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150 years ago speech helped create Proctor

Proctor missed another important historic date. It was 150 years ago on January 27, 1871 James Proctor Knott delivered a satirical speech in the House known as Duluth! or The Untold Delights of Duluth.

The speech ridiculed a bill subsidizing westward expansions of railroads.

The speech is sometimes reprinted in collections of humorous speeches or folklore, and is regarded as a minor classic. The speech itself was published in virtually every eastern newspaper.

Representative Knott never made another speech such as the one he delivered in Congress and ended his life as a journalist.

When he died the New York Times called him the “Wit of Politics” and said the ‘speech was a classic.’

According to lore, in 1890 the Duluth Missabe and Northern Railroad, the transportation arm of the Iron Ore mines of the Mesabi range, chose “Proctor Knott” to be the name of their huge car sorting yards just outside of Duluth.

Proctor Knott was more the Attorney General of Missouri at the outset of the American Civil War and Governor of Kentucky from 1883 to 1887. He later organized a law school at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and served as its first. He was also a professor of civics and economics there.

He reformed Kentucky’s tax system, established a teacher training school for minorities and created a state teachers organization. He turned down appointments to become the Territorial Governor of Hawaii and a spot on the Interstate Commerce Commission.


“The Untold Delights of Duluth”

Speech of J. Proctor Knott, of Kentucky, delivered in the U.S. House of Representatives on the St. Croix and Superior Land Grant, January 21, 1871.
On January 27, 1871, a forty year old congressman from Kentucky, who was little known outside of his state, sought recognition on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. In the next half hour, however, he would change that. He would take up the question of whether federal lands should be given to the St. Croix and Lake Superior Railroad in order to build a new line that would run from Houlton, 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.
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 dead as it could be, and he had made famous, by mistake, little Duluth, which the railroad had never meant to put on the map in the first place.

“Until the Duluth speech was made, the House had little thought of the rich plenitude of humor in store for them. The surprise was enhanced because Mr. Knott spoke rarely. He was not an active, rather a lazy, member–ostensibly so. … They took the alligator for a log, until they sat on him. Grudgingly was the floor yielded to him on the Duluth debate. He was offered only ten minutes; whereupon he remarked that his facilities for getting time were so poor that, if he were standing on, the brink of perdition, and the sands were crumbling under his feet, he could not in that body get time enough to say the Lord’s Prayer. The St. Croix and Bayfield Bill asked for some of the public domain. Mr. Knott disavowed any more interest in the bill than in an orange-grove on the bleakest summit of Greenland’s icy mountains….
“… A close student of men and books, once attorney-general of Missouri, familiar with frontier and prairie life, he had the rare perception to observe the queerness and oddity of things, and the rarer gift so to mix his colors and limn his figures that all should recognize beneath the heightened colors the graphic genuineness and design of his art. But the special humor of this Duluth speech lies in its magnifying, with a roaring rush of absurdity, the exaggerations of a Western Eden, in which utter nakedness and fragrant luxuriance alternate, and between whose aisles of greenery the sly devil of selfishness sat squat at the ear of Congress, tempting it to taste the forbidden fruit of subsidy. … Like the allegory or the parable, there is moral hidden beneath this elaborate imagery. It is this moral which exalts the American mind to the sublimity of its own peculiar fun, and relieves the leviathanic lawlessness of exaggeration of its strain upon the faculties. No speech that I can recall produced at once so signal an effect.”


YEARS ago, when I first heard that there was somewhere in the vast terra incognita, somewhere in the bleak regions of the great north-west, 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. [Great laughter.] 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. [Laughter.] 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. [Great laughter.]
Now, sir, who, after listening to this emphatic and unequivocal testimony of these intelligent, competent, and able-bodied witnesses [laughter;] 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 [Laughter.] 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? [Great laughter.] 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? [Laughter.]
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 the 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 “Gods green earth” in such straightened 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 overhead 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. [Renewed laughter.] But where was Duluth? Never in all my limited reading had my vision been gladdened by seeing the celestial word in print. [Laughter.] And I felt a profounder humiliation in my ignorance that its dulcet syllables had never before ravished my delighted ear. [Roars of laughter.] 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. [Laughter.] I discovered in one of them a delicate, hair-like 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. [Laughter.] 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 [renewed laughter]; 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. [Roars of laughter.] 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. [Great laughter.] 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. [Laughter.] 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 Illion, it had not been his more blessed lot to crystallize in deathless song the rising glories of Duluth. [Great and continued laughter.] 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. [Renewed laughter.] 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?” [Roars of laughter.]
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. [Renewed laughter.] 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 centre of the map, but represented in the centre 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 ice-bound North. [Laughter.] How these circles were produced is perhaps one of those primordial mysteries that the most skilful paleologist will never be able to explain. [Renewed laughter.] But the fact is, sir, Duluth is pre-eminently 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 centre of the visible universe that the sky comes down at precisely the same distance all around it. [Roars of laughter.]
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.” [Renewed laughter.] 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. [laughter.] 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 [laughter]; 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. [Renewed laughter.]
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. [Great laughter.] But I see it represented on this map that Duluth is situated exactly half way 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 [laughter], 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. [Laughter.] In fact, sir, since I have seen this map I have no doubt that Byron was vainly endeavoring to convey some faint conception of the delicious charms of Duluth when his poetic soul gushed forth in the rippling strains of that beautiful rhapsody-

“Know ye the land of the cedar and vine,
Where the flowers ever blossom, the beams ever shine;
Where the light wings of Zephyr, oppressed with perfume,
Wax faint o’er the gardens of Gul in her bloom;
Where the citron and olive are fairest of fruit,
And the voice of the nightingale never is mute;
Where the tints of the earth and the hues of the sky,
In color though varied, in beauty may vie?”

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. Look at it, sir [pointing to the map]. 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. [Laughter.]
Look at it, sir [pointing to the map], do not you see from these broad, brown lines drawn around this immense territory that the enterprising inhabitants of Duluth intend some day to inclose it all in one vast corral, so that its commerce will be bound to go there whether it would or not? [Great laughter.] 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 [laughter]; especially for any valiant lieutenant general whose

“Trenchant blade, Toledo trusty,
For want of fighting has grown rusty,
And eats into itself for lack
Of somebody to hew and hack.” [Quoted from Samuel Butler, 1612-1680]
[Great laughter]

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.]
. . . 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 position 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, 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, sire, 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 grassbellied 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 stockyards of Duluth.
Sir, I might stand here for hours and hours and expatriate with rapture upon the gorgeous prospects of Duluth, as depicted upon this map. But human life is too short and 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 able-bodied 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 the free and enlightened republic would be better fricasseed, boiled, or roasted, and in the second place those 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!

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1 Comment

  1. 1-CDN@ on October 31, 2022 at 2:52 pm

    when i first read ‘the duluth speech (best american humor anthology) i thought it was the funniest / smartest piece of literature / performance that i had ever encountered.

    20 years later & it still holds water, magic water like would likely be found in……

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