Frederick Law Olmsted, considered the father of landscape architecture in the United States, spent most of his life in New York and California. In the 1850s, Olmsted and partner Calvert Vaux designed and built New York City’s Central Park, setting off a nationwide trend for creating landscaped urban parks that would be equally accessible to all citizens. Olmsted never visited Duluth, but his impact can be seen throughout the Zenith City, as his practices greatly influenced Duluth’s development
The impacts of Olmsted’s work spread like ripples across the country, reaching Duluth at just the right time in the early days of the city’s growth. Developers embraced the vision of creating a beautiful park system for the city, recognizing parks as a “commercial asset of the highest importance.”
When the city established a Board of Park Commissioners in 1889, the members selected William K. Rogers as their President. Rogers was also a partner in the Highland Improvement Company, a group of land owners who controlled over one thousand acres of land above Skyline Parkway near Duluth’s main business district. The Company had grand plans for development of this choice property.
Their advertising prompted a story in the Duluth Daily News of March 22, 1889, which used language from the Company’s prospectus claiming that “…skillful landscape artists and topographical engineers have platted it to conform with nature’s suggestions and realize the most pleasing effects. Streets and avenues will wind about in delightful disregard of the points of the compass, and the lots and blocks upon which elegant houses are to be built will be of a size and shape which aid in giving to each home a distinctive yet harmonious individuality.”
The Company also used as a selling point the land’s location just above and adjoining the Parkway, which they described as “one of the most wonderfully picturesque and unique boulevards in the world, with a view of transcendent beauty and grandeur.”
To provide access to their hilltop property and make it more desirable for development, the Highland Improvement Company entered into a contract with the Duluth Street Railway Company to construct an incline railroad that would carry passengers up and down the hill. Opened in October 1891, the Seventh Avenue West Incline traveled along Seventh Avenue West from Superior Street to Ninth Street. Among the passengers in the first test ride was Luther Mendenhall, who was an investor in the Street Railway Company and later followed Rogers as president of Duluth’s Park Board.
The people of Duluth immediately embraced the Incline. Many rode to the top just to enjoy the stunning view, and the developers soon decided that a pavilion would bring in even more people. The large pavilion, which cost around $20,000, opened in July 1892, just in time to host a huge community Fourth of July celebration, complete with $500 worth of fireworks. The Street Railway Company reported that 14,716 passengers rode the Incline that day. The Pavilion quickly became the most fashionable place in Duluth for parties, picnics, and dances.
By early 1893 people began urging the Park Board to create a public park at the head of the Incline. An editorial in the Duluth News Tribune claimed that the “spot is already settled upon by the people as a pleasure and recreation ground, it is already half park…one thousand can pay the 5 cents each to take them to the Pavilion…The Pavilion park would be the rest and breathing spot of the whole city.”
Park Board members responded favorably. In January 1893 they voted to acquire four blocks of land located below the Pavilion for a “hilltop park.” They hoped to purchase blocks 96, 97, 108 and 109 of Duluth Proper Third Division; however, the Board did not have enough money to proceed with their plan. In fact, following the Financial Panic of 1893 they were so short of money that in August they stopped all park improvements throughout the city and laid off all but two men. Two years later, in June 1895, the Board once again resolved to create a park at the top of the Incline, but it wasn’t until 1907 that they finally acquired all the lots in Block 109, located between Sixth and Seventh avenues west and Eighth and Ninth streets.
Unfortunately, a spectacular fire in 1901 destroyed the Pavilion and sent one of the Incline cars on a memorable flaming flight down the hill. While the Incline continued to operate, the building was never replaced. By the time Hilltop Park was complete the Pavilion was merely a memory. The Park Board never added any more land to the park, nor did they make any improvements. After the Incline was dismantled in 1939, Hilltop Park was all but forgotten.
Today Hilltop Park is just a small unmarked parcel of public green space on the hillside above Skyline Parkway, seldom visited by anyone other than nearby residents. But it remains as one piece of the forested greenbelt that encircles Duluth, a legacy of the Park Board’s grand vision that “Parks are an essential feature of the modern city, and not only parks but a park system…a system that studies the beauty of surroundings, the health of the people…the changes of the seasons, the charm of landscape…and the lure of the wild.”
Nancy Nelson is a writer, geologist, and educator. She moved to Duluth from northern Illinois in 1987 to live near Lake Superior and attend UMD. A co-founder of Duluth’s Skyline Planning and Preservation Alliance, she is fascinated with history at all scales and is currently working on a book about the history of Duluth’s park system for Zenith City Press. Click here to access Nancy’s archived stories.