to the top of the hill in reverse. I went to give him a cup of coffee, when he informed me that he wished the city would burn all these houses down. It obviously had been a long night in the cab plowing snow.

  14. Back in the days before kids were encased in safety devices (the ’80s), we used to ride down Park Street (Morley Heights) in red wagons. Super fun, but the walk back to the top was a chore.

  15. The Hill on Orange Street in Duluth Heights- I can’t think of the exact address–but as a kid I would slid down this part of Orange Street all winter. This was many years ago. The road has changed since then, kids don’t slid on roads like I did back then.

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