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Last Chance Liquor owner recalls 1972 Duluth floods

The emergency sirens sounded for one of the first times in Duluth, and all through the night public citizens worked to divert the rushing water. As daylight finally emerged, the citizens got their first look at the damage done to the Central Hillside and downtown areas.

1972 Duluth floods

Compiled by Alex Mortensen

Roads were completely torn away, basements and first floors were flooded, and piles of debris lay scattered at the bottom of hills. The city that once claimed to be flood-proof was proven wrong.

It was late August of 1972 when the first two storms happened, the third occurring just a month after. According to a National Weather Report, the second storm alone dumped 2.95 inches of water, most of it in a 2-hour span. If you add that onto the 1,400 gallons of water runoff experts say an average Duluth household produces during a typical storm, that’s a lot of water running down the hillside.

There was damage just about everywhere in the city, but the brunt of it was on Sixth Avenue East and the streets that cross it. Many homes and businesses along the road had basements littered with blacktop and dirt that had been torn away from the hillside.

Things were different for Last Chance Liquor though.

“You had the water from upstairs coming in from Sixth Avenue East and then you had the creek coming in through the basement,” David Katoski said. “It looked like a river in here.”

Katoski is the current owner of Last Chance Liquor. His father Dick Katoski owned it during the floods.

Like many houses and buildings on the hillside, Last Chance Liquor was built alongside Brewery Creek. According to Katoski, Brewery Creek was above ground at that time. After the abundant rainfalls and spewing sewers, the creek expanded so much that it tore the ground out from underneath the basement floor, eventually taking over half of the cement floor.

When asked about the devastation that happened to his father’s store, Katoski vividly recalled the first bit of cement being washed away.

“My brother was over here tapping his foot on the cement floor to test its strength,” Katoski said as he walked toward the center of the basement. “When he looked down he told me he could see daylight coming in from beneath him.”

The current mayor at the time, Ben Boo, explained the issue over a phone interview. He said that the development of houses and businesses on the hillside requires some to be placed over underground creeks. During the 1972 floods, the creeks underground expanded so much that they essentially exploded. In the case of the Katoski family, the water took their business floor out from under them.

“If it wasn’t for the blue stone foundations, the building would have collapsed,” Katoski said.

Despite the blue stone foundations and the piles of sandbag supports that held the building intact, business still came to a halt. Katoski’s father, who was the current owner at the time, started selling salvageable liquor out the back door. It wasn’t ideal, but he had a family to support and he wasn’t about to lose the Katoski business.

“My dad tried really hard to keep the business going,” Katoski said.

And he did. With the help of friends, family and Mayor Boo, the store opened its doors to the public just a few weeks after the second storm. To this day Last Chance Liquor remains in the hands of the Katoski family.

Duluth’s rebuilding process was slow, but the city’s improvements have led to a flood-proof state of mind once again.