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Duluth, Minnesota

Uncle Harvey's Mausoleum

The watery grave of an impractical idea. 

There’s no shortage of legends surrounding Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum in Lake Superior. Some stories allege it was a bunker or an ice house, and a persistent tale claims it once housed an illegal casino during Prohibition. A historical marker placed by the local tourism authority offers a more pragmatic stance: “The true story is the unromantic but intriguing account of an impractical idea.”

The concrete structure 30 feet away from the Duluth shore looks like an upturned house jutting out of out of the lake. It’s often used by nesting birds, and in the summer visitors swim out to sunbathe on it or dive from the top. Also called “the cribs”, it is the foundation of an unloading dock built by a local businessman Harvey Whitney in 1919.

In the years following World War I, construction was booming in Duluth, and Whitney sought to make his sand and gravel business more efficient. His company Whitney Brothers of Superior collected sand and gravel from the Apostle Islands and Minnesota, loaded it on barges, and carried it to the shore in Duluth. But the boats often had to wait to pass through the busy canal to dock, and Harvey Whitney came up with the idea to simply unload the boats into a hopper and let conveyor belts bring it the rest of the way. 

But Whitney’s idea relied heavily on one thing: the building of an outer harbor. The city had long considered building one to buffer the effects of the lake’s unpredictable, severe storms, but it never happened. As a result, boats often couldn’t safely get close enough to unload into the hopper, not to mention the toll the beating waves took on the structure itself. By 1922 the project was abandoned, left to slowly abrade in the tempestuous lake.

Whitney had invested a lot of money in the project in hopes of strong returns—he’d even expected to supply the materials for the city to build the harbor, but instead he ended up with a pile of concrete that family members lovingly nicknamed Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum. As the marker notes: “He tried to deal with Superior on its terms, and lost.”