By Harry Welty
Published August 18, 2005
The Summer my Street was Buried
As I carried my uncooked lasagna across the south lane of the half buried
East Fourth Street, I interrupted a game of tennis. A rope "net" had
been suspended across the lane bounded by a block long, twelve foot high pile of
dirt on the north lane and the houses on the south side of the street. I've seen
plenty of games of street hockey over the years but never street tennis. The
pavement was a little beaten up from all the heavy machinery that had traversed
it but the court was closer than the fancy ones at Longview seven blocks further
east. A guy just doesn't expect a sink hole to appear in his street any more
than he plans on his Maytag Range pooping out halfway through baking a lasagna.
The tennis players let me finish the baking in their oven.
Early this June after 117 years of supporting the 4th Street overpass a three
brick thick tunnel which allowed Oregon Creek's waters to sloosh down to Gitchi
Goomie suddenly gave way. The implosion was loud enough that it alerted the
homeowner on the southeast corner nearest the cave-inn. He rushed out in time to
save a motorist from plunging into the pit.
The traffic on our street was reduced to dozers and backhoes which immediately
set about felling large cottonwood trees that impeded their work. A metal plate
was placed over the hole so that no gawkers would fall in. St. Louis County, the
City of Duluth and the contractor began digging to China. Neighbors were
placated with the assurance that all would be put
right within three weeks.
I returned from an out-of-town trip at the projected completion date to find a
pile of clay extending from the sink hole to my house. OSHA (Occupational
Safety and Health Administration) rules required the contractor to carve a
gentle slope in the 30 foot deep excavation so that his workers would not be
threatened by further cave-ins.
Any Duluth gardener worth his or her salt has had to dig out plenty of clay to
plant anything. Duluth was covered by glaciers until recently which pushed all
our ancient soils south to Kansas. Except for making pottery that clay isn't
I suspect that a hundred years ago when the City decided to connect Fourth
Street over the Oregon Creek ravine local contractors were thrilled. The ravine
gave them a convenient place to dump all the clay they were excavating from
their building projects. They just piled it on the new drainage tunnel for the
The contractor hired for this repair project evidently recommended that an
entirely new tunnel be built at a cost nearing a million dollars. The County's
frugal engineers felt a 150 thousand dollar patch would be sufficient. No one
likes to spend tax money on maintenance.
I called up my new County Commissioner Steve O'Neil to see what he could tell me
about the project. He told me that he had grilled the County engineers who
assured him the patch would likely last 50 to 75 years and not just five or ten.
It makes little financial difference to me whether they are right or not because
Fourth Street is a county road. That means I won't be assessed for repairing the
damage to the street from the heavy machines which trundled clay up and down its
If there was a little glamour in maintenance politicians would be more inclined
to pay for it. Alas, politicians prefer to spend money on brand spanking new
projects such as the Congress's vast pork barrel highway bill which was just
signed into law.
After its approval the State of Minnesota Highway Department was amazed to find
50 million in the bill to build a four-lane highway to the remote hamlet of
International Falls. It hadn't occurred to Minnesota to ask for the money
because the low traffic did not merit such prodigious spending. The fifty
million windfall came courtesy of our Congressman Jim Oberstar whose
responsibility for the taxes it will raise will be long forgotten by the time
the next generation pays for it.
Oberstar's clout was surprising given Jim's minority status in Congress. It was
probably a payoff given to Oberstar by Tom Delay for joining the Republicans at
the signing of the Brain Death Promotion Act which is intended to keep living
corpse's on life support.
The biggest concern for neighbors along 4th Street are the silver maples that
line the boulevard. They were threatened with suffocation from all the clay that
was heaped over their trunks. Fortunately, John Devich made a few calls to the
city forester confirming the threat and to the news media which prompted the
contractor to dig the trunks free. Now the sidewalk is
impassable but the trees are safe or at least safer.
John is taking no chances though. In addition to the two month suffocation they
have endured a recent drought. He's defying a watering ban to feed his maple
roots. If it doesn't rain soon I hope other neighbors follow his example.
Perhaps the most traumatized people on the block are those closest to the
construction. An especially monstrous, two-story blob of clay looms over the
Plumb family's yard imperiling their crabapple tree. I'm pulling for the crab
because last year I was permitted to harvest its fruit from which we made a
dozen jars of "Plumb crabapple" jelly.
According to my county commissioner the project should be completed before the
snow flies. It's made things a little quieter this summer but some of my
neighbors wish it had popped up somewhere else like, for instance, 21st Avenue
East. That would really have made for a quiet summer.
Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.snowbizz.com