Mostly auto-colorized photos of Duluth and Northern Minnesota

During the pandemic, I colorized six early Duluth photos, which was absurdly time consuming but seemed like as good of a way as any to spend some evenings inside. A friend of mine recently informed me that Adobe Photoshop now has a tool that will colorize photos automatically with far better results than my drawing over pixels method. He was somewhat correct.

For portraits, the tool works remarkably well, likely because it was designed for old family photos. For everything else, it’s a bit of a gamble. For background details in particular, the tool behaves a bit like a child coloring with a crayon in their fist. Any area of the photo without clearly defined edges gets the same color. This happened to some degree in all the photos, which meant that I still needed to use the pixel coloring method to clean things up a bit. But while the six photos that I did before took weeks, I was able to colorize these dozen photos over a weekend.

I think the results do look better than what I had done by hand, but I also specifically chose photos that matched the tools capabilities: photos of people. I tried to include photos that also included local contextual elements, so they tell a story of time and place as well of specific people. The photos are organized by general theme below.

People in identifiable Duluth locations

I wasn’t able to find many of these, but the ones that I did find definitely evoked a specific sense of place.

Duluth Belt Line Railway, ca. 1900

I’ve seen quite a few posts on the old incline railway at Seventh Avenue West, but I wasn’t familiar with the West Duluth Incline, which seems just as notable.

The Jeffery Family, ca. 1895

West Duluth Funeral Procession, 1915


The program does quite well with individual faces. There were a lot of photos of old mayors that I could have colorized, but I found these two portraits a bit more interesting.

Sarah Burger Stearns, 1895

According to Minnesota Reflections, Stearns was an advocate of women’s suffrage and was the first woman to serve on the Duluth School Board.

Pearlie Day, 1916

This is one of numerous pictures taken by Stella Prince Stocker in 1916 during her travels around Minnesota. As described on Minnesota Reflections, “Stocker, a musician and music educator, studied American Indian music among the Ojibwe people in Minnesota.”


Because they all involved people posing in the foreground, the program worked great for these sport-themed group photos.

YMCA Basketball Team, 1898

And I’m including a second basketball team because I’m pretty sure the man on the left is the same player and I thought it was interesting how the two photos together suggest a forgotten history of early Duluth basketball.

Duluth Basketball Team, ca. 1900

Double Ball, Grand Portage, ca. 1885

This photo is from outside of Duluth but I liked how it captured a specific moment that reflects the general complexity of northern Minnesota history. A description of the native traditional women’s sport of double ball or cha ha can be found in this video.

Duluth Cycle Club, 1895

This cycling photo is just beyond the limits of what the auto-colorization could handle. It only colored the foreground and I had to go back to the old method to add at least a little color to the background.

Ice Hockey Team, 1900

And, of course, hockey.

Landscape: North West, ca. 1909

This one photo had enough large objects with basic colors for the program to handle it, even without any faces.

From the archives: Men with Sled Dogs, 1869

A few years ago, I spend some time using digital tools to create a restored version of the photo below. With this colorization, I think it’s now pretty far from the original version. Still, as one of my favorite early Duluth photographs, I thought it would make a nice final image for the post, even if I have increasing doubts about the accuracy of its given caption.



about 1 year ago

Nice!  Why do you doubt the dogsled photo caption?


about 1 year ago

Very, very cool.  A really great collection you’ve presented here. Stella Stocker’s photos are a phenomenal record; I have geeked out on those, as well. I recall she has some images from Nett Lake, as well as Grand Portage. 

I am with you on the dogsled photo. Seems awful early, but I am not an expert on what to look for on the technical side for clues. The sleds are really a remarkable design. I have spent some time looking at historic dogsled images from the border lakes and the sled designs are much different, but the earliest images from that area are around 1900.  The buildings look to be on the lakeshore and could be fish houses. I suspect there were fish houses constructed in that round log style before the influx of Scandinavian immigrants (and rise in the commercial fishing industry) ca 1880, but doesn’t seem like there is enough to relatively date that photo from buildings or material culture. The “Grand Portage Trail” -- which was used for winter dog sled freighting when the ships couldn’t run -- shows up in the GLO survey plat maps along the north shore. The north shore townships were the first to be surveyed after the treaty of 1854; the earliest were around 1858, I believe. This could be an early shot of that trail from somewhere along the shore? Beargrease? Need to revisit Lancaster (2007), but I think Beargrease clan came to Beaver Bay from Prairie Lake area in the 1870s.

Matthew James

about 1 year ago

I am certainly not enough of an expert to figure out the date of the sled dog photo from its cultural clues and enjoyed reading about everything Lager Man was able to infer from the image. I'm willing to accept the 1869 date because the photographer, Paul Gaylord, took other pictures of Duluth in that year that can be more easily dated from buildings like the Clark House.

It's the plural 'men' that I doubt. Recognizing that I can't establish with any certainty the gender identity of someone wearing functional 19th century winter clothes in a damaged, blurry photo, I think the person on the right is a woman. I read the photo as being of a husband and wife, not of two men.

Grant K

about 12 months ago

Hi Matt,
Replying here in case you didn't see my reply in a previous thread. You commented on a video about Bill Kielczewski's wheelchair invention and that you knew his sons. I am one of them. I knew only a couple of Matthews, so I'm trying to figure out who you are.

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