Duluth road project unearths 55 empty coffins, with a unique backstory

Hundreds lived and died at the St. Louis County poor farm, and many more were buried in its cemetery.

Hundreds lived and died at the St. Louis County poor farm, and many more were buried in its cemetery. St. Louis County

Last summer, a Duluth road crew was hard at work on the east side of Arlington Avenue, just south of Arrowhead Road. They were preparing to do some major reconstruction on Rice Lake Road in 2020. They were not prepared, however, for what they found.

Buried in the ground were 55 coffins. They were all eerily empty. The only human remains was a single human leg bone.

St. Louis County Engineer Steve Krasaway wasn’t available for comment, but he told the Brainerd Dispatch he was caught off-guard, though only momentarily. The backstory was over a century in the making.

Before we had any kind of federally mandated social welfare, it was up to the states to make sure people who couldn’t work – the “aged and infirm poor,” as an 1890s Minnesota historian put it -- the county poor farm was born. Tenants would work to the extent they were able on a public patch of land and produce food and materials they needed to survive.

In 1872, the Duluth Cemetery Association and St. Louis County purchased 160 acres of woodsy land for its own poor farm and a “pauper’s cemetery” known today as Greenwood. The first pine timber structure built there housed up to 36 people. Two years later, the facility had a functioning farm capable of producing a 400-pound yield of potatoes.

St. Louis County happened to be one of the handful in Minnesota to make living on the poor farm a condition of government relief. As the commissioners resolved in 1873, “no provisions [would] be allowed nor any help granted any parties in this county other than those residing at the Poor House.” And for quite some time, that was no small ask.

Conditions varied over the decades, from years when overseers complained of too little food to articles in the Duluth News Tribune in the late 1890s claiming the poor house was “only fit for a barn and [would] soon have to be abandoned.” There was a pervasive fear among the county’s elderly of the day they’d be carted “over the hill to the poor house” to live out their days in drudgery until they were finally planted in the cemetery.

By 1947, about 5,000 people were reportedly buried at the farm, struck down by typhoid, alcoholism, heart disease, or an accident during childbirth. Most, but not all, were tenants. Others died elsewhere – like the county’s Nopeming nursing home -- and were buried at Greenwood for lack of any family to claim the body.

You can still find graves marked haphazardly – “Baby Boy Enghusen” who died the day he was born in 1939, or “Indian Grasshopper,” dead in 1898. The county has long since stopped trying to distinguish whose grave is whose.

In the 1960s, road crews set out to widen Arlington Avenue. More than 100 bodies had to be removed and placed in a mass grave in another part of Greenwood. These 55 coffins – and the unfortunate leg bone -- are just the detritus left behind from the mass migration of Greenwood’s dead.

Even if there was no one to claim the dead then, the county claims them now. The coffins remained where they were, and a team of archaeologists will scour the dirt to make sure there weren’t any remains hidden among them. The county also notified the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, in case the missing bone or any other remains might be one of their own.

Work on the site has since resumed. The crew has shortened up the project by about 300 feet on Arlington Avenue to further insulate the cemetery.

They don’t think they’ll discover anyone else, but if they do, they’ll simply have to stop again. These are “real human remains,” Krasaway told the Dispatch, and they must be treated “with respect.”