One summer night in 1992, when I was 19 years old, I came home from doing something forgettable and found three of my friends waiting for me in the parking lot. They said I should grab a flashlight and come with them on an adventure.
We drove across town to a building on East Fifth Street, tucked in a residential area. It was called Old Main, centerpiece of the old Duluth Normal School campus, which later expanded to become the University of Minnesota Duluth.
I was well aware of UMD, but I didn’t know about Old Main, which was built in 1901 and closed in 1985. It consisted of classrooms, administrative offices, a library and an auditorium. Two neighboring buildings were still in use by the university as office and research space, but Old Main was dark and boarded up.
Jeff, the leader of our expedition, brought us to the west side of Old Main and pointed at an open window on the second floor.
“That’s where we get in,” he said. “All we have to do is climb up this fire escape and shinny along that ledge.”
The windows on the upper floors weren’t boarded, so some of the rooms were dimly lit by the streetlights outside. We mostly kept our flashlights off to avoid drawing attention to ourselves, but when we came to darker rooms we used them.
It’s a little nerve-wracking to wander into an unfamiliar building at night, but we weren’t overly frightened. When we entered one room and flushed some pigeons, however, there was a split second we all thought death was upon us.
Eventually, we found the way to the attic. Although we weren’t afraid of most of the building, we couldn’t bring ourselves to go up there. It might have been the amount of pigeon dung, it might have been that gaining access was tricky, or it might have been the notion that attics are extra spooky. It was probably all three.
We left the building with no injuries and no police attention. A few days later, we decided to return in broad daylight and go up into the attic. It was a large space and proved to be the highlight of the Old Main experience. We found a box of enrollment cards up there from the early 1900s. Had we found it at night, ghosts would have stolen our souls for sure.
Jeff discovered the building’s telephone system was still wired up, so we came back again with a boombox and connected it. Then we made a mix tape of creepy sound effects and invited some girls to come into the building with us at midnight on Halloween.
Our plan worked at first. We managed to get the girls into the building, and Jeff was able to sneak away from the group to activate the sound system, but the music ended up making it obvious that we were trying to scare the girls, which made the whole experience entirely not scary for anyone.
Halloween 1992 was the last time we were inside Old Main. A developer announced plans to convert the building into apartments shortly after, but on February 23, 1993, a fire gutted it. A different group of young people had gained entry, and one set fire to a seat in the auditorium.
The remains of Old Main were mostly demolished and removed, with some of the bricks sold as a fundraiser, but the red sandstone arches are still there … memories of sweet, glorious trespassing.
Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. This story is excerpted from a longer version on Perfect Duluth Day, which contains photos, more info about the building, and comments from other hooligans who entered the building.