Duluth’s Park System, 1856 – 1956

George W. Martin stands at the memorial to Sam Snively within Snively Park, 1927. Photo by F. R. Paine. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

The Magney-Snively Era

Following the reorganization of city government, Duluth no longer had a group of citizens dedicated to providing leadership for the park system. Instead, the mayor, as commissioner of public affairs, was in charge of the city’s parks. As a result, support for the parks became a political issue, changing with every new administration.

In April 1913, newly elected mayor William Prince took over control of the city’s parks. Prince retained Henry Cleveland as park superintendent but announced that he would not re-establish the park board. As the Duluth Herald reported, all the new commissioners felt that “the whole theory of the commission form is centralization of responsibility and the appointment of advisory boards is not in keeping with that spirit.”

Although he supported acquiring additional land for park purposes and developing playgrounds throughout the city, Mayor Prince said he intended to abandon “the policy of spending thousands upon thousands of dollars for roadways.” Despite Prince’s claims of support, parks were not a priority as the new commissioners focused on reorganizing city government and cleaning up old problems. Annual reports prepared by Henry Cleveland for the years 1914 and 1915 indicate that most of his work focused on maintenance and repair of existing parks.

Prince’s term as mayor expired in April 1917. He ran for re-election but was eliminated in the primary. The city charter required candidates to limit their spending to $500, forcing a relatively low-key campaign between John Armistead and Clarence Magney. The city, and indeed the nation, faced far bigger concerns than Duluth’s park system. Europe had already been at war for more than two years, and on the day before Duluth’s mayoral election President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a Declaration of War against Germany. Four days later the United States officially joined World War I. On the home front, the Prohibition movement was gaining steam, and Duluth’s ballot included an ordinance to prohibit alcohol in the city. When the votes were counted, Clarence Magney became the new mayor of a “dry” Duluth.

During his three years as mayor, Magney witnessed more than his share of significant events: World War I ended, women gained the right to vote, automobiles became available to the middle class and auto touring became popular, the massive fire of October 1918 caused over $700,000 in damages to the city, and an angry crowd lynched three young black men in Duluth. Despite these challenges, Magney understood the value of parks and is credited with adding 1,433 acres to Duluth’s park system, including the upper portion of Chester Park (aka “Chester Bowl”), Enger Park, Memorial Park, and the Magney and Fond du Lac municipal forests.

Magney did not serve out his full four-year term as mayor; he resigned in September 1920 to campaign for election as a district judge. Duluth’s remaining commissioners appointed Trevanion W. Hugo, who had served as Duluth’s mayor from 1900 to 1904, to finish out the final six months of Magney’s term. Whatever contributions Hugo made to the city’s park system went unrecorded, but they were likely minimal at best. Two days after he took office, the commissioners released their proposed budget for 1921. Although the total budget increased by over $108,000 and funding increased for nearly every department, the park department budget was cut by $6,000.

In the spring of 1921, Duluthians elected Sam Snively as their new mayor. Snively loved the city’s parks and had worked with the park board a decade earlier to build his scenic roadway along Amity Creek. In 1917, when campaigning for a seat as commissioner, his advertisements emphasized re-establishment of citizen advisory boards, especially the park board. As mayor, Snively made the city’s park system a high priority.

When Henry Cleveland retired in 1926, Mayor Snively appointed F. Rodney Paine as the new park superintendent. Paine was a native of Duluth; he had earned a master of forestry degree from Yale University, and he came to the Duluth Park Department after serving as manager of Jay Cooke State Park and superintendent of parks for the State of Minnesota. Paine and Snively became a powerful team with a vision for the park system and the political will to carry out the vision.

Their progress was slowed, however, after 1929 when the entire country was affected by the onset of the Great Depression. Significant budget cuts meant the park department lost many employees. Paine took advantage of all the government work relief programs to keep his department functioning; eventually the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided funds and manpower for most of the work accomplished during the Depression.

According to calculations completed by the Duluth Department of Research and Planning in 1975, “During its seven-year existence, more than $10.5 million was spent on 459 WPA projects in Duluth, with project sponsors contributing $2.6 million. In 1938 alone, more than 12,000 families in the county looked to WPA for their income. Included in the program were the construction of new buildings at the zoo, fieldhouses at several playgrounds, winter sports facilities, and a major rehabilitation of the Skyline Parkway. The annual reports of the Park Board [sic] during these Depression years reveal that nearly all park improvements were funded through the WPA and related agencies.” Many of the projects initiated by Snively and Paine through the WPA were completed by later administrations.

In spite of the hard times, Snively and Paine are credited with many improvements to the park system during the sixteen years Snively served as mayor, including the extension of the parkway west to Jay Cooke State Park and east along Hawk Ridge, the acquisition of 326 acres of parkland by purchase and 163 acres by donation, construction of the Lester Park and Enger Park golf courses, construction of the fieldhouse and athletic field at Chester Bowl, establishment of the municipal zoo at Fairmount Park, improvements to Lake Shore Park (renamed Leif Erikson Park during Snively’s administration), and the development of tourist camps at Chester Bowl, Indian Point, and Brighton Beach. Many of these projects reflected a shift in the park department’s priorities, toward developing more recreational and revenue-producing activities. In the words of Rodney Paine, “These improvements provided a much larger recreational use of the park property and, in several cases, provided income towards their support. The park receipts have jumped from $3,169.00 in 1925 to $40,724.00 in 1931.”

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