Duluth’s Undeveloped Parks

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)

Magney-Snively Park

While Paine did not intend to make any significant changes to Magney or Snively parks, memories of the devastating fire that had swept through parts of Duluth in 1918 still lingered, and even though the forest on the western hillside had not burned, Paine remained conscious of the ongoing threat. So in 1927 he set out to reduce the potential of forest fires in the area. “Fire protection is…particularly important in this park,” he wrote. “The land from two hundred to five hundred feet back on either side of the road was cleaned of dead and down material during the past winter. Over one hundred cords of wood were obtained from this work, part of which was sold and part used as firewood for Tourist Camps, Tool Houses, Golf House, etc. Cleaning has been started along the boundary lines so as to form fire breaks where any fires from the outside may be stopped.”

The city soon gained ownership of an additional two hundred acres of forested land on the city’s western hillside when Thomas A. Merritt donated five forty-acre tracts north and west of Magney Park as a memorial for his uncles Leonidas, Alfred, Cassius Clay, Jerome, and Andrus Merritt, who played key roles in developing the Mesabi Iron Range and the city of Duluth. (In 1925 Merritt also donated a forty-acre parcel in honor of his father Napolean B. Merritt, located farther to the south at 128th Avenue West near the base of Ely’s Peak.)

Maintenance work at Magney, Snively, and the Merritt memorial parks focused on building trails that also served as fire breaks. One trail traversed the hillside out to what Paine described as the “promontory at Ely’s Peak from which a wonderful panoramic view of the surrounding country is obtained.” City workers cleared a few picnic areas and built a portable warming shack on a large rock outcrop located above the parkway at the Bardon’s Peak overlook. This high point, locally known as Rock Mountain, was owned by the Universal Cement Company, a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation, until 1937. That year—after Snively lost the mayoral election, ending his tenure as Duluth’s longest-serving mayor—the company donated the land to the city “as a perpetual memorial to the memory of Samuel F. Snively in recognition of his services devoted to the establishment and development of a comprehensive system of parks, park driveways and boulevards within the limits of the city.”

Paine was also conscious of the need for the park system to generate money to help cover maintenance costs. In 1928 he suggested designating these western parks as a municipal forest that would be managed “on a forestry basis” to ensure a future stand of timber. He also recommended purchasing additional forested land in the area. He planned to sell some of the more valuable timber and use the profits to maintain and improve other city parks. Paine’s plan was modeled on the revenue-generating municipal forests that were common in many towns in Europe and the northeastern United States. The News Tribune supported the idea and reported that “the city forest…will preserve the natural wild land, forest, and stream for the people to enjoy, form a sanctuary for game and birds, provide beautiful walks and drives and eliminate fire hazards, as well as provide employment during dull periods of the year.”

Over the next few decades the city acquired at least sixty additional acres of forest surrounding Snively Park, but despite its designation as a municipal forest, little timber cutting took place. Magney and Snively Parks were nearly forgotten until the early 1970s when the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area (SMRA) was created. As part of this development, the city acquired a number of tax-forfeit land parcels between Snively Park and Bardon’s Peak. In the legislation that created the SMRA Authority, this land was designated as a “western peripheral area,” with uses restricted to recreational trails and public roadways. Acquisition of the additional parcels made it possible to consolidate all the publicly-owned land along the western end of Skyline Parkway and rename it Magney-Snively Park.

The twenty-first century brought a renewed interest in this unique expanse of hardwood forest. In 2002 the City of Duluth created the Duluth Natural Areas Program, stating that “The city council finds that the city of Duluth is the owner of a substantial number of tracts of real estate, both inside and outside the city, some of which are of special or unique ecological or environmental significance to the community, which properties should be considered for conservation designation in order to protect those values.”

Because of its significant native-plant communities and unique geological landforms, the city council designated approximately 1,800 acres of the Magney-Snively area as Duluth’s first Natural Area in 2006. According to its nomination document, Magney-Snively Park is unusual because it has the largest known tract of sugar maple–basswood forest in Northeastern Minnesota. “It is a complex landscape,” the nomination reads, “with a matrix of sugar maple–basswood forest containing smaller patches of black ash or alder swamps, rock outcrops, and rock outcrop woodlands.” In addition, “as a large forested tract along a well-known migration route, Magney-Snively provides important stopover and nesting habitat for migratory songbirds and raptors.” The city’s primary goals for designating the forest as a Natural Area include “maintaining the ecological integrity of the native plant communities of the Magney-Snively area and protecting the area’s special species and geologic landforms.” In 2012 the park and surrounding undeveloped greenspaces were designated as the Magney-Snively Forest Preserve.

Magney-Snively Park now includes nearly ten miles of city hiking/ski trails and four miles of the Superior Hiking Trail. The 1927 memorial to Sam Snively was rehabilitated by the City of Duluth in 2013. The Bardon’s Peak overlook provides spectacular views of the St. Louis River valley and Lake Superior, making the stretch of parkway adjacent to Magney-Snively especially popular in the fall when the hardwood forest is ablaze in shades of red, orange, and yellow.

As the News Tribune wrote in 1921, “Neither fire nor the lumberman can be permitted to wreck [sic] havoc on this only remaining forest section on the west. It must belong to the city and be protected by the city.” As of 2016 the people of Duluth have fulfilled this mandate by preserving this unique area that honors the two men who did so much to create Duluth’s park system.

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