Long before Duluth began developing its park system, the Lester River was a popular destination for fishing, picnicking, and summer outings. In the early 1880s, even before the streetcar line made it easily accessible, picnickers and fishermen arrived at the river by boat, carriage, or bicycle. Anglers took advantage of every good fishing hole, while picnickers headed to the rocky shore of Lake Superior or the shady grove of birch trees surrounding the picturesque waterfalls about three-quarters of a mile upstream from the river’s mouth. More adventurous visitors could follow a foot path along the river which took them into the forest where, as the Duluth News Tribune described, “every step of the way is through an enchanted land of fairy-like beauty.”
According to local tradition, the Ojibwe called the river Busabikazibi, “river where water flows through a worn place in the rocks.” The name “Lester” likely came from an early settler—most of Duluth’s creeks are named for settlers who arrived at the Head of the Lakes in the 1850s. In 1901, Baltimore resident George V. Leicester wrote to the short-lived Duluth Historical Society (1898 to 1902) that he was preparing a paper for the organization explaining that he was the river’s namesake. The News Tribune reported that Leicester claimed the river was named for him (Lester is the British pronunciation of Leicester) after he lived for one winter in a cabin on its banks prior to ratification of the 1854 Treaty of LaPointe, which opened the northern shores of Lake Superior to settlement. The fact that Leicester, born in 1837, was just seventeen years old in 1854 certainly lends some doubt to his claims. According to records, Mr. Leicester died in Maryland in 1902 at the age of 65; his place of birth is not recorded.
In 1871 Hugh McCulloch, a business associate of Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke and the U.S. treasury secretary from 1865 to 1869, purchased a large parcel of land between today’s Fortieth and Fifty-fourth Avenues East from the lakeshore to today’s Colorado Avenue (originally Summit Street) from lumberman John D. Howard. (Prior to Howard, the property belonged to Francis Dermay, a Michigan militiaman who received the land as bounty for his service in the War of 1812.) McCulloch was then living in England, where he and Cooke established the banking firm of Jay Cooke, McCulloch & Co. From his London office, he platted his Minnesota township and, obviously inspired by his newly adopted town, named its streets and public squares for English noblemen and landmarks as well as prominent members of Cooke’s banks, including himself. He called his township New London.
New London’s first residents were General George B. and Mary Sargent, who built a home at Fortieth Avenue East and London Avenue (today’s London Road). Sargent, Cooke’s agent in Duluth, purchased all of New London from McCulloch following the Financial Panic of 1873 (caused by the failure of Cooke’s bank) which paralyzed development for the next ten years. George Sargent died in 1875 while on business in Germany.
Following George Sargent’s death, New London became the property of his widow, Mary. In 1886 the Sargent’s son William and other investors formed the Lakeside Land Company, which purchased New London from Mary Sargent and began buying property between Fifty-fourth and Seventy-fifth Avenues East. Because the Lester River ran through the center of this new development, they named it Lester Park. The company built streets and sewers, added water and electricity to the area, and in 1892 built a streetcar line that ran from Twenty-second Avenue East all the way to the Lester River. Prior to that, visitors and residents alike could utilize the Duluth & Iron Range Railroad for transportation.
The Lester River was already a favorite location for summer activities. As early as 1884, Thomas Buckley leased two hundred acres along the river with the goal of establishing a summer resort. Buckley constructed a sixteen-by-twenty-six-foot building near the mouth of the river and created a carriage road from there to the falls. He intended to capitalize on the most popular activities by selling fishing tackle along with food and beverages for picnickers. Newspaper ads announced that the steamship Mary Martini would make excursions from Duluth to the Lester River, charging a fare of fifty cents for a round trip, and invited picnickers to visit the summer resort at Lester Falls Park, where “all kinds of temperance refreshments” were available.
In 1889 Lakeside and Lester Park were incorporated together as the Village of Lakeside, which at that time was separated from Duluth by many blocks of undeveloped land. According to the News Tribune, the streetcar ride to the river was as scenic as the destination itself:
For the simple pleasure of the view as seen from the car window the one taking this six mile ride is well repaid. The bright green woods, the wild flowers, the fields of freshly mown hay and yellowing grain, the trim, new cottages, and the pure, sweet air—they are the elixir of life to the nostrils of [the] tired man or woman from the hot, palpitating city!
Sargent’s intention to create a park along the river was well known; in May 1886 the Duluth Weekly Tribune reported that brush fires threatened to destroy the birch grove “which Lakeside Land Company intends to be the central attraction of their future park.” Fortunately, Sargent and a group of men fought back the flames and saved the birch grove.
By 1890, the park appeared in Roe’s Real Estate Atlas as “Stearns Park,” named in honor of Judge Ozora P. Stearns, president of the Lakeside Land Company. In addition to a small triangle of land between the two branches of the river extending from Superior Street to Tioga Street, the twenty-acre park included a narrow strip of land along both sides of Amity Creek (at that time called the West Branch of the Lester River) upstream to just above the waterfall and swimming hole known today as “the Deeps.”
A carriage path, Occidental Boulevard, paralleled the west side of Amity Creek; another path, Oriental Boulevard, paralleled the east side of the creek (today Oriental Boulevard is part of the park’s cross-country ski trail system). The park also included a strip of land along the east side of the river from Superior Street to Lake Superior. Several years earlier the Lakeside Land Company had donated land on the west side of the river for the U.S. Fish Hatchery. In 1891 state legislation turned the Village of Lakeside into the City of Lakeside in anticipation of the inevitable annexation of the community by Duluth. After a lively fight among local politicians, compromises were reached and the annexation of Lakeside went into effect on January 1, 1893. Following annexation, Lakeside and Lester Park became neighborhoods of the greater city, and the Lakeside Land Company donated Stearns Park and five public squares in Lakeside to Duluth’s expanding park system.
‘You Are Invited’
While Duluth’s park board welcomed the gift of Stearns Park, it wasn’t financially prepared for the addition as it had overextended its budget working to acquire land and make improvements to the parkway, Chester Park, and Lincoln Park. Nevertheless, in its annual report for 1894, the board graciously wrote that “the people of Duluth are indebted to the generosity of the Lakeside Land Co. for the gift of this magnificent tract of land for park purposes.” The board renamed the greenspace “Lester River Park,” but it was soon referred to as simply Lester Park.
Located at the point where the eastern and western branches of the river come together, the small triangle of land appeared to be an island that could be reached only by crossing one of the numerous rustic bridges. According to the park board, “this island is the picnic grounds and the park board [is] beautifying and at the same time striving to retain its wild features.” Large birch and pine trees shaded the picnic grounds that the board had “furnished with long pine tables, rustic chairs and benches, good paths, and a convenient pump.”
The area’s popularity among picnickers continued to increase after it became an official city park. By 1900 the streetcar from downtown Duluth to Lester Park ran every twenty minutes during the day and more frequently in the early evening. The News Tribune described idyllic outings:
Every bright, pleasant morning during the week, picnic parties go from town and spend the day at Lester Park…. They have an abundant and tempting lunch, wraps, hammocks or a swing, and a bit of sewing for the older women. The girls generally tuck away a novel among the sandwiches for private delectation along in the afternoon after the excitement of arrival and lunch is over.
Lester Park also became a favorite place for dances, which were held within one or another of the many pavilions. It is difficult to pin down the exact number and location of pavilions and concession stands that existed in and around Lester Park at the beginning of the twentieth century, but the most famous was the Lester River Rustic Bridge, which spanned the river in the heart of the park from 1898 to 1931.