A few dazzling words about that emerging metropolis, delivered in 1871 by Congressman J. Proctor Knott. Edited for 1971 visitors by David G. McCullough
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:
Years ago, when I first heard that there was somewhere in the vast terra incognita , somewhere in the bleak regions of the great Northwest, a stream of water known to the nomadic inhabitants of the neighborhood as the river St. Croix, I became satisfied that the construction of a railroad from that raging torrent to some point in the civilized world was essential to the happiness and prosperity of the American people, if not absolutely indispensable to the perpetuity of republican institutions on this continent. I felt instinctively that the boundless resources of that prolific region of sand and pine shrubbery would never be fully developed without a railroad constructed and equipped at the expense of the Government—and perhaps not then. I had an abiding presentiment that, some day or other, the people of this whole country, irrespective of party affiliations, regardless of sectional prejudices, and “without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” would rise in their majesty and demand an outlet for the enormous agricultural productions of those vast and fertile pine barrens, drained in the rainy season by the surging waters of the turbid St. Croix.
… Now, sir, who … who that is not as incredulous as St. Thomas himself, will doubt for a moment that the Goshen of America is to be found in the sandy valleys and upon the pine-clad hills of the St. Croix? Who will have the hardihood to rise in his seat on this floor and assert that, excepting the pine bushes, the entire region would not produce vegetation enough in ten years to fatten a grasshopper? Where is the patriot who is willing that his country shall incur the peril of remaining another day without the amplest railroad connection with such an inexhaustible mine of agricultural wealth? Who will answer for the consequences of abandoning a great and warlike people, in possession of a country like that, to brood over the indifference and neglect of their government? How long would it be before they would take to studying the Declaration of Independence and hatching out the damnable heresy of secession? How long before the grim demon of civil discord would rear again his horrid head in our midst, “gnash loud his iron fangs and shake his crest of bristling bayonets”?
… Now, sir, I repeat I have been satisfied for years that if there was any portion of the inhabited globe absolutely in a suffering condition for want of a railroad it was these teeming pine barrens of the St. Croix. At what particular point on that noble stream such a road should be commenced I knew was immaterial, and so it seems to have been considered by the draughtsman of this bill. It might be up at the spring or down at the foot log, or the water gate, or the fish dam, or anywhere along the bank, no matter where. But in what direction it should run, or where it should terminate, were always to my mind questions of the most painful perplexity. I could conceive of no place on “God’s green earth” in such straitened circumstances for railroad facilities as to be likely to desire or willing to accept such a connection. …
Hence, as I have said, sir, I was utterly at a loss to determine where the terminus of this great and indispensable road should be, until I accidentally overheard some gentleman the other day mention the name of “Duluth.” Duluth! The word fell upon my ear with peculiar and indescribable charm, like the gentle murmur of a low fountain stealing forth in the midst of roses, or the soft, sweet accents of an angel’s whisper in the bright, joyous dream of sleeping innocence. Duluth! ’Twas the name for which my soul had panted for years, as the hart panteth for the water brooks. But where was Duluth? Never, in all my limited reading, had my vision been gladdened by seeing the celestial word in print. And I felt a profounder humiliation in my ignorance that its dulcet syllables had never before ravished my delighted ear. I was certain the draughtsman of this bill had never heard of it, or it would have been designated as one of the termini of this road. I asked my friends about it, but they knew nothing of it. I rushed to the Library and examined all the maps I could find. I discovered in one of them a delicate, hairlike line, diverging from the Mississippi near a place marked Prescott, which I supposed was intended to represent the river St. Croix, but I could nowhere find Duluth.
Nevertheless, I was confident it existed somewhere, and that its discovery would constitute the crowning glory of the present century, if not of all modern times. I knew it was bound to exist in the very nature of things; that the symmetry and perfection of our planetary system would be incomplete without it, that the elements of material nature would long since have resolved themselves back into original chaos if there had been such a hiatus in creation as would have resulted from leaving out Duluth. In fact, sir, I was overwhelmed with the conviction that Duluth not only existed somewhere, but that wherever it was it was a great and glorious place. I was convinced that the greatest calamity that ever befell the benighted nations of the ancient world was in their having passed away without a knowledge of the actual existence of Duluth; that their fabled Atlantis, never seen save by the hallowed vision of inspired poesy, was, in fact, but another name for Duluth; that the golden orchard of the Hesperides was but a poetical synonym for the beer-gardens in the vicinity of Duluth. I was certain that Herodotus had died a miserable death because in all his travels and with all his geographical research he had never heard of Duluth. I knew that if the immortal spirit of Homer could look down from another heaven than that created by his own celestial genius upon the long lines of pilgrims from every nation of the earth to the gushing fountain of poesy opened by the touch of his magic wand, if he could be permitted to behold the vast assemblage of grand and glorious productions of the lyric art called into being by his own inspired strains, he would weep tears of bitter anguish that instead of lavishing all the stores of his mighty genius upon the fall of Ilion it had not been his more blessed lot to crystallize in deathless song the rising glories of Duluth. Yet, sir, had it not been for this map, kindly furnished me by the Legislature of Minnesota, I might have gone down to my obscure and humble grave in an agony of despair, because I could nowhere find Duluth. Had such been my melancholy fate, I have no doubt that with the last feeble pulsation of my breaking heart, with the last faint exhalation of my fleeting breath, I should have whispered, “Where is Duluth?”
But, thanks to the beneficence of that band of ministering angels who have their bright abodes in the far-off capital of Minnesota, just as the agony of my anxiety was about to culminate in the frenzy of despair, this blessed map was placed in my hands; and as I unfolded it a resplendent scene of ineffable glory opened before me, such as I imagine burst upon the enraptured vision of the wandering peri through the opening gates of paradise. There, there for the first time, my enchanted eye rested upon the ravishing word “Duluth.”
This map, sir, is intended, as it appears from its title, to illustrate the position of Duluth in the United States; but if gentlemen will examine it, I think they will concur with me in the opinion that it is far too modest in its pretensions. It not only illustrates the position of Duluth in the United States, but exhibits its relations with all created things. It even goes further than this. It lifts the shadowy veil of futurity and affords us a view of the golden prospects of Duluth far along the dim vista of ages yet to come.
If gentlemen will examine it they will find Duluth not only in the center of the map, but represented in the center of a series of concentric circles one hundred miles apart, and some of them as much as four thousand miles in diameter, embracing alike in their tremendous sweep the fragrant savannas of the sunlit South and the eternal solitudes of snow that mantle the icebound North. How these circles were produced is perhaps one of those primordial mysteries that the most skillful paleologist will never be able to explain. But the fact is, sir, Duluth is preeminently a central place, for I am told by gentlemen who have been so reckless of their own personal safety as to venture away into those awful regions where Duluth is supposed to be that it is so exactly in the center of the visible universe that the sky comes down at precisely the same distance all around it.
I find by reference to this map that Duluth is situated somewhere near the western end of Lake Superior, but as there is no dot or other mark indicating its exact location I am unable to say whether it is actually confined to any particular spot, or whether “it is just lying around there loose.” I really cannot tell whether it is one of those ethereal creations of intellectual frostwork, more intangible than the rose-tinted clouds of a summer sunset; one of those airy exhalations of the speculator’s brain, which I am told are ever flitting in the form of towns and cities along those lines of railroad, built with Government subsidies, luring the unwary settler as the mirage of the desert lures the famishing traveler on, and ever on, until it fades away in the darkening horizon, or whether it is a real, bona fide, substantial city, all “staked off,” with the lots marked with their owners’ names, like that proud commercial metropolis recently discovered on the desirable shores of San Domingo.∗ But, however that may be, I am satisfied Duluth is there, or thereabout, for I see it stated here on this map that it is exactly thirty-nine hundred and ninety miles from Liverpool, though I have no doubt, for the sake of convenience, it will be moved back ten miles, so as to make the distance an even four thousand.
∗The annexation of Santo Domingo—now the Dominican Republic— to the United States, an idea championed by President Grant, was one of the major congressional issues of the day.
Then, sir, there is the climate of Duluth, unquestionably the most salubrious and delightful to be found anywhere on the Lord’s earth. Now, I have always been under the impression, as I presume other gentlemen have, that in the region around Lake Superior it was cold enough for at least nine months in the year to freeze the smoke-stack off a locomotive. But I see it represented on this map that Duluth is situated exactly halfway between the latitudes of Paris and Venice, so that gentlemen who have inhaled the exhilarating airs of the one or basked in the golden sunlight of the other may see at a glance that Duluth must be a place of untold delights, a terrestrial paradise, fanned by the balmy zephyrs of an eternal spring, clothed in the gorgeous sheen of ever-blooming flowers, and vocal with the silvery melody of nature’s choicest songsters. …
… As to the commercial resources of Duluth, sir, they are simply illimitable and inexhaustible, as is shown by this map. I see it stated here that there is a vast scope of territory, embracing an area of over two million square miles, rich in every element of material wealth and commercial prosperity, all tributary to Duluth. [Points to the map.] Look at it, sir. Here are inexhaustible mines of gold, immeasurable veins of silver, impenetrable depths of boundless forest, vast coal-measures, wide, extended plains of richest pasturage, all, all embraced in this vast territory, which must, in the very nature of things, empty the untold treasures of its commerce into the lap of Duluth.
Look at it sir, do not you see from these broad, brown lines drawn around this immense territory that the enterprising inhabitants of Duluth intend some day to enclose it all in one vast corral, so that its commerce will be bound to go there whether it would or not? And here, sir [still pointing to the map], I find within a convenient distance the Piegan Indians, which, of all the many accessories to the glory of Duluth, I consider by far the most inestimable. For, sir, I have been told that when the small-pox breaks out among the women and children of that famous tribe, as it sometimes does, they afford the finest subjects in the world for the strategical experiments of any enterprising military hero who desires to improve himself in the noble art of war, especially for any valiant lieutenant general whose
… And here, sir, recurring to this map, I find in the immediate vicinity of the Piegans “vast herds of buffalo” and “immense fields of rich wheat lands.”
Here the hammer fell. Many cries: “Go on! Go on!”
The SPEAKER . Is there objection to the gentleman from Kentucky continuing his remarks? … The Chair hears none. The gentleman will proceed.
MR. KNOTT . … I was remarking, sir, upon these vast “wheat fields” represented on this map in the immediate neighborhood of the buffaloes and the Piegans, and was about to say that the idea of there being these immense wheat fields in the very heart of a wilderness, hundreds and hundreds of miles beyond the utmost verge of civilization, may appear to some gentlemen as rather incongruous, as rather too great a strain on the “blankets” of veracity. But to my mind there is no difficulty in the matter whatever. The phenomenon is very easily accounted for. It is evident, sir, that the Piegans sowed that wheat there and plowed it with buffalo bulls. Now, sir, this fortunate combination of buffaloes and Piegans, considering their relative positions to each other and to Duluth, as they are arranged on this map, satisfies me that Duluth is destined to be the beef market of the world.
Here, you will observe [pointing to the map], are the buffaloes, directly between the Piegans and Duluth, and here, right on the road to Duluth, are the Creeks. Now, sir, when the buffaloes are sufficiently fat from grazing on those immense wheat fields you see it will be the easiest thing in the world for the Piegans to drive them on down, stay all night with their friends, the Creeks, and go into Duluth in the morning. I think I see them now, sir, a vast herd of buffaloes, with their heads down, their eyes glaring, their nostrils dilated, their tongues out, and their tails curled over their backs, tearing along toward Duluth, with about a thousand Piegans on their grass-bellied ponies, yelling at their heels! On they come! And as they sweep past the Creeks they join in the chase, and away they all go, yelling, bellowing, ripping, and tearing along, amid clouds of dust, until the last buffalo is safely penned in the stock-yards of Duluth!
Sir, I might stand here for hours and hours and expatiate with rapture upon the gorgeous prospects of Duluth, as depicted upon this map. But human life is too short and the time of this House far too valuable to allow me to linger longer upon the delightful theme. I think every gentleman on this floor is as well satisfied as I am that Duluth is destined to become the commercial metropolis of the universe, and that this road should be built at once. I am fully persuaded that no patriotic Representative of the American people, who has a proper appreciation of the associated glories of Duluth and the St. Croix, will hesitate a moment to say that every ablebodied female in the land between the ages of eighteen and forty-five who is in favor of woman’s rights should be drafted and set to work upon this great work without delay. Nevertheless, sir, it grieves my very soul to be compelled to say that I cannot vote for the grant of lands provided for in this bill.
Ah! sir, you can have no conception of the poignancy of my anguish that I am deprived of that blessed privilege! There are two insuperable obstacles in the way. In the first place, my constituents, for whom I am acting here, have no more interest in this road than they have in the great question of culinary taste now perhaps agitating the public mind of Dominica, as to whether the illustrious commissioners who recently left this capital for that free and enlightened republic would be better fricasseed, boiled, or roasted, and in the second place these lands, which I am asked to give away, alas, are not mine to bestow! My relation to them is simply that of trustee to an express trust. And shall I ever betray that trust? Never, sir! Rather perish Duluth! Perish the paragon of cities! Rather let the freezing cyclones of the black Northwest bury it forever beneath the eddying sands of the raging St. Croix!