Located atop one of the highest points in Duluth, Enger Park was envisioned long before it received the name it bears today. Thirty acres of this rocky hillside below Skyline Parkway, which the Duluth Board of Park Commissioners named Central Park, was set aside as one of the city’s first parks. As early as 1890, members of the park board planned to expand Central Park by acquiring additional land at the top of the hill, but they never had enough money. Finally, in 1920, a generous donation from a West End furniture dealer allowed the city to begin developing it into what eventually became the most popular tourist stop along Skyline Parkway.
Duluth’s Undeveloped Central Park
Duluth’s Central Park bears no similarity to the more famous Central Park in New York City, which covers over eight hundred acres in the midst of one of the country’s largest urban areas. Most of New York’s Central Park is manicured and landscaped with ponds, trails, fountains, sports fields, and monuments. Duluth’s Central Park includes about thirty acres of the some of the wildest and steepest land in the heart of the city—and no landscaping. Located on the rocky hillside below Enger Park, it covers a nine-block area between Fourteenth and Seventeenth Avenues West from First Street up to Fourth Street.
The original owners of the land dedicated it as a park in 1870 when they platted the area for development. The Polk Directory of 1884 to 1885 referred to it simply as a “public park.” In 1889 it became the responsibility of the newly created Duluth Board of Park Commissioners. Although not formally named until 1894 when park board members christened it Central Park, the area was recognized early on as an important location for a larger park. In 1887, inspired by William K. Rogers, city engineers drew up a plan for a coordinated system of parks that would be connected by a scenic parkway across the hillside. On December 6, 1887, the Lake Superior Review & Weekly Tribune reported, “A communication from the board of works regarding the proposed park system was laid before the council, and was accompanied by a finely executed map, which had been hung on the wall. The communication was full of high falutin words.” The plan included a proposed one-hundred-acre “Zenith Park” covering the hilltop above Central Park, including the high rocky knob that is today occupied by Enger Tower. (“Zenith Park” was also the name of an amusement park that operated on Whiteside Island, aka Clough Island, in the St. Louis River during the 1890s.)
When the park board laid out the route of the parkway from Chester Creek to Miller Creek in the 1890s, they split the road into two branches that looped around the base of the rocky knob above Central Park, which was known as Grand View Mountain. Excavation and the damming of Buckingham Creek created two small bodies of water northeast of the landmark. Called Twin Ponds today, they were originally named Twin Lakes or Gem Lakes and were intended to be a spot for those on tallyho excursions to stop for a picnic lunch; the parkway crossed over the creek between the two lakes.
The city did not own the land inside the loop around Grand View Mountain; nevertheless, board members considered it to be part of the parkway. They could not officially designate the area as Zenith Park until the city gained ownership of the land, but they intended to make that happen eventually, as was clearly stated in the board’s annual report for 1911: “The bare rock that heaves itself in the center of this park area has never been acquired by the city. It is not likely to be taken for any other use and when eventually it becomes part of the park system in legal fact, it needs only the making of paths over the peak and the cultivation of such trees as formerly grew there, to make it the most romantic city park in the world unrivaled for wonders of far spreading view.”
At about the same time, in response to requests from the West End Hillside Club, the park board engaged the Minneapolis landscape architects Anthony Morell and Arthur Nichols to help decide how to “improve” Central Park. The men were already well known in Duluth, working on behalf of New York landscape engineer Charles W. Leavitt on the grounds of Chester and Clara Congdon’s Glensheen estate and Congdon Park along Tischer Creek.
At the time Morell and Nichols began plans for Central Park, First and Third Streets already extended across the hillside, but most of the steep rocky land remained untouched. The Minneapolis firm’s landscape plan for “Central Park and Proposed Addition,” dated January 1911, included a connecting road from Second Street to Third Street, walking paths, a playground just below Fourth Street, picnic grounds, and a building on “Grand View Knob” within the proposed Zenith Park. Unfortunately, the board was short of money and could not implement the plan. When the new city charter eliminated the park board in 1913, responsibility for the park system shifted to the new mayor, and he did not consider development of Central Park to be a priority.
Following the end of World War I, Park Superintendent and Civil War veteran Henry Cleveland proposed an elaborate plan to create a “castle” that would serve as a memorial to Duluthians who fought in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. The Duluth News Tribune reported that the memorial was to be built on the rocky knob above Central Park, which Cleveland called Grand Mountain.
He envisioned a building that would include a huge auditorium with room for three thousand people; a first-class café for visitors; rooms that would hold copper tablets engraved with the name of everyone who served in the wars; a camera obscura that would reflect a miniature, but magnified, reproduction of any bit of scenery that its lens was trained on; a parapet with a periscope; a flag staff at the top of the roof that would be “the same distance from the level of the lake as the lake is from the level of the sea” (about six hundred feet); and a sun dial on the tower. The grounds would be filled with pergolas, walks, vines, fountains, flower beds, and statuary. Cleveland’s proposal also included a municipal golf course and a large bathing pool.
Cleveland estimated the project would cost a minimum of $100,000. His plan was undoubtedly too extravagant and costly for the park department’s budget. The memorial castle never materialized.