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Mystery solved: Photos show when Duluth's landmark pillar vanished

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Thanks to some sharp-eyed photographers, officials in Duluth now have an answer for when the concrete column that was part of the landmark "cribs" that sit offshore in Lake Superior collapsed into the frigid waters.

After the disappearance of the column was reported a few days ago, the Duluth News Tribune said it received dozens of photos and information from readers to help pinpoint the day the column disappeared.

That window was initially pretty broad – it was pegged at sometime between New Year's Day and Valentine's Day.

But then the News Tribune sorted through all the photos and comments it received from readers, and concluded that the pillar fell down on Saturday, Feb. 7., between 4:40 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Here's a quick rundown of the telling photos, according to the News Tribune (you can see larger versions here):

  • Feb. 7, morning: Photos by former Duluth resident Eric Sturtz showed the pillar still standing.
  • Feb. 7, 4:40 p.m.: Photos by Andrea Woyt of Duluth shows the concrete pillar still standing.
  • Feb. 7, 5:30 p.m.: Photos by Nick Stone of St. Paul show the pillar is gone.

Stone and some friends had gone out onto the ice that evening to explore the icehouse, but he didn't realize until the next morning that the pillar was no longer there.

The News Tribune speculates this is what happened:

"[Stone's] photos, timestamped at about 5:30 p.m., show the pillar is gone. The ice around where it had been, which was relatively smooth in Sturtz's photos from that morning, is jumbled. ... It appears that the top-heavy pillar probably was shaken loose from its wood pilings by wind and ice, and settled gently into the 12- to 14-foot depths. Chunks of ice most likely quickly covered the spot, and appear to have started to freeze back together by the time Stone and his friends arrived."

Called one of Duluth’s “most recognizable landmarks” by City Pages, it’s known to locals as “The Icehouse,” “The Cribs,” or, more colorfully, “Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum.” The site is characterized by a tilting main structure and the now-gone concrete pillar.

The cribs are more than just a quirky landmark – they’re historical artifacts. According to Zenith City Archive, the ruin is what remains of one Harvey Whitney’s (the namesake of “Uncle Harvey”) venture to build a “sand and gravel” hopper nearly a century ago.

The organization says its purpose was to help Duluth construct an “outer harbor breakwater,” but the plan was scrapped and the concrete buildings abandoned.

In more recent years the ruins have been a magnet for summer swimmers and winter walkers, and the subject of many photos taken by locals and visitors, the News Tribune notes.

The disappearance of the pillar may have been long in the making. The Duluth News Tribune quotes local freediver Jim Richardson as saying the structure was slowly rotting away.

“It was only a matter of time,” he said. “The column was composed of timbers sheathed in concrete but much of the concrete below water level was eroded away, leaving bare wood.”

Richardson told the paper he plans to explore the area later this year to locate the pillar.

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