If you’ve spent any time up Lake Superior’s North Shore, you’ve likely passed Glensheen. It’s a stately mansion barely visible behind a wrought iron fence on Duluth’s London Road, before the roadway morphs into the Northshore Scenic Byway.
If passersby know anything about Clara and Chester Congdon’s gilded-age estate, it’s most likely as the site of the grisly, murders of the couple’s youngest daughter, Elisabeth, who was 83, along with her night nurse, Velma Pietila.
Fewer know the home’s much happier origin story, which starts when Chester Congdon was a practicing attorney. His Iron Range client, Oliver Mining Company, found itself in a fierce battle with notorious businessman John D. Rockefeller, who was attempting to take over the last mines on the range he did not own. Through a clever alliance with Rockefeller nemesis Andrew Carnegie, Congdon held off the tycoon. The subsequent buyout that brought Carnegie’s company into U.S. Steel created a huge payday for Congdon’s considerable investments—a 555% increase—and more than enough to build a beautiful mansion on the lake with luxuries such as a gold-leaf ceiling and in-floor vacuum system.
With the death of Elisabeth, the Glensheen estate, which includes the 39-room mansion, carriage house, boathouse, and gardener’s cottage, was left to the University of Minnesota and has remained largely intact, down to the unopened house-canned jars of pickles in the basement. Tours of the home’s lower levels began in 1979 and, originally, guides would not talk about the murders in deference to relatives of both victims. (Now, respectful questions are answered after the tour.)
Last year, Duluth photographer Bryan French obtained permission to shoot the lesser-known parts of the house. (A basic tour includes the home’s basement and first two floors.) While most visitors have just a few minutes to cast eyes over a space, French (after training from the estate’s collections manager) has done what many of us have only dreamed about: opened just about all the cabinets, closets, desks, and dressers of this renowned family to pore over their possessions both surprising (a taxidermal armadillo) and mundane (a stack of National Geographics). Here are some of his best finds.
Pore over more historical bric-a-brac exhumed from Glensheen mansion, documented by photographer Bryan French.