Not Eudora   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 worth much.

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 creek.

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 length.

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