Duluth’s 19th-Century Squares

Portland Square c. 1905. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Portland Square

Portland Square, located between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues East from Fourth Street to Fifth Street in Duluth’s East Hillside, holds a clue to Duluth’s early development. Its name comes from Portland Township, established in 1856 by a group of men including James D. Ray, Clinton Markell (Duluth’s second mayor), and Judge Josiah D. Ensign. The township itself occupied the space from Third Avenue East to Chester Creek, from the lakeshore to approximately the location of today’s Skyline Parkway.

Duluth’s park board first turned its attention to Portland Square in June 1894 when board member Bernard Silberstein pushed for its improvement. The board had to clear a small hurdle first: Carl Eskelson, who the News Tribune described as “an old man who lives on Fourth street adjoining the property,” claimed he owned the square. Eskelson even staked out his property and built a fence around it and “served notice on the mayor.” The newspaper reported that “no attention will be paid to the notice and if Eskelson attempts to interfere with the work he will be arrested.” There were no further reports on the issue.

Work began that summer, with the News Tribune acting as cheerleader, claiming the square would soon become “the garden spot of Duluth.” Its central feature was a fountain, described as a “shell and dolphin design, of cast iron, handsomely bronzed. It throws seven sprays, and is said to present a very pretty appearance when in operation.” The fountain, which cost $400, was surrounded by a concrete pool which itself was encompassed by a sixteen-foot diameter concrete basin. During the summer the pool was planted with water lilies and stocked with goldfish. Sidewalks lined with concrete benches led from each of the square’s four corners to the fountain at its center. The borders of the square were lined with trees, and its interior spaces filled with shrubs, flower gardens, and a circular promenade.

By 1896, according to the News Tribune, Portland Square had become a popular gathering place for “the ladies and little ones,” particularly because it sat along the streetcar line, making it easily accessible to everyone. In 1908 the square helped Duluth launch the local playground movement, but noise complaints by local residents ended the experiment after just three days. In 1927 the park department chose Portland Square as one of five sites throughout the city to build ramps to serve as “snow slides.”

Like most Duluth parks, Portland Square eventually fell into a state of neglect, particularly following World War II. The fountain and its surrounding pool are gone, with no record of what became of them, but the original layout of the park’s 1894 concrete elements is relatively intact. While the flower beds no longer exist, trees still line the walkways, and playground equipment offers neighborhood children a place to play without anyone complaining about the noise.

Fond du Lac Square

When the founders of Fond du Lac Township platted its streets in 1856, they set aside a square block of public open space between today’s West Third Street (State Highway 23) and Fourth Street from 130th to 131st Avenues West. In the late 1860s when the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad was built along the St. Louis River, connecting Duluth to the Twin Cities, the railroad tracks were laid straight through Fond du Lac Square. Then in the 1930s the State of Minnesota took additional land from the square for Highway 23. In 1956 the St. Louis County Historical Society, along with the Minnesota Highway Department, erected a historical marker at the center of the square along the highway, but the square remains otherwise undeveloped.

Lakeside’s Squares

According to historian Warren Upham, when Jay Cooke’s business associate Hugh McCulloch platted New London in 1871 he included five public squares each measuring “two and seven tenths acres” (two square blocks) and named all but one of them after public squares in London, England. The squares became part of the Village of Lakeside in 1889, which became the City of Lakeside in 1891, which was annexed by Duluth in 1893, at which point the squares became part of Duluth’s park system.

Located between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Avenues East from McCulloch Street to Gladstone Street, Grosvenor Square is likely named after Grosvenor Square in London’s upscale Mayfair district, which takes its name from Hugh Grosvenor, named the first Duke of Westminster in 1874. Lakeside’s Grosvenor Square retains its original two-block size and is mostly wooded, except for a few pieces of playground equipment and a large field in the southwest quadrant.

Manchester Square, between Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh Avenues East from Peabody Street to Colorado Street, takes its name from an eighteenth-century garden square in London’s once-fashionable Marylebone neighborhood. Lakeside’s Manchester Square has been reduced to one square block and is entirely covered with trees. Its northern border, Colorado Street, was originally named Summit Street, which served as the northern boundary of the New London township.

Situated between Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh Avenues East from McCulloch Street to Gladstone Street, Portman Square became a public playground in 1910 following plans developed by landscape architects Anthony U. Morell and Arthur R. Nichols. The square was named after London’s Portman Square, once part of the nearby estate of England’s aristocratic Portman Family (Edward Berkeley Portman became the first Viscount of Portman in 1873). Lakeside’s Portman Square today is still two blocks in size and, as it has for over one hundred years, serves as a public playground with a fieldhouse, a baseball diamond, and three hockey rinks in the winter. The fieldhouse was built in 1940 as part of a Works Progress Administration improvement effort.

Russell Square lies between Forty-second and Forty-third Avenues East from Pitt Street to Jay Street. Like Manchester Square it has been reduced to one square block in size and, except for the stretch along Jay Street, it is entirely wooded. The Russell surname is famous in England as the family name of the Duke and Earl of Bedford, including John Russell, who became the First Earl of Russell in 1861 and briefly served as England’s Prime Minister from 1865 to 1866. England’s Russell Square is located in the London borough of Camden, near the University of London and the British Museum.

The only square in Lakeside not named for a London square, Washington Square sits between Forty-second and Forty-third Avenues East from Superior Street to Regent Street. In 1911 Morell & Nichols offered two different plans for the park. One, shown on the previous page, featured a pavilion in the center, surrounded by groves of trees, picnic grounds, and a meadow. The other plan included a baseball diamond that could be flooded and used as a skating rink in the winter. Today the square is partially wooded and includes playground equipment. It is named not after New York City’s famous Washington Square—also established in 1871—but rather for Philadelphia’s long-established Washington Square, located just four blocks from Jay Cooke’s bank, where McCulloch once worked.

Read more of this story: 1 2 3