Kitchi Gammi Park: Built for Automobile ‘Gypsies’
As automobiles became widely available in the 1920s summer vacations turned into road trips, creating a new style of tourism. When Sam Snively had become Duluth’s mayor in 1921, he recognized the potential to attract the new “auto tourists” to town. Snively, along with Duluth’s Commercial Club, Auto Club, and the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway Association, supported the local Lions Club’s campaign to develop tourist campsites in the city. In an interview with the News Tribune, Snively said, “Relying upon the persuasiveness of our natural attractions to draw the tourist to our city, we sit and watch the tourists come and watch the tourists go, without taking thought of their comfortable entertainment while they dwell within our gates.”
Snively knew that when Congdon Boulevard was completed, public access to the lake would be crucial for the auto tourists. The city already owned some shoreline property between Lester River and the Lakewood Pump House at Eighty-first Avenue East. The land had been purchased in 1896 when the pump house was built to supply Duluth with clean drinking water that would help prevent typhoid epidemics. In 1921 Snively convinced city commissioners to purchase additional land east of Lester River where he wanted to develop a tourist camp. After visiting the site, he told the News Tribune, “The preservation of our lake frontage means much in bringing tourists to Duluth, as it is primarily the lake they come for.” In September 1921 the city commissioners agreed to pay $46,200 for a sixty-nine-acre parcel of lakeshore that was known as Brighton Beach.
In 1922 Snively and Park Superintendent Henry Cleveland created the city’s first tourist camps at Brighton Beach, Indian Point, and Chester Bowl. The timing was perfect for taking advantage of the boom in auto tourism. In August 1922 the News Tribune reported “Northern Minnesota’s ‘Playground of a Nation’, that pine-scented park-and-land of ten thousand lakes…is drawing heavily on the vastly increased automobile ‘gypsies’ this summer. At times the arterial highways present almost a parade-like appearance as cars of high and low estates, each carrying the inevitable camping outfit, some elaborate and others confined to a lean-to and anti-rain hope, proceed on their journey.”
The Brighton Beach Tourist Camp was hugely successful. The original camp provided tent sites, water, and toilet facilities. By the time F. Rodney Paine replaced Cleveland as park superintendent in 1926, the new Lester River Bridge connected London Road directly to Congdon Boulevard, providing an easy route for tourists to reach the campground. Paine added eight cabins at the Brighton Beach Tourist Camp and unofficially began calling the entire lakeshore area Kitchi Gammi Park, although he did not explain why he chose this name.
While there are no records of how the park was named, it may be in recognition of some of the wealthy Duluthians who donated money and land to Duluth’s parks and who also belonged to Duluth’s exclusive Kitchi Gammi Club, founded in part by Paine’s father, Frederick W. Paine, the secretary of Duluth’s first park board. These men included Luther Mendenhall and Major John Upham (both members of Duluth’s first park board), Chester Congdon and his sons (including Edward, once the club’s president), Guilford Hartley, William Sargent, and even C. R. McLean (builder of the Lester River Bridge), and others, including Paine himself.
In 1927 the tourist camp hosted over four thousand cars; the price was fifty cents per night per car. Paine added four more cabins in 1930, five in 1931, and three in 1934. By this time the nation was deep into the Great Depression, so work on city parks was limited by budget constraints. The tourist camps at Brighton Beach and Indian Point provided a bright spot in an otherwise dark time by bringing in a profit every year. The Brighton Beach Tourist Camp operated into the late 1950s. By the 1960s the camp was gone, and the land became the site for the National Water Quality Laboratory, which today is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mid-Continent Ecology Division.
Thanks to the foresight of Chester Congdon, Sam Snively, and many other Duluthians, public access to Lake Superior has been preserved along this scenic segment of the shoreline. Although the tourist camp is gone, Brighton Beach at Kitchi Gammi Park and the scenic Congdon Boulevard remain some of the city’s most popular public areas.