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Duluth’s Park System, 1856 – 1956

A Lithographic postcard of “The Glenn” within Chester park, ca. 1905. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The Parkway and Five Parks

After Rogers left the board, the mayor appointed businessman Arthur B. Chapin as his replacement. But even under the competent guidance of Mendenhall, Silberstein, Helm, and Chapin, the minutes of park board meetings paint a picture of a city whose enthusiasm and desire for parks always outstripped its ability to pay for them.

Because of financial constraints, the board found it necessary to trim back the original plans for the city’s park system. In their first annual report, published in February 1892, the board members wrote:

There was included in the system of parks and parkways, as planned by the former board, and put under condemnation by them, land to the amount of about $700,000. This amount was considered by the present board as being out of proportion with the amount of funds available for the purchase of land, and it was deemed best by them to revise and reduce the system to such proportions as would make it practicable in the end to acquire what remained. This, after due consideration, they proceeded to do, and finally agreed upon and formulated a plan and system which is estimated to cost, for the acquirement of the land, from $400,000 to $450,000.

The new board spent most of its resources during the first three years (1891 to 1893) on the parkway, which extended from Miller Creek at Third Street across the hillside to Chester Creek at Fourth Street. Board members spent many hours overseeing construction, reviewing maps, and deliberating over the alignment of the road, even shifting sections of the constructed roadway from “temporary” to what they hoped would be “permanent” locations. Where they could not acquire land by willing purchase, they acquired it through eminent domain.

By 1892, the board reported that they controlled 145 acres, including the right-of-way for the parkway, along Miller Creek and Chester Creek, Central Park, Portland Square, and Cascade Square.

Duluthians loved the parks immediately, and they soon began asking for improvements. Residents west of Miller Creek requested a foot bridge over the creek at or near Tenth Street. The common council encouraged the board to improve the public squares.

Board members wanted to comply with these requests, but they did not have enough money to acquire land and carry out all the desired improvements. In June 1892, they reported that the balance due on property under condemnation was $41,379.23. After evaluating all available funds, they estimated a shortage of $20,000 to $25,000. They requested a temporary loan from the city and proposed to repay it with money raised through an assessment.

Unfortunately, everything came to a screeching halt a little more than a year later—and several months after a stock market crash that caused the nationwide Financial Panic of 1893—when, at their August 8, 1893, meeting, “the financial condition of the board was considered, and owing to a lack of funds it was deemed advisable to stop all improvements and to lay off all but two men on August 12.” The board did not meet again until eight months later, in April 1894.

The meeting minutes shed little light on where the board found the money to resume work, but it is clear that the financial problems continued. In May 1894, Leonidas Merritt, whose family had suffered huge financial losses in the Panic of 1893, requested repayment of money he had loaned four years earlier (at Rogers’s request) for building an extension of the parkway west of Miller Creek. And in July 1896, contractors A. & D. Sang requested $3,663.58 that had not yet been reimbursed for work done in 1890 on construction of the parkway—also at Rogers’s request.

Despite the constant struggle for funding, the board members moved ahead on several projects. In June 1894, they used a $2,000 loan to improve Portland Square. Although they specified that the cost of the improvements should not exceed $2,000, the final total reached nearly $6,000. To cover the extra cost, the board requested that the city levy an assessment on nearby properties that benefited from the improvements. The board also began a major tree planting effort, authorizing the purchase of $2,000 worth of trees and shrubbery.

As board members began to better understand the task of creating a park system, they realized that their own processes needed to be more formalized. In November 1894, Commissioner Helm introduced a resolution that “the park in the west end of the city, and now known as Cascade or Millers Creek Park, be designated and hereafter known as Lincoln Park.”

During the discussion of this resolution, the question arose as to whether any of the park grounds of the city had been formally named or designated. After looking back through the minutes, Secretary Helm reported that no formal action had ever been taken.

As a result, in December 1894, the board officially designated “Lincoln Park” in the West End, “Central Park,” located below today’s Enger Park, and the eastern hillside’s “Garfield Park,” later renamed Chester Park. The board also officially named the parkway “Rogers Boulevard…in recognition of the valuable services rendered the city by the late Col. Wm. K. Rogers former President of this board in planning and supervising the construction of the Parkway connecting the above system of parks.”

Citizens Help Create Parks

Duluth’s park board began to make real progress on the park system in the late 1890s. Taxes, assessments, and short-term loans provided a relatively steady flow of funds to work with, and board members spent the money cautiously. They continued to acquire land for the permanent alignment of Rogers Boulevard and worked on expanding it to the west while adding more land to the park system, including forty acres in West Duluth, which they named Fairmount Park. They hired park policemen, built skating rinks throughout the city, and began to subsidize music in the parks. They also planted and maintained trees in the parks and along the city streets.

As a result of the increased activity, in 1899, the park board created the position of superintendent of parks and hired Henry C. Helm—who had served as secretary of the board since 1891—to fill the position at a salary of $75 per month. This arrangement worked out so well that in 1900 the board members continued Helm’s contract. In 1901, they combined the positions of secretary and park superintendent, and in 1903, Helm resigned from the board to devote all his time to the job.

The citizens of Duluth not only loved and used the parks, they also helped to acquire land, make improvements, and maintain facilities. In 1904, Chester Congdon, owner of the Glensheen estate, donated land and money to create a linear park along Tischer Creek, later named Congdon Park in his honor.

In October 1906, a group of citizens led by F. A. Patrick (who later became a member of the park board) offered to furnish money to construct a better connection to the eastern end of Rogers Boulevard near the Chester Creek bridge. The board accepted their offer, and construction of the new road was completed within a year.

Public donations helped purchase fourteen acres of land from the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1907, which became known informally as Lake Shore Park (now Leif Erikson Park). Of the $20,000 paid for the land, $8,000 was raised by subscriptions from “public spirited citizens” while the remainder came from the park fund.

In 1909, Sam Snively (Duluth’s mayor from 1921 to 1937) offered to find buyers for $10,000 of park bonds, provided the money would be used for the restoration of the roadway he had built for public use along Amity Creek. Work on the “Snively Highway”—now called Seven Bridges Road—began in 1910, with the official opening in July 1912.

Youngsters pitched in as well. Neighborhood boys and girls, along with numerous organized clubs, helped maintain skating rinks in the parks. A petition from 121 boys and girls of the West End resulted in permission for them to create a skating rink in Lincoln Park—as long as there was no expense to the park fund. The board also appropriated $200 for a warming house at Portman Square with the requirement that the Lakeside Club take care of it throughout the year. In 1910, the board reported fifteen free skating rinks in the city, eight of which were “wholly furnished by the park board, and seven furnished by private subscriptions.”

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