Duluth’s Park System, 1856 – 1956

Lithographic postcard, ca. 1910, of a rustic bridge designed by Morell & Nichols spanning Tischer Creek within Congdon Park. (Image: Zenith City Press)

A New Environmental Consciousness

Things began to improve between 1967 and 1975, the years Ben Boo served as mayor. The environmental movement was growing across the country, bringing a renewed interest in the parks. But at the same time, Duluth’s largest employer—United States Steel’s Minnesota Steel plant in Morgan Park—shut down, leaving many people without jobs and bringing economic hard times to all of Duluth. According to Nash, the first year of Boo’s term (1967) was “one of the most trying for the Parks and Recreation Department because of the fact that our Program Budget was eliminated from June 1st to December 1st, during which time we had to operate our softball, playgrounds, and playfield programs by using volunteer help, Neighborhood Youth Corp, and Work Study personnel as employees. Not only did it set our Program back, but many of our capital facilities were damaged by vandalism because we were unable to have full-time personnel in charge of them.”

By 1968 Nash was able to report that the program was back to form after the drastic cutback of 1967. But he also warned, “Although we continue to cut costs wherever possible, inflation has caught up. The Department needs added revenue in order to stop its backward movement and advance in the future.”

To try to stabilize the department’s budget, the advisory board helped develop and lobby for passage of what they called “the Permanent Plan,” asking voters to approve a $12 million special levy for improving and maintaining the parks. In 1969 voters said “no” to the special levy, despite the plea that “Duluth’s parks have been left to deteriorate and are now in overall disrepair!”

Nevertheless, in his 1970 annual report Nash wrote, “A successful and comprehensive Capital Improvement Program, which encompassed both new construction and major remodeling, was carried out during the year. In fact more improvements were accomplished in 1970 than in the previous thirty years combined.” These improvements included a new pavilion at Chambers Grove, pavilion work at Fairmount and Lincoln parks, remodeling at Memorial, Portman, and Lafayette fieldhouses, and the purchase of grooming equipment for Chester Park.

Challenges for the department in the early 1970s included the loss of thousands of trees to Dutch elm disease and extensive damage to the parks as the result of major flooding in late summer 1972. Improvements included a cooperative project with the Junior League of Duluth to renovate and publicize many of the park trails and opening of the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area in 1974.

Ben Boo resigned as mayor in January 1975 to become director of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District. City council president Robert Beaudin finished out the last year of Boo’s term. Following Beaudin’s election to a four-year term as mayor, Harry Nash resigned in February 1976 as director of parks and recreation, replaced by Mary K. Schroeder. As the Atlas Cement plant—the last remaining section of the steel plant—shut down, Mayor Beaudin, himself a former steel plant worker, focused his efforts on economic development and job creation.

John Fedo became mayor in 1979 and appointed Ray E. Carson director of the parks and recreation department; James McCord replaced Carson in 1983. Fedo is credited with launching the renaissance of Duluth’s lakefront and the development of Canal Park in the 1980s. He converted Duluth’s industrial waterfront into a tourist attraction, was active in the design and beautification of downtown Duluth, and expanded the golf courses. Additional support came from Gerald Kimball, director of the Department of Research & Planning, who promoted the idea of surrounding the central urban area with a “greenbelt” composed of connected parks and undeveloped tax forfeited land. In 1989 Fedo selected Carl Seehus as McCord’s successor.

Turning Challenges into Opportunities

As always, citizens continued to play an important role in developing and maintaining the park system. With the help of a citizen advisory committee, one of Duluth’s major controversies was resolved in the 1980s; construction of Interstate 35 from Thompson Hill to Mesaba Avenue in the 1960s and early 1970s had destroyed neighborhoods in West Duluth and the West End. (It also created two small parks. Keene Creek Park and Midtowne Park, both located under highway overpasses.) Many Duluthians were appalled by the results of the initial expansion, and they weren’t happy with the plan to continue the highway eastward through downtown and then elevate it on stilts over the Lake Superior shoreline.

Public outcry brought a halt to the project until a more acceptable design could be developed. The Citizens Advisory Committee, working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, created a more sensitive plan that utilized the existing railroad corridor, added tunnels to carry the roadway under Leif Erikson Park and downtown streets, and preserved public access to the lakeshore. Duluth landscape architect Kent Worley proposed a landscaping design that included Lake Place Park on top of a highway tunnel and the Lakewalk, a walking and biking path along the shoreline. Duluth’s Lakewalk was officially dedicated and opened in 1990 with what the park department called “a very festive and memorable event.” Gateway Plaza, Jay Cooke Plaza, Lake Place Park, and Rail Park were all created during this portion of highway expansion as well. Also in 1990, the Junior League of Duluth built Playfront, a playground within Bayfront Park.

Mayor Gary Doty served from 1992 to 2004. He replaced Seehus with Suzanne Moyer as director of the Parks and Recreation Department; she served until 1999 when Doty made the uprecidented move of reappointing Carl Seehus. Doty focused primarily on economic development and infrastructure improvements, mainly streets and sewers. After many years of conflicting plans for the bayfront, in 1999 Lois Paulucci, wife of frozen-food magnate Jeno Paulucci, donated $3 million to improve Bayfront Festival Park. A permanent stage, named the Lois M. Paulucci Pavilion, was completed and opened on July 26, 2001. And in 2003 the Hartley Nature Center opened, the culmination of an effort begun by a volunteer group in the 1980s. The Park and Recreation Advisory Board became the Parks and Recreation Commission.

After taking office in 2004, Mayor Herb Bergson retained Seehus as director of the parks and recreation department. The department focused its efforts on the Lake Superior Zoo, the municipal golf courses, senior and after-school programs, music in the parks, and recreational opportunities.

During the administration of Mayor Don Ness (2008 to 2016), Kathy Bergen succeeded Seehus. The Ness administration’s record in regard to Duluth’s parks might best be described as inconsistent. State budget cuts to local government aid in 2009 forced tough decisions; the public library’s hours of operation were severely reduced, as was park maintenance.

In 2010 the Ness administration hired the Hoisington Kaogler Group, Minneapolis-based planning consultants, who advised that Duluth take drastic measures to reduce its park inventory. According to the News Tribune, on the firm’s advice the parks division proposed “the demolition of 40 percent of the city’s recreation centers” and the sale of much of its undeveloped park land. Nine of the city’s twenty-two recreation centers were on the chopping block, including those at Hillside Sport Court, Observation Park, Piedmont Park, Lincoln Park, Merritt Park, Memorial Park, Riverside Park, Gary–New Duluth Park, and Fond du Lac Park—all in the western part of the city. Also in the west, the plan called for selling off portions of Bayview School Forest and Brewery Park. To the east, park properties threatened for sale included Lower Chester Park Playground and Lakeside’s Portman Playground, Manchester Square, Russell Square, and Scott Keenan Park (aka Fortieth Avenue East & Jay Street Park).

Many Duluthians, particularly those west of Mesaba Avenue, did not like the plan. At the very least it failed to consider that Duluth is a city of neighborhoods, and each neighborhood has a certain amount of sentimentality and pride in its parks and schools—especially in the city’s western half. Duluthians flooded the email inboxes of city councilors with complaints about the proposed plan. More than fifty concerned citizens showed up at a master plan meeting in November, most expressing their desire to retain neighborhood community centers.

Thanks to community efforts, only a few of the plan’s recommendations were carried out. In Lakeside, tiny Scott Keenan Park was sold, and in West Duluth the historic fieldhouses at Irving Park and Memorial Park—damaged by the 2012 flood—were demolished. The parks and recreation commission helped to develop new master plans for many of the parks, and voters approved a 2011 referendum that created a property tax fund dedicated specifically to support the park system and public library.

Ness again faced strong public reaction when in 2014 he proposed selling all or some of the Lester Park Golf Course to housing developers; the course was not sold. Ness received a much better reaction to his plans for the St. Louis River Corridor Initiative, an $18 million plan with the goal of investing in public park and trail improvements from Lincoln Park to the Fond du Lac neighborhood. Included in the plans were improvements to Chambers Grove Park, the Gary–New Duluth Recreation Area, Irving Park, Lincoln Park, and Memorial Park. A new chalet for Spirit Mountain was built at the base of the ski hill with access from Grand Avenue, and Wade Stadium was refurbished. With public input a radical new plan was devised for Fairmount Park and the Lake Superior Zoo, and enthusiastic ice climbers helped establish Quarry Park. As of 2016 many of the initiative’s projects are yet to be implemented, including work at Piedmont, Harrison, Merritt, Irving, Grassy Point, Keene Creek, Norton, Riverside, Smithville, Morgan Park, Blackmer, Fond du Lac, and Historical parks.

While Ness was in office the city also cooperated with the Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores (COGGS) to create the Duluth Traverse, a multiuse, single-track trail purpose-built for mountain biking; the Superior Hiking Trail was extended through the city; and in 2012 an effort by the Duluth Cty Council created the F. Rodney Paine Forest Preserve.

Director Bergen retired in the fall of 2015, shortly before Ness left office, and was replaced by Lindsay Dean. In January 2016 Emily Larson took over as mayor of Duluth. Larson was a very strong and vocal supporter of the 2011 referendum, and as a city councilor (2011–2015) she served as chairperson for the council’s Recreation, Libraries & Authorities Committee. Her support for the city’s park system is clearly expressed in her 2016 statement that “The history of land, and who has access to it, tells an enormous amount about the values and priorities of a community. Duluth’s story is based on a resounding value for our green space, open space, wild space and free space. Parks are where people gather, families play, and memories are made. And the best part is that parks are for everyone: all neighbors, all neighborhoods. No one needs to pay admission or a membership fee. Everyone already belongs.”

Following Bergen’s retirement, the News Tribune wrote that as a result of major budget deficits in 2008 and 2009 that forced cuts in staff and resources, the parks and recreation department had increasingly turned to volunteers and service groups for help with facilities and programming. Calling this a “new model,” Mayor Ness said, “What we’ve moved to is a model in which the city prioritizes maintenance of our public space and then works with community organizations to use those spaces well.”

In reality, this is not a new model at all. For over 125 years Duluth’s park system has been built, improved, maintained, and sustained by a partnership between city government and the generous and dedicated citizens of this city. Throughout the years Duluthians have confirmed what the Board of Park Commissioners wrote in 1911: “The parks of a modern city bear witness that its people are members of one great family. They are the concrete expression of civic consciousness in its highest visible form.”

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