Duluth’s Chester Congdon is best known as the man who built Glensheen, the elegant Jacobean manor house and estate perched along the shore of Lake Superior at 3300 London Road. Congdon, an attorney by trade, made his fortune after becoming chief counsel for the Oliver Mining Company in 1892. When the company was bought out by J. P. Morgan in his effort to create U. S. Steel, Congdon became one of the wealthiest men in Minnesota. The lifelong Republican was an admirer of Teddy Roosevelt—particularly Roosevelt’s efforts to expand the national park system. Using his newfound wealth, Congdon laid the groundwork for an international highway along Lake Superior’s North Shore.
London Road and Congdon Boulevard
Chester and Clara Congdon were living in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1880s—the time when neighboring Minneapolis was developing its extensive parkway system that linked together parks, lakes, residential neighborhoods, and the river.
In 1889 Duluth’s new Board of Park Commissioners—likely inspired by the Minneapolis parkways as well as board president William K. Rogers’s experience with rival Chicago’s park system—set out to build its own parkway system. The board members planned a boulevard across the hillside that would be connected by stream corridor parks to a boulevard along the shore of Lake Superior. In their 1894 annual report, park board members wrote, “London road is the Lake Shore boulevard and continues on to the Lester River….This drive is in full view of the lake where one can enjoy the cool and refreshing lake breeze, and also enjoy the wild scenery of rocks and woods. This boulevard is to Duluth what the Lake Shore Drive is to Chicago.”
London Road had been built around 1871 to connect Duluth with the newly platted township of New London (now Lakeside). When, in August 1872, editors of the Duluth Minnesotian went on an inspection tour of the new development, they traveled to New London on what they called London Avenue. According to the newspaper,
the expense of building the road between the city and London has thus far been borne by the city, the town of Duluth, Mr. Tischer, and Messrs. Norton & Wisdom—only one property owner, Mr. Mitchell, of Lexington, Ky., having refused to contribute to that object… As the town of Duluth and the county have each been taxed to the utmost limit for road purposes, the property owners along the road, except Mr. Mitchell, have determined to complete the road in front of their premises in the same manner as that portion in the city limits.
The newspaper also reported that the road had already become “quite a fashionable drive-way.” By the 1890s, London Road was paved with macadam, a type of road surface made up of even-sized broken rock that was compacted and held together with tar. Bicycles were all the rage, as they had become available and affordable for middle-class families, and London Road was a popular place for “wheeling,” the term used for the new sport of bicycle racing. In 1892, the same year Chester Congdon moved his family to Duluth, the local cycle club held its first annual Duluth-to-Lester Park race on London Road.When Chester and his wife, Clara, chose the site for their home, London Road was still mostly forested between Twenty-first and Fortieth Avenues East. He was likely already forming plans to extend this scenic road north to Canada, but he did not share his vision publicly. According to Glensheen Director Daniel Hartman, around the time he began construction of the estate, Congdon also started purchasing land along Lake Superior’s North Shore, from Duluth’s Tenth Avenue East to the county line just outside of Two Harbors.
Congdon knew he would not be able to purchase all the land needed for the road on his own, and he recognized that the City of Duluth did not have the power to condemn land outside the city limits. While serving as a state legislator between 1909 and 1913, he introduced a bill allowing “cities of the first class” (Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth) to annex land outside of city limits for transportation reasons. Passage of this bill was an important step in making it possible for Congdon to realize his vision for a scenic North Shore road. By 1913 he had succeeded in purchasing about one-third of the land he needed to build the road from Duluth to Two Harbors. He went public with his plan when he asked the city to condemn the parcels he had been unable to buy outright. He offered to cover the cost of acquiring the land and constructing the road, which he called the Lake Superior International Highway.
The plan, as described by the News Tribune in May 1913, included a bridge across the Lester River near the U.S. Fish Hatchery (at that time the only bridge was on Superior Street). Beyond the Lester River, the roadway would be one hundred feet wide and divided into five sections: two for automobiles, one for other vehicles, and two paths for pedestrians—one on each side of the road. And “at Stony Point, 17 miles from Duluth, the boulevard will take a turn from the lake shore and circle around a 165-acre tract, which will be converted into a park.”
The newspaper predicted that “Stony Point will undoubtedly become the mecca for all tourist parties coming to the head of the lakes.” The city began condemnation proceedings on fifty-three tracts of land for what was informally called the North Shore Boulevard, and in May 1915 city commissioners officially accepted Congdon’s gift and agreed to abide by its conditions that the boulevard property would never be converted to any other purpose. As the News Tribune explained:
Mr. Congdon has paid all engineering expenses in connection with the boulevard sight [sic], and has borne the cost of award through condemnation by the city. Mayor Prince announced that this amounted in round numbers to $40,000. The right-of-way includes rights in the lake along the scenic stretch.
Unfortunately, Congdon died unexpectedly in November 1916, leaving city leaders without the assurance of financial backing, and construction was postponed. According to his family, shortly before his death, Congdon had written a letter in which he stated that improvement of the lakeshore road should be taken up “when the appropriate time shall arrive.”