The Duluth Bethel Society

The Duluth Bethel is one of the oldest human services agencies in Northeastern Minnesota. It was founded in 1873 when the Western Seamen's Friend Society in Cleveland opened a branch in Duluth.  It was organized as a nonprofit corporation on September 6 of the same year.   The Bethel was established to "promote temporal and spiritual welfare of seamen and their families and of such as may not have been provided for by regular religious and benevolent societies in the city and vicinity."  In the early years it served seamen, miners, lumberjacks, and their families who settled in the frontier port of Duluth.

The port of Duluth in the late nineteenth century was a place where work and good times could be found. But it also was a place where dreams could be shattered and fortunes lost. The Bethel provided food, shelter, and a helping hand when workers and their families fell on hard times.

Bethel Rescue HomeFirst Bethel Building ~ 1889

The Bethel preached its message of temperance first from a dry goods box in the open air by the docks and then from a nearby storefront. After local saloon keepers prevented the lease of any other property in the area, the Bethel purchased its first property. This first Bethel building was home to a men's reading room, Sunday School, Gospel meetings, cooking school, mothers' meetings, boys' club, sewing school and nursery. The Bethel also hosted an annual Thanksgiving dinner for newsboys.

This first Bethel was located on the corner of Lake Avenue and Sutphin Street, the current site of KBJR News.

Bethel Rescue Home for Women and Children

On October 15, 1902, the Duluth Bethel opened a rescue home for women and children. The new building in this photo was erected in 1916. Over the years the Bethel cared for hundreds of adults and babies, including a nursery for mentally disabled babies. The building later became known as Hillcrest House and was used as a chemical dependency treatment center for women. It was sold in the 1990s.

New Bethel

In 1912 the new Bethel was built on the hill overlooking the harbor. A green light on top of the tower was a welcome sign to sailors entering the harbor; it told them the Bethel was a safe place for them to find rest.   A 1911 newspaper article stated "the new Bethel will accommodate about 200 people with a public reading room, chapel, fumigator to disinfect clothing and baths."

As part of its spiritual mission the Bethel conducted regular Sunday School, summer camps and large vacation Bible schools.  This photo shows the children from one of the largest vacation Bible sessions in the country at the time.

We are still located in this same historic building.

Rescue Mission

As a rescue mission the Duluth Bethel had a soup kitchen and dining room, as well as dormitories for homeless men.  This photo, taken March 7, 1915, shows a common sight from the time, as 200 homeless men lay down for the night. 

Bethel Farm ~Lake Venoah

In 1957 Harlow Watkins' family donated 40 acres to the Bethel. The Bethel Farm was developed to provide rehabilitation and meaningful work for chronic alcoholic men. In the early 1960s there was a social shift towards helping mainstream alcoholics rather than the "hard-core" men on the streets. This idea of a rehabilitation center was new so there was no pattern to be followed. Over time the Bethel Farm was renamed Lake Venoah.  It was sold in the 1990s as the Bethel determined to focus on one location.

Bethel continues to serve those in need

The Bethel continued as a Rescue Mission, homeless shelter and Sunday School.  Many Duluthians have fond memories of coming to the Bethel for Sunday School. William Grobe and his son Graden after him directed the Bethel for more than 50 years.

In the early 1970s the Bethel shifted to a secular treatment center.  In 1975 it took the name Port Rehabilitation Center for Chemical Dependency and provided residential  treatment for chemically dependent adult men.  This is the longest running of our five current programs and many people still know the company and the building as Port. 

Over time other programs were developed in response to local needs.  Messabi Work Release opened in 1984 as an alternative for DWI offenders. The program allowed clients to retain their jobs and participate in chemical dependency treatment while serving their sentences. A women's program was added in 1989.  The Community Watch Program opened in 1990 to provide another alternative to traditional incarceration. In 1997 the Work Release chemical dependency treatment services became Bethel Outpatient Center while the Work Release Center focused on Community Corrections services . The whole company returned to its original name of Duluth Bethel in the late 1990s.

Since 1873 the Bethel has maintained the same core mission of Helping Put Lives Back Together. We look forward to many more years of serving those in need.