A Community Gathering Place
By the early 1900s, community groups of every kind were holding summer picnics and gatherings in all the city parks. While improvements to Lincoln Park were at first quite minimal, around 1906 the park board added an artificial lake 150 feet long by 100 feet wide, fed by pipes that brought water from the creek. A wading pool was added a few years later, located adjacent to the stream near Sixth Street. For many years a fountain, highlighted by colored lights, rose from the center of the pool. And in 1912 the board enlarged the park by purchasing property along the banks of Miller Creek from Sixth Street all the way upstream to the parkway at Fourteenth Street.
Lincoln Park became the favored picnic location for the Duluth Retail Grocers Association, the Modern Woodmen of America, the United Order of Foresters, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Thousands of people attended these gatherings. The Retail Grocers Association picnics regularly drew three thousand or more people for a day filled with sporting events, refreshments, dancing, and musical programs. Following the 1904 grocers picnic, the News Tribune reported that “from early in the morning until a late hour of night Lincoln Park was thronged with the retailers and their guests and each was convinced that he had never spent a more enjoyable day.”
Of all the gatherings, the annual Swedish-American Midsummer Festival became Lincoln Park’s signature event. The first was held on June 23, 1911, when all the Swedish societies of the city joined together to create a celebration similar to the traditional Midsummer Fests they knew in Sweden. The News Tribune estimated that—despite the cold, windy weather—nearly 12,000 people attended the “greatest gathering of Swedish Americans ever held in Duluth and one of the largest of any kind.”
The festivities began with a parade that moved along Superior Street from Second Avenue East to Lincoln Park. Both the Marine Band and the Third Regiment Band provided music as members of the Order of Vasa and the Linnea Society marched between automobiles carrying the festival chairman, dignitaries including Mayor Marcus Cullum, and the “Midsummer bride.”
As paraders arrived for the festival they found that the “park and park buildings were bright with flags and bunting and brilliant with thousands of Japanese lanterns and colored electric lights at night, the Edison Electric Company installing the lights without charge. They were strung along the drives in profusion and outlined all of the buildings, even covering the tall Midsummer pole.”
For the first five years of the festival, the celebration began on the evening of Midsummer Day with a dance at the privately owned dance hall located adjacent to Lincoln Park. But after fire destroyed the dance hall in 1916, organizers were forced to find a new location for the opening dance, which eventually disappeared completely from the program.
The Swedish-American Midsummer Festival took place annually at Lincoln Park until at least 1949 and usually drew 10,000 to 20,000 people. Speakers at the festival regularly included Duluth’s mayor, Minnesota’s governor, congressional representatives, and prominent Swedish-American leaders from throughout the Midwest.
The 1918 festival, in addition to celebrating midsummer, also marked the end of World War I. Duluth mayor Clarence Magney’s opening speech offered an optimistic view of the future when he said, “We have gathered to celebrate the signing of the greatest document ever signed by man. I feel that today is the beginning of a new era. There is a possibility that all wars will be avoided in the future by some peaceful means.”
For nearly a decade, it seemed as if Magney’s optimism would hold true. In 1926 the city extended the road through the park (Lincoln Park Drive) from Sixth to Tenth Streets. The following year saw the construction of the Lincoln Park Bridge, which carries Tenth Street over Miller Creek. The project was driven by the West End Hillside Improvement Club, which made sure the bridge, built of concrete but faced with rustic stone, could carry streetcar tracks to help increase mobility—and local property values. A bronze plaque commemorated the club’s efforts, along with Mayor Snively and the Duluth City Council. Unfortunately, two years after the bridge was completed the United States sank into the Great Depression, followed by World War II.
During the Depression, Mayor Sam Snively and Park Superintendent F. Rodney Paine took advantage of government funding to put unemployed men to work on projects in all the city’s parks. Duluth’s City Works Administration hired jobless Duluthians to build a toboggan run and ski jump in Lincoln Park in 1931, though the popularity of these winter activities was short-lived in the West End park. Lincoln Park’s stone pavilion was built in 1934 with funds and labor from two of the earliest government relief programs—the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA) and the Civil Works Administration (CWA). Reportedly two dozen of the CWA laborers gave three days’ work without pay to get the Lincoln Park pavilion ready for the annual Midsummer Festival.
Following the end of World War II, Lincoln Park suffered the same neglect that afflicted all of the city’s parks—a result of the 1956 change in Duluth’s government combined with a slowing economy. The News Tribune reported in 2014 that “after years of deterioration of the pavilion and other parts of Lincoln Park, a neighborhood group initiated repair and restoration work in the park in the late 1990s and early 2000s.” That work included a $130,000 restoration of the pavilion in 2002, which earned the project a 2003 award from the Duluth Preservation Alliance. The Lincoln Park Bridge underwent a major rehabilitation in 2006 to 2007. The 2012 flood damaged the bridge and the pavilion, and in July 2014, vandals torched the pavilion, causing another $75,000 in damages.
Yet Lincoln Park’s future looks bright. In 2015 the City of Duluth invited residents to participate in meetings about proposed renovations to the park, which qualified for the Grand Avenue Parks Fund, part of the St. Louis River Corridor Project. Plans, approved in February 2016, include repairing existing park infrastructure to reduce maintenance; upgrading park destination areas to improve safety and meet ADA accessibility requirements; creating amenities to better serve the needs of children, adult, and senior park user groups; and improved access to the Duluth Traverse and Superior Hiking Trail systems.