The Untold Delights Of Duluth

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On January 27, 1871, a forty-year-old congressman from Kentucky sought recognition on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. Upon being recognized by the Speaker, the Honorable James G. Blame, the congressman expressed dissatisfaction with the amount of time he had been allotted on past occasions and so requested, and was granted, one full, uninterrupted half hour to speak his mind. The congressman was a Democrat, an able lawyer, ambitious, learned in the classics, and generally well liked by his colleagues. He also had a name that seemed designed especially for being chiselled in stone or signed with a flourish on documents of state. His name was J. Proctor Knott.

Still, despite all this, J. Proctor Knott was little known outside Kentucky’s Fourth District or the cloakrooms on Capitol Hill. In the next half hour, however, addressing himself to an obscure bill then before the House, he would change that. He would take up the question of whether federal lands ought to be given to the St. Croix and Lake Superior Railroad m order to build a new line that would run from Hudson, Wisconsin, on the St. Croix River to Superior, Wisconsin, located at the western end of Lake Superior and, as it happened, close by a scraggly Minnesota village of some three thousand people, called Duluth. Congressman Knott’s speech would be filled with faulty facts and bad logic. But no matter. In an age of elaborate and energetic oratory it would be talked about, printed and reprinted, quoted and misquoted, for years to come.

According to the Congressional Globe , Knott was interrupted by “laughter,” “great laughter,” “roars of laughter,” and “shouts of laughter” a total of sixty-two times. Once he had finished, the bill for the railroad was as dead as it could be, and he had made famous, by mistake, little Duluth, which the railroad never meant to put on the map in the first place. The speech immediately appeared in newspapers the country over and was published separately numerous times by private individuals. For several years it was handed out as a memento in the dining cars of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In the l8()0’s, by which time Duluth had become a city of thirty thousand people, the chamber of commerce published the speech to show that what had once been said “in ridicule and derision” had turned out to be facts “in reality.” By the turn of the century the speech had appeared in at least three anthologies of American oratory.

As for J. (for James) Proctor Knott, he served two more terms in the House, later became governor of Kentucky, and spent his last years teaching economics and law at Centre College in Danville. Once he went to Duluth, to be received at a banquet in his honor. There were no hard feelings in “the J^enith City of the Unsalted Seas,” as it was known by then. But never again did Knott reach the oratorical heights of the Duluth speech, which, perhaps to the detriment of his political career, left him marked as a humorist. Vice President Adlai Stevenson, whose grandson would experience a similar problem, wrote m his memoirs of Knott’s extraordinary wit and his talents as a raconteur, describing an evening of yarn trading with Knott and Graver Cleveland, after which the President exclaimed, “It was a delight beyond compare.” And another of Knott’s comrades, the actor Joe Jefferson, said, “That man Knott is the greatest natural actor I have ever known; if he had gone on the stage he would have eclipsed us all.”

Mathew Brady’s portrait (page JQ) suggests that Knott may have had difficulty eclipsing almost anyone. It was also charged, years after the speech, that Knott had had a ghost writer. The “evidence” was only that Knott never gave another speech that was anywhere near so funny. But if one were to judge Knott by the Duluth speech alone, which seems fair enough, his name deserves a place m history. It is also intriguing to imagine how he might eclipse some of the congressional spellbinders of our own day. After you have read his speech, imagine, for example, how J. Proctor Knott might address himself to the proposition of going to Mars or to the building of an S.S.T. There is every chance, of course, that he would be as mistaken about them as he was about Duluth; but certainly what he ould do for the human spirit would be as welcome now as it was that January day a hundred years ago.

After addressing himself to the Speaker, Knott spent the first few minutes of his speech establishing a picture of the country through which the railroad was to pass, which he did mainly by quoting from previous testimony on the subject. The picture was one of bleak, sandy, godforsaken pmelands, which, he reminded his colleagues, one expert from Wisconsin had called “quite valueless.” But all the same, Knott said he had nothing but the greatest enthusiasm for getting on with a railroad there, even though he had long had some doubts about the value of railroads in general. And then he commenced to explain why: