Clyde Park revisits its history with those who lived it

By Makinzie Cole “I’m not in that picture. I don’t think I know any of those guys, but I sure do know that place,” says Earl Olson, in a voice barely loud enough to hear.

He looks up to a sepia-toned, mural-sized photograph that covers one of the four walls of the Clyde Iron building. It depicts a mass of men in overalls and paperboy hats. They sit and stand among the machinery that once occupied the space that is now the Restaurant at Clyde Iron Works, located in the new Clyde Park development.

Earl is 94, the oldest surviving member of the “Clyde Iron crew,” gathered for a look at the newly renovated building.

The factory where men like Olson started as laborers being paid $2.35 for each of the 18 hours they worked every day is now a venue for live entertainment, dining, drinks and banquets.

“Nineteen sixty-four was the last time I was here,” Olson says as he grips his walker and moves a few small steps closer to the mural for a better view.

Since the last time Olson stepped foot in the Clyde Iron factory, things have changed to say the least.

Clyde Iron Works opened in 1889 as a manufacturer of heavy equipment. It is located at 29th Avenue West and Michigan Street. The company’s reputation for building quality, trouble-free machinery was well known throughout the material handling industry.

“We used to build hoists here in this building, like cranes,” says Joe Pfister, 70, a fellow former Clyde employee. “We were famous for our hoists. They were used in the construction of the Empire State Building and a lot of other famous infrastructure.”

According to the Clyde Park Duluth website, Clyde Iron’s equipment was used in a variety of major projects around the country. Besides the Empire State Building, Clyde Iron’s products were used in the construction of the Panama Canal, the Boulder Dam, Radio City, United Nations Building and subway system, the Golden Gate Bridge, and more.

The men gathered here to be recognized for the time they dedicated to the factory and the unique history to which they contributed. The new Clyde Iron owners thank them with a banquet in their honor, and in honor of the historic building that is now one of West Duluth’s premier entities.

The building has been renovated, but its original structure was kept in tact – an initiative that cost the owners much more than it would have to bulldoze the building and start from scratch. It was a move that celebrated their credo, “Restoring History, Rebuilding Community Pride.”

Clyde Park brings in approximately $25 million to the Duluth economy each year. It currently consists of the new restaurant and banquet hall (Clyde Iron Works), which houses the Duluth Brewing Company; the Duluth Heritage Sports Center/Duluth Boys and Girls Club, and the Duluth Children’s Museum. The Clyde Hotel is in the building process, and there are plans for a coffee, juices, bakery and produce market. The entire restoration project is an approximate $24 million transformation.

“We thought it was important to honor the history of the building before moving forward and starting this new generation for Clyde Iron,” says Robert Giuliani, the executive chef of the new restaurant.

Olson agrees that the history of the building is important, but added that the new building will likely attract young people who can start making their own history at Clyde Iron.

“I’m very excited to see that it has a future now, not just a history,” he says.

“There are a lot of humorous memories, and some that would probably upset you,” Pfister says. “It was pretty primitive – the machinery we used. If it wasn’t for all the guy’s, I’d have left long before the factory closed in ’87.”

“You know Spike died,” interrupts one of Pfister’s many old-time friends.

“Yeah, yeah I heard. Glad you boys are still around,” laughs Pfister. “All I know is I’m thrilled about the fact that they kept the Clyde name. That means a lot to us all since very few of us are able to keep in touch. That’s what makes this all special – to see these old geezers.”

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