Originally published July 2013
We recently received an email from reader Chuck Kolasinski that read in part, “I have tried over the years to get information on the lake that was Duluth Heights. I think it was drained in the 1880s when Duluth Heights was developed…. Do any people in the Zenith City Community have any info on this?” Well we didn’t then, but we do now, and it’s a fascinating tale told by Duluth Heights pioneer John Fritzen.
Fritzen moved to Duluth Heights with his family in 1901 at the age of four and spent much of his life in the Heights and worked as a forester for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for over 40 years, four of them as superintendent of Jay Cooke State Park. He wrote at least a half dozen booklets on local history, and his history of Duluth Heights can be found in the Duluth Public Library.
Fritzen reports that there was indeed a lake in what is now Duluth Heights: “Old timers described the level section of the Heights as a small grassy lake, back in the wilderness days and prior to development. It had two outlets with Brewery Creek flowing eastward, paralleling the present Central Entrance [originally named Palmetto Avenue] and emptying into Lake Superior near Sixth Avenue East… Buckingham Creek flows in a southerly direction…into the Twin Ponds on the Skyline Parkway and then down the West Hillside to the St. Louis Bay.”
The lake was essentially located between today’s Linden and Orange Streets west from Arlington Avenue to the Lakeview Christian Academy, the historic Lowell School, at 155 West Central Entrance.
The area surrounding the lake was a forest of white pines and sugar maples. “There were some scattered stands of large white pine between the Heights and the Hilltop,” Fritzen was told. These were logged out in the 1870s and 1880s. “For many years,” Fritzen remembered, “the old stumps served as fuel for bonfires, much to the annoyance of our special policeman, Mr. Butler.” Sugar maples were abundant along the lake near what today is the top of Orange Street. An early resident of the Heights told Fritzen of “a stand of large maple…where the Indians came to make sugar and syrup every spring. “
The Highland Improvement Company, which developed Duluth Heights, drained the lake in 1891 to create the new neighborhood. They also built the Highland Streetcar Line and the Seventh Avenue West Incline so that residents in the Heights could more easily reach downtown and the waterfront.
But even after it was drained, Fritzen explains, the lake remained in evidence: “Bobby Parkins, an elderly Scotchman who came to the Head of the Lakes in the early days, often told of catching pickerel in the lake where the Heights is now. When my father built his store at the corner of Highland Avenue and the Central Entrance, it was necessary to drive piling in the peat and muck in order to obtain footings. There are numerous places nearby where the same condition existed. Since peat and muck are indicators of a dried up lake it is obvious that the location was, at one time, under water. One of the early residents claimed that Brewery Creek was a good trout stream before drainage and other improvements lowered the water levels.”
When the Heights first opened for development in 1892, the development company offered lots from $150 to $300. “Duluth Heights enjoyed a short boom, Fritzen wrote. “Many houses were built along with the Lowell School, the Highland Presbyterian Church, three stores, a town hall and a rustic dance pavilion.”
The financial panic of 1893 set the growing community back. According to Fritzen, “There was much unemployment, people moved out, and vacant houses appeared everywhere. Bob Metcalf told of having been offered any house on Lemon Street, at that time for $75.00…. Another early resident told as to how he was offered free rent if he would continue to live in the house and protect the two adjoining properties.”
By the time Fritzen’s family moved to the Heights in 1901, the lake was still very evident. “There was mud and standing water all over,” Fritzen remembered. “When we walked on the plank sidewalks water squirted up through the cracks.”
Duluth Heights bounced back, of course, and after World War II commerce in the neighborhood developed along Central Entrance and the Miller Hill shopping area. Fritzen’s history of Duluth Heights recalls a days before Central Entrance was widened and today’s strip malls were built. We have reproduced it in its entirety in the Zenith City Archive’s “Duluth’s Development” category. You can read the whole piece here.