Fueled by industry and set amidst the largest iron ore rail yard in the world, the story of Proctor is nothing if not entertaining. But while it is reminiscent of a coming-of-age tale at its core and features a colorful cast of characters, driving plot lines, and universal themes, it really serves a much larger purpose as the real-life account of a community being built and evolving over time. Held close and feeding the beating heart of its community today, Proctor’s history certainly is a story worth telling, but you’ll have to read it to believe it.
The story of Proctor truly began in 1857. This year, William Burt, the youngest son of famous land surveyor and inventor William Austin Burt, walked the area and formally documented it for the first time, noting a land marked with birch and fir trees and laced with streams trickling toward the St. Louis River. Incidentally a few months later, a 14-year-old Beriah Magoffin III accompanied his father and an envoy of Kentucky aristocrats to the Northland. Seeking worthy land investments, the envoy – including then-U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge – toured the banks and hills of the St. Louis River estuary, home to the Ojibwe people, in search of property prospects that could turn a profit. While the month-long tour was cut short by the Panic of 1857, the young Magoffin remembered the area after the Civil War ended and purchased tracts of flat land atop the St. Louis River ridgeline 29 years later. He paid $12 an acre.
In 1890, the discovery of iron ore on the Mesabi Range turned the north woods upside down. And when Duluth’s famous Merritt family sought out land for a rail line connection to Lake Superior, Magoffin sold off 283 acres of his land to serve as the new Duluth, Missabe & Northern (DM&N) Railway car-sorting and maintenance yards, which required a large area of flat land Duluth’s hillside topography couldn’t provide.
Heeding the call of employment, a mass of hardy Norwegian and Swedish immigrants fled to the future rail yard site to start work on the DM&N Railway. Collectively pitching hundreds of white canvas tents to serve as their home base between bouts of back-breaking labor, these workers unknowingly established the roots of a community. While it would soon adopt a different name, this new landscape dotted with white tents was informally called “White City.” And on October 15, 1893, this community’s work, clearing way to lay 36 miles of tracks, came to fruition when the first locomotive – Engine 15 – rolled through town.
But certainly things didn’t stop in the tracks there. Filled with laborers and hosting a huge employment center, the community continued work as daily shipments of iron ore came to the car-sorting yards, which offered a venue for workers to painstakingly prepare shipments before descending to the Duluth port. Hearing about these developments, Beriah Magoffin III – still a prominent area land owner – recognized opportunity. And with incentive to make good on his land investment, he moved his family to Duluth, where he ushered the small railroad settlement into a village and immediately started platting and selling off lands to new owners and entrepreneurs. The DM&N effectively gave birth to the Village of Proctorknott on December 4, 1894. The name was chosen in honor of John Proctor Knott, a Kentucky representative and close family friend of the Magoffins who delivered the popular satirical speech The Untold Delights of Duluth in front of Congress. Following its incorporation in 1894, the village was formally separated from Oneota Township in 1895.
Through rough railroad personalities, high turnover of Village officials, and even stray dogs running through the streets, the Village of Proctorknott seemed to suffer from infantile colic for its first few years in existence. But from 1900 to 1910, the village transformed. With the DM&N at the reins, development prospered as the village population rose dramatically from 783 to 2,600 – over 230% – in 10 years. Right along with the population, a train depot, a YMCA, banks, the start of a business district, new rail yard facilities, and more joined the ranks of the growing community. And in the following decade, infrastructure, government, and a formalized education system took root, adding physical infrastructure that included two new schools, the start of a business district, and enhanced facilities for the railway.
Under continued guidance from the paternal hand of the DM&N, this development continued through the 1920s, when another school, new community athletic fields, and the start of the Proctor Fair (giving way to the South St. Louis County Fair) showed sustained community improvements with some of the hardest days lurking ahead.
The depression years were kind to no one, but the firm financial base of the railway ushered the village of Proctorknott into a new era with little difficulty. Even when the DM&N and the D&IR merged into the DM&IR in 1934, the Railroad prospered. And when turmoil in Europe started churning, so did enhancements in Proctorknott. In 1939, the village name saw an official shortening to Proctor (though unofficially shortened years earlier in 1904), and a paved Highway 2 was rolled out as a smashing new main street for the Village. As World War II erupted in Europe, the domestic iron ore industry (and by association, Proctor’s transit hub) exploded in a frenzy, making Proctor the biggest iron ore-sorting yard in the world. This successful era was driven by none other than the women of Proctor, who stepped into their male counterparts’ shoes in absence of deployed soldiers.
Evidenced by the sound of a steam whistle indicating the end of rail yard shifts and the sight of a hazy glow of iron ore dust in the air, prosperity came of those days, and soon the Railroad’s philanthropy flooded the City more than ever, both directly and indirectly. A new village hall, a golf course, and a clubhouse were developed, often with generous support by the DM&IR. Meanwhile, under the capable hands of Superintendent A.I. Jedlicka, the Proctor School District saw expansion, with the acquisition of Bayview School, development of Klang Park, and district reorganization in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These expansions were met in the schools themselves with quality education and excellence in both athletics and arts, notably with Mr. John P. Moody’s marching band.
But this momentum didn’t last. It couldn’t last. While the war was over and the railroad showed continued business, times were changing. The rise of diesel engines, needing less care and repair, all but made the vast maintenance yards in Proctor an unnecessary luxury. And in 1963, the bygone glory of the old days was memorialized with the donation and installation of a Yellowstone engine, which remains at the center of Proctor today.
Ever since the 1960s, the support toward Proctor has grown more and more reserved. Physical reminders of the Railroad’s generosity – particularly the YMCA and depot buildings – mysteriously disappeared. In the early 1970s, the DM&IR turned its park maintenance responsibilities over to the City. Cherished community programs, like the Francis E. House summer camp for railroad employees’ kids, became a fast memory. Proctor was growing up. And on the heels of its 80th birthday, it became a full-fledged City in 1974, followed up in 1975 by the community’s inaugural tribute to its railroad heritage, the Hoghead Festival.
As continued growth has occurred since the 1970s, alterations have been smaller in comparison to Proctor’s formative years. But without the strong and guiding hand of the railroad, the City is coming into its own. The 1980s saw enhancements to community recreation in honor of Terry Egerdahl, the 1990s ushered in cultural capital upon the City’s centennial celebration, and the early 2000s saw the transfer of the St. Louis County Fairgrounds to the City of Proctor. Its school district, as expansive as ever, has simplified and consolidated its facilities, taking strides in technology as the world has evolved into the 21st century. The turn of the century also witnessed the formation of a more centralized civic center, congregating the community center, a museum, and recreation facilities within steps from the City’s historic business district, showing proof of the City’s abundance of social capital. Meanwhile, news of additions, annexations, and new construction cause occasional tremors in the heart of a population still hovering just above 3,000 and still holding a host of Proctor’s familiar names.
Looking back, the railroad offered a strong upbringing to Proctor. Looking at the present, Proctor may still be finding its footing in the midst of an ever-changing world. But looking forward, Proctor’s roots have created a community that provides a strong foundation for the future. And like anyone, it has come so far, but has so much further to go.
Fueled by industry and set amidst the largest iron ore rail yard in the world, the story of Proctor is nothing if not entertaining. And while it has come of age with its colorful cast of characters, driving plot lines, and universal themes, the Proctor community certainly isn’t done growing. In fact, after nearly 125 years, it has just started.