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 25 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.
Share your steep-street stories and memories – and tell us if there’s a steep street missing from these lists – by posting a comment.