The Parks of Minnesota Point

Minnesota Point Recreation Area Bathhouse, also known as the Beach House, ca. 1940 (Image: Minnesota Historical Society)

In March 1937 Paine released an architect’s sketch, drawn by landscape architect Arthur Nichols, of the proposed facility, which included a dock and a boat launch and, for the future, a swimming pool. That summer workers extended Minnesota Avenue about three-quarters of a mile, laid down six inches of top soil for the athletic fields, and broke ground on the bathhouse. A miniature train was used to carry materials over the sand to the construction site.

Just a month later Rudy Berghult replaced Sam Snively as Duluth’s mayor and Earl Sherman took over from Paine as the new superintendent of the park department. Sherman continued to oversee work on Minnesota Point; roads were blacktopped, and workers constructed paths and stone steps, planted trees, built picnic benches, and created a football field and two baseball diamonds.

In April 1938, before the WPA even finished constructing the recreation area facilities, the city council agreed to add an “amusement zone” south of the new athletic field. That June the council set aside over $10,000 to develop the amusement park, expecting that revenues from the rides and parking fees would cover the expenses, which included salaries for a manager, ticket sellers, parking lot attendants, a caretaker, and two merry-go-round attendants. Earlier that month the city had spent $5,300 for a merry-go-round, a 1906 steam-driven Alan Herschel 36-horsepower carousel with hand-carved wooden horses suspended on brass poles. A “flying scooter”—similar to modern Chair-O-Plane rides—was also acquired. The amusement park opened for the first time later that summer with A. H. Muir as its manager. A miniature railway and Ferris wheel were added the following year. Private contractors maintained the rides, with the city receiving 25 percent of the gross revenues. Unfortunately, operation of the amusement park in 1938 resulted in a net loss of $221.53.

The bathhouse—the recreation area’s focal point—opened in June 1939. Located on a ridge directly above the sandy beach, the building was constructed of heavy cedar timbers in a Nordic design. According to Muir, the bathhouse could accommodate two thousand people at a time. A fee of fifteen cents provided guests with a basket for checking their clothing, a towel, and access to the dressing and bath facilities. Despite the bathhouse, that year’s losses were nearly double those of the previous year. The deficit was blamed on cold and rainy weather.

In 1940 the park opened two weeks earlier, on May 25. In an attempt to increase revenue, the park department continued to make improvements, offering weekly band concerts and adding a Dodgem Cars ride. The older rides were fitted with “new and colorful fronts,” and the miniature train’s railway was tripled in length. These improvements helped increase income by nearly $3,000, but despite the long summer and new attractions, the amusement park operated at a loss. While the Dodgem ride increased receipts, renting the ride and building a facility to hold it cost over $2,600.

The next year saw the addition of an archery range; a giant checker board; outdoor Ping-Pong tables; and courts for shuffle board, horseshoes, croquet, and quoits. These additions helped make it a popular picnic location for large groups such as the American Legion, Duluth Retail Druggists, and the Hay Fever Club of America. The facility also got a new manager, J. C. Shields. Despite the thousands of people who made use of the recreation area in the 1940s, the facility continued to struggle financially, partly the result of unfavorable weather—either too cold or too rainy. By 1942 the flying scooter and Ferris wheel were removed from the amusement park, leaving just the merry-go-round, Dodgem ride, and miniature railway.

The situation improved in 1943, at least temporarily. The park department completely remodeled one section of the bathhouse and installed a separate entrance, making the large room available for picnics and other activities. Warm weather helped, and, according to the 1943 annual report, “Minnesota Point [Recreation Area] enjoyed the greatest attendance since its establishment.” For the next twenty years, the park operated between Memorial Day and Labor Day, depending on the weather. A snack bar called Fritz’s was added, topped with a large concrete ice cream cone. Later a penny arcade was added, complete with a photo booth and a record-making booth.

By 1960 the amusement park was under the management of H. C. and Mae Onsgard, both familiar with the amusement park business. It was H. C.’s father Bert who first suggested the idea of a municipal zoo at Fairmount Park in 1923; he later operated the Arrowhead Amusement Park across from the zoo. According to former employee Charlie Willis, the city maintained ownership of the carousel and the Dodgem cars and the Onsgards owned the other rides.

Willis, who earned fifty cents an hour operating the carousel during the summers of 1960 and 1961, remembers that by then the Dodgem cars were well past their prime. Willis wrote that “the bumper cars were in terrible condition and the building was pretty dilapidated. If you bumped the cars, the steering chains would fall off the bottom, and two or three of us would have to tip the cars over on their sides and put on the chains.”

In 1964 Duluth mayor George D. Johnson proposed closing the park. He thought the point should remain natural and that the amusement park drew crowds of “black jackets,” likely young men with too much time on their hands. Johnson’s proposal resulted in a petition to oust the mayor. The park did not reopen, and Johnson kept his job. That year, park maintenance foreman Ozmo E. Tahja reported that his crew transferred the carousel to Kiddieland at Fairmount Park. The site of the Minnesota Point Amusement Park has since been redeveloped with baseball diamonds, soccer and rugby pitches, volleyball courts, playground equipment, and picnic amenities.

Minnesota Point Pine Forest Scientific & Natural Area

In the Barrens, south of the recreation area, a remnant of Minnesota Point’s original sand dunes and pine forest ecosystem has been preserved. Sky Harbor Airport and the Superior Water, Light & Power Company’s water intake facility are located within the pine forest, but this section of the point has otherwise remained mostly undeveloped through the years. The last cabin of Peabody’s Landing was removed in 2010. The federal government technically owns the southernmost portion of the point, which contains the ruins of the Minnesota Point Lighthouse and a former buoy depot, but in 1940 the city was granted the right to use the site for public recreation.

Thanks mainly to the efforts of the Park Point Community Club, in the late 1990s the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) designated seventeen acres of the pine forest and sand dunes as a State Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) on land donated by Superior Water, Light & Power (with assistance from the Minnesota Land Trust).

According to the DNR, the Minnesota Point Pine Forest SNA is a uniquely significant remnant of the once-vast Great Lakes Pine Forest. The SNA includes a healthy mix of trees of all ages and is home to the only old-growth red and white pine forest found on Lake Superior sand dunes in Minnesota. Core dating carried out by DNR biologists indicated the oldest tree in the SNA began growing in 1798. Other native plant communities on the site include sand beach, beachgrass dune, and juniper dune shrubland. The forest also provides important habitat for a number of rare plants and is used frequently as a rest area for migrating warblers and shorebirds, making this a great area for birdwatching. A hiking trail through the SNA provides access to this unique environment and reminds visitors of what all of Minnesota Point looked like before it became Duluth’s favorite summer resort.

Minnesota Point Today

While the Zenith City has many parks and Park Point is a fully developed residential neighborhood, Minnesota Point still serves as Duluth’s “summer resort.” The entire length of its lakeside beach remains open to the public and can be accessed at several points, including Lafayette Square and the S-curve at the site of Franklin Square, which is now known as the Franklin Tot Lot. The carnival rides are long gone, but people still swarm to the Minnesota Point Recreation Area in the summer for access to the beach, recreation fields, and the hiking trail through the pine forest.

In the 1890s, when Duluth officials considered industrializing Minnesota Point, the News Tribune wrote that “it would be a sacrilege to allow any such profanation of this beautiful spot; it should be kept as a pleasure resort forever and ever.” The editorial continued: “There will be great hotels, cottages and pavilions extending from shoulder to finger tips of this mighty arm…and Duluth’s fame as a summer resort will be second to none in the world.” Today, Duluth is indeed well known as a summer destination, and much of that reputation was built on the sandy dunes of Minnesota Point.

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