The city of Duluth grew up during a time of great change, when people across the country moved into urban areas to find jobs and cities built large public parks with manicured green spaces to give working people a chance to escape from long dreary days of factory work. Duluth’s promoters recognized the importance of following this national movement, and by February 1888 a plan was in place for a park system that included a hilltop roadway, stream corridor parks, and a series of waterfront parks. Next they needed to find a way to carry out their ambitious plan.
Led by William K. Rogers, Duluth’s leaders petitioned the state legislature to create a commission made up of citizens with the authority to develop the park system. In March 1889 the State Legislature approved an Act “Providing for a System of Public Grounds for the City of Duluth.” This legislation created Duluth’s first Board of Park Commissioners and gave the Board broad powers to acquire land, make improvements, and adopt regulations to guide the use of parks. Along with the power to condemn and take land, the Board could issue bonds to borrow money for purchasing land. They could also levy special assessments on nearby property that benefited from the development of the parks and parkways.
Made up of President William K. Rogers, Vice President John H. Upham, Secretary-Treasurer Fredrick W. Paine, and Roger S. Munger, the Park Board met for the first time on May 22, 1889. They prepared a list of the land they intended to acquire, namely a narrow strip along the lakeshore and a corridor of land for a parkway that would extend from Miller Creek across the hillside to Chester Creek (referred to then as Terrace Parkway, today as Skyline Parkway).
Led by the enthusiastic Rogers, the Board went to work immediately on the Parkway, hiring appraisers to determine the value of the land and seeking bids from contractors. They secured a loan from the city for $5000 at eight percent interest, and construction began on Tenth Street at Lake Avenue.
By early August 1889 President Rogers reported that the first section of the Parkway was being used and appreciated by citizens of Duluth and visitors to the city. But he also reported that considerable rock blasting was required from Seventeenth Avenue West to Eighteenth Avenue West, significantly increasing the cost of construction. The Board authorized the additional expenditure even though they did not yet have the money to cover it.
Over the next few months, money flowed out as the Park Board purchased land, rented office space, and hired a clerk to assist the appraisers and engineers. Expenditures on the Parkway added up to $5,810.54 by the end of 1889, with an additional $11,500 in March 1890. The Board also bought more land; in October they agreed to pay $38,000 to purchase nine blocks in the West End (today’s Lincoln Park), and they estimated that expenses for 1891 would be $24,000.
The Board attempted to issue bonds to borrow the needed money, but they met with numerous problems. In August 1889 they asked Mayor M. J. Davis to hold a special election on the question of issuing park bonds. The mayor designated September 23, 1889, for the special election, but the Council neglected to appoint election judges. When the Park Board again requested a special election, the mayor set October 23, 1889, as the new date, but once again the Council failed to appoint election judges far enough in advance. The special election finally took place on October 29, 1889, and Duluth’s citizens overwhelmingly approved issuing the bonds. But problems with the New York firm hired to handle the bonds resulted in cancellation of the entire deal, and no money was raised.
The bills continued to mount. On April 23, 1891, the Duluth Daily Tribune reported that “Orders having been issued from time to time to workmen who have had to wait unduly for their pay, and other parties who contracted to sell property to the board have not received their money as promised. There have been some unfortunate results from attempts to float the park bonds that, in the opinion of city authorities, have tended to hurt the credit of the city. …the park commission should be reorganized upon a firm basis with men of recognized financial ability at its head.”
City officials realized changes had to be made. They requested revisions to the legislation, and state legislators approved these revisions on April 6, 1891. The new act narrowed the Park Board’s powers. The Board could no longer have its own treasurer; all money had to remain in the hands of the city treasurer. The Board also had to prepare a map and a statement showing how much money they had or could raise to pay for land they intended to buy, and the Council had to approve each purchase.
Mayor Davis appointed new Park Commissioners including Luther Mendenhall (President, pictured in sketch next to his Duluth National Bank), Bernard Silberstein (Vice President), and Henry Helm (Secretary), all successful businessmen who were widely respected in the community. As the April 23 Duluth Daily Tribune article explained, “With Mr. Mendenhall as president the commission ought to have first class standing in financial circles.” Rogers was the only member of the original Board who remained.
By this time, city planners acknowledged that parks no longer functioned simply as public open space; a well-planned systems of parks reflected the spirit of the community. As the members of the Duluth Park Board wrote, “The park system of a modern city is not only a series of grounds dedicated to park purposes, but a related and connected plan in which all the members are articulated into one unit. The park system of a modern city not only concerns itself that every neighborhood shall have its appropriate ornaments of lawns and shrubbery and glimpses of loveliness, but also that all these fragments shall compose parts of one harmonious whole. The park system of a modern city not only aims at beauty, but strives to express the concept of the soul of the city. The parks of a modern city bear witness that its people are members of one great family. They are the concrete expression of civic consciousness in its highest visible form.”
It is in the spirit of these words that the new members of the Park Board developed Duluth’s system of parks and parkways between 1891 and 1913, which will be explored next month.