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Tours shine light on dark history

Duluth Experience tour guide Kyle Chisholm leads a Dark History walking tour through Canal Park and the downtown theater district. (Photo by Ryley Graham)1 / 3
Kyle Chisholm uses photos and old newspaper clippings as visual and historical aids throughout the Dark History tour. (Photo by Ryley Graham)2 / 3
Photo postcard of the Mataafa lying wrecked at the entrance to Duluth Harbor after the storm in November 1905.3 / 3

From shipwrecks and pirates to gunfights and murders, there is quite a bit of Duluth's history that goes unspoken. The Duluth Experience tour company aims to expose the taboo portions of local history with the new Dark History walking tours. These tours, running from the Dewitt-Seitz Marketplace through Canal Park and downtown, shine light on the less savory parts of Duluth's past.

"We like to talk a lot about our successes as a city, but there have been a lot of tragedies along the way that are just as important," said David Grandmaison, CEO of the Duluth Experience.

One such tragedy told on the tour is the wreck of the SS Mataafa in the Duluth Harbor in 1905. It broke in half in a November storm, killing nine crew members. Twenty-nine vessels were destroyed or damaged and 36 people died in the storm, which came to be known the "Mataafa Storm." Yet the Mataafa itself was later raised and repaired and it sailed until 1964.

The team at the Duluth Experience collaborates with local historians such as Tony Derkins from Zenith City Online to come up with compelling stories. After laying out a tour, they top it off with old newspaper articles and photos to use as visual aids during the walk. They have three history guides that help put together the tour as well as deliver it.

"Our guides are total history geeks, but they're really good storytellers, which is really a tough combination to find," Grandmaison said. "They can memorize the facts and dates, but they can also weave it all together into a complete story."

The story that unfolds during the tour is a grim one. It discusses influenza outbreaks, drownings and the area that was once Duluth's red-light district. But on top of that, the tour also delves into the supernatural side of Duluth's past in places such as the Nopeming Sanitorium and the Norshor Theatre. In talking about these hauntings, Grandmaison hopes to provide historical context to local superstition.

"We tell true stories and tragedies but we also include a lot about the local hauntings that have been reported," Grandmaison said. "We try to go deep and we talk about the stories behind the hauntings."

Grandmaison estimates that an equal number of locals and tourists take the tour and that both groups of people have said that they learn a lot on the tours. While some Duluthians are skeptical about taking the tour because they live here, many find that there is a lot of local history that they didn't know.

"Most of history is painted these really bright colors," Derkins said. "We have this idea of the good ol' days. But you hear these stories and you realize there was just as much crime and violence back then, if not more."

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