From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.
Located atop one of the highest points in Duluth, Enger Park was envisioned long before it received the name it bears today. Thirty acres of this rocky hillside below Skyline Parkway, which the Duluth Board of Park Commissioners named Central Park, was set aside as one of the city’s first parks. As early as 1890, members of the park board planned to expand Central Park by acquiring additional land at the top of the hill, but they never had enough money. Finally, in 1920, a generous donation from a West End furniture dealer allowed the city to begin developing it into what eventually became the most popular tourist stop along Skyline Parkway.
Duluth’s Undeveloped Central Park
Duluth’s Central Park bears no similarity to the more famous Central Park in New York City, which covers over eight hundred acres in the midst of one of the country’s largest urban areas. Most of New York’s Central Park is manicured and landscaped with ponds, trails, fountains, sports fields, and monuments. Duluth’s Central Park includes about thirty acres of the some of the wildest and steepest land in the heart of the city—and no landscaping. Located on the rocky hillside below Enger Park, it covers a nine-block area between Fourteenth and Seventeenth Avenues West from First Street up to Fourth Street.
The original owners of the land dedicated it as a park in 1870 when they platted the area for development. The Polk Directory of 1884 to 1885 referred to it simply as a “public park.” In 1889 it became the responsibility of the newly created Duluth Board of Park Commissioners. Although not formally named until 1894 when park board members christened it Central Park, the area was recognized early on as an important location for a larger park. In 1887, inspired by William K. Rogers, city engineers drew up a plan for a coordinated system of parks that would be connected by a scenic parkway across the hillside. On December 6, 1887, the Lake Superior Review & Weekly Tribune reported, “A communication from the board of works regarding the proposed park system was laid before the council, and was accompanied by a finely executed map, which had been hung on the wall. The communication was full of high falutin words.” The plan included a proposed one-hundred-acre “Zenith Park” covering the hilltop above Central Park, including the high rocky knob that is today occupied by Enger Tower. (“Zenith Park” was also the name of an amusement park that operated on Whiteside Island, aka Clough Island, in the St. Louis River during the 1890s.)
When the park board laid out the route of the parkway from Chester Creek to Miller Creek in the 1890s, they split the road into two branches that looped around the base of the rocky knob above Central Park, which was known as Grand View Mountain. Excavation and the damming of Buckingham Creek created two small bodies of water northeast of the landmark. Called Twin Ponds today, they were originally named Twin Lakes or Gem Lakes and were intended to be a spot for those on tallyho excursions to stop for a picnic lunch; the parkway crossed over the creek between the two lakes.
The city did not own the land inside the loop around Grand View Mountain; nevertheless, board members considered it to be part of the parkway. They could not officially designate the area as Zenith Park until the city gained ownership of the land, but they intended to make that happen eventually, as was clearly stated in the board’s annual report for 1911: “The bare rock that heaves itself in the center of this park area has never been acquired by the city. It is not likely to be taken for any other use and when eventually it becomes part of the park system in legal fact, it needs only the making of paths over the peak and the cultivation of such trees as formerly grew there, to make it the most romantic city park in the world unrivaled for wonders of far spreading view.”
At about the same time, in response to requests from the West End Hillside Club, the park board engaged the Minneapolis landscape architects Anthony Morell and Arthur Nichols to help decide how to “improve” Central Park. The men were already well known in Duluth, working on behalf of New York landscape engineer Charles W. Leavitt on the grounds of Chester and Clara Congdon’s Glensheen estate and Congdon Park along Tischer Creek.
At the time Morell and Nichols began plans for Central Park, First and Third Streets already extended across the hillside, but most of the steep rocky land remained untouched. The Minneapolis firm’s landscape plan for “Central Park and Proposed Addition,” dated January 1911, included a connecting road from Second Street to Third Street, walking paths, a playground just below Fourth Street, picnic grounds, and a building on “Grand View Knob” within the proposed Zenith Park. Unfortunately, the board was short of money and could not implement the plan. When the new city charter eliminated the park board in 1913, responsibility for the park system shifted to the new mayor, and he did not consider development of Central Park to be a priority.
Read more about Morell & Nichols work in Duluth here.
Following the end of World War I, Park Superintendent and Civil War veteran Henry Cleveland proposed an elaborate plan to create a “castle” that would serve as a memorial to Duluthians who fought in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. The Duluth News Tribune reported that the memorial was to be built on the rocky knob above Central Park, which Cleveland called Grand Mountain.
He envisioned a building that would include a huge auditorium with room for three thousand people; a first-class café for visitors; rooms that would hold copper tablets engraved with the name of everyone who served in the wars; a camera obscura that would reflect a miniature, but magnified, reproduction of any bit of scenery that its lens was trained on; a parapet with a periscope; a flag staff at the top of the roof that would be “the same distance from the level of the lake as the lake is from the level of the sea” (about six hundred feet); and a sun dial on the tower. The grounds would be filled with pergolas, walks, vines, fountains, flower beds, and statuary. Cleveland’s proposal also included a municipal golf course and a large bathing pool.
Cleveland estimated the project would cost a minimum of $100,000. His plan was undoubtedly too extravagant and costly for the park department’s budget. The memorial castle never materialized.
A Furniture Salesman Shares His Fortune
Less than a year later, in January 1920, the News Tribune announced that an anonymous donor had pledged $50,000 to purchase Grand Mountain and the surrounding land. In his letter to the city, the donor requested that “a sufficient amount of land be acquired so as to accommodate municipal golf links, baseball diamonds, tennis courts, swimming pool, toboggan slides, and other summer and winter sports and recreational establishments.”
Mayor Clarence Magney was reluctant to accept the money without knowing the name of the donor; nevertheless, he asked the city council to begin condemnation proceedings on Grand Mountain and five forty-acre parcels located north of Twin Lakes. Although he did not expect the city to purchase all the parcels, Magney wanted the council to have the option to choose the best that could be obtained with the $50,000 gift. He informally called the area Twin Lakes Park.
Soon after the land purchase was completed in early 1921, Duluth businessman Bert Enger surprised everyone by admitting that he was the anonymous donor. A quiet man, he had emigrated from Norway in 1877 at age thirteen, and in 1903 he and partner Emil Olson had started a successful furniture store in Duluth’s West End. As the News Tribune reported, “While Mr. Enger has always been known as a public-spirited man and has ever been ready to be enlisted as a supporter of any worthy cause, his stride into the too-seldom entered field of philanthropy is bound to cause general admiration.”
The council promptly named the area Enger Park, proclaiming, “The city of Duluth through its council assembled, hereby expresses gratitude of its people, his fellow citizens, for this, his most generous and meritorious act.”
Enger’s donation had made it possible for the city to acquire the land, and other Duluthians soon became involved in helping to develop the area. Throughout the city, organizations and individuals supported the idea of creating a municipal golf course. In July 1922 one woman told the News Tribune, “Golf has particular appeal to women. It is not an expensive game, and women take to it readily. It is not by any manner or means an old man’s game, as some think…. I am much in favor of the idea of a municipal links not only for the men, but for the exceptional opportunities which it will offer the women.”
Golf course supporters were led by J. B. Clinton, a well-known businessman, sportsman, and Exalted Ruler of the Duluth Elks. He sent a letter to local Elks lodges and civic organizations that stated, “May I ask that you submit this suggestion to your organization with the thought that if it be deemed best one of your members be selected to act on a committee in conjunction with one of our members to devise ways and means by which this health giving game may be available to all of Duluth’s residents and visitors.” The Duluth Chamber of Commerce established a Municipal Golf Committee, and Clinton organized an outing for the committee to visit the Enger Park site, which they agreed was most suitable for a golf course. They estimated the cost to develop the course at $1,000.
Boosted by the efforts of the citizen committee, construction began in 1926. That summer Park Superintendent F. Rodney Paine announced that Arnold “Andy” Anderson, an employee at Northland Country Club, had been hired as the new course’s head greenskeeper.
The clubhouse, designed by Abraham Holstead and William J. Sullivan, was completed on June 1, 1927, a month before the grand opening. The park department reported that the building “was decorated and furnished under the direction of Mrs. Torrey Ford.” Bert Enger contributed additional funds for the clubhouse, and “Mr. W. J. Olcott very generously supplemented the small amount that the Park Department was able to spend by donating a considerable part of the furniture and decorations.” The News Tribune later described the building as “modern in every respect and includes lounging rooms, dressing units and shower baths.”
Olcott also designed and built the caddie house using lumber donated by Charles Woodruff and hardware donated by the Kelley-Duluth Company. An old garage purchased from Minnesota Power and Light Company was moved to Enger Park to be used as a tool house. The nine-hole municipal golf course was ready by the end of June 1927. Course manager Roger Borgeson told the News Tribune that the initial course was 3,184 yards long. The longest hole, number four, was 505 yards long; the shortest, number five, was a 171-yard par three. As often happens in Duluth, the opening was delayed by weather. The Park
Department reported that “the spring was wet and rather cold and it was not found possible to open the course before the 2nd of July.”
Enger was scheduled to drive the first ball at 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 2. The Naval Reserve band played and speeches were made by Tom Hastings, president of Minnesota’s State Association of Public Golf Courses, and Judge Clarence Magney—who actually drove the first ball, stating that Enger was “too modest.” Mayor Sam Snively was supposed to officially accept the course on the city’s behalf, but he could not attend and Commissioner W. S. McCormick stepped in as the mayor’s replacement. Every civic group in town had been invited, and the festivities included various golfing competitions including driving and low medal score for both men and women, with trophies and other prizes donated by Bagley & Co. Jewelers, Kelley-Duluth Hardware and Sporting Goods, Silberstein & Bondy (retailers), Big Duluth (retailers), and M. Cook and Son (clothiers).
The golf course was an immediate success, and by September it had generated enough money for the city to begin planning a second nine holes. Two years later, despite the Great Depression, the Enger Park golf course had earned back the city’s investment, and the park department initiated plans to build a golf course at Lester Park. The Enger Park course was in fine shape except for one thing: the exotic bent grass used on its greens was not hearty enough to withstand Duluth’s cold winters. While struggling with this issue, Andy Anderson noticed a patch of grass growing along a nearby creek. On closer examination he discovered it to be a native bent grass, and he immediately began developing the strain for use on the golf courses. He called it “Enger bent” and used it on the new greens at Lester Park. At Enger Park the original greens were torn up and reseeded with Enger bent. Several other courses in the area began using it on the greens as well, including the short-lived Lakewood Golf Club east of Lester Park.
Both of Duluth’s municipal golf courses were expanded in the 1980s, with nine holes added to each. Paying back the investment severely compromised the finances of both courses. Since the 1990s a variety of plans have come forward for their management, including hiring private companies to operate the courses, allowing developers to build homes adjacent to the courses, and even selling all or portions of the courses to housing developers. As of 2016 all fifty-four holes of the municipal courses remain open to play under the management of a national company.
Enger Memorial Tower
When lifelong bachelor Bert Enger died in 1931 at the age of sixty-eight, he left two-thirds of his estate to the City of Duluth for development of Enger Park’s Grand Mountain area. He specified that the development should include a lookout tower surrounded by beautified grounds and footpaths to accommodate tourists.
In 1933 a citizen committee selected the highest point of the park as the location for the tower, and the following year the park was rededicated as Enger Park. A stone comfort station was built in 1935; picnic tables, water, sewer, and electricity were added a year later. In 1937 workers from the National Youth Administration—a branch of the Works Progress Administration that focused on providing work and education for Americans between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five—built rock benches, stone pathways and steps, campfire sites, and outdoor ovens.
Construction of the tower began in late 1937, based on a design by architect A. R. Melander. Melander’s initial design was fairly elaborate, a six-story square tower with a four-gabled roof and an elaborate entrance. A second design was similar to the tower that was built, although several stories shorter. The final design was for an octagonal tower five stories high made of native stone gathered on site. Unglazed window openings look out in every direction. At its peak—531 feet above sea level—workers installed a green light that could be seen for miles.
By 1939 the $30,000 tower was complete, paid for with funds provided by the Enger estate. Crown Prince Olav of Norway and his wife Princess Martha traveled to Duluth in June to dedicate the tower to the memory of Bert Enger. A crowd of five thousand gathered to hear speeches by the Norwegian royals and other dignitaries, including Judge Clarence Magney.
The headlines stated that the royals “captivate[ed] Duluthians by Informality.” The prince wore a simple black suit; the princess a black lace dress she described as “everyday.” He smoked casually, and when reporters pressed him on his fishing skills—a Norwegian point of pride—he admitted, “I am really not passionate about it.” He was more of a yachtsman. Martha was a typical young mother, spending a great deal of her travel time buying toys and souvenirs for her children.
The prince expressed pride in the ways that Norwegian immigrants had influenced Duluth and indeed all of America: “[Enger] is a truly Norwegian name. As the princess and I have traveled about your country, we have been greatly pleased to note the recognition that has been accorded American men and women of Norwegian birth and Norwegian ancestry.”
Over the years vandalism and neglect took their toll on the tower. As early as the 1940s, papers reported vandals shooting out the beacon lights, forcing fund drives to purchase replacement bulbs. In the 1960s, vandals dropped heavy rocks from the top of the tower, and the city had to temporarily block access to the observation platforms. In 1978, someone shot out the beacon with a .22 rifle. In 1989, vandals created a bonfire of burning tires on top of the tower.
In 2010 to 2011 the City of Duluth gave the park and tower a $400,000 renovation in anticipation of a visit by King Harald V and Queen Sonja of Norway. A $100,000 grant from Duluth’s Rotary Club 25 paid for new lighting. According to the Enger Park Restoration Project, the tower renovation included “repairs such as tuck pointing, plaster, concrete patching, electrical and lighting repair, weatherization, roof repair and increased accessibility.” Thanks to Rotary 25, new LED lights replaced the old beacon and other LED lights were aimed at the building itself, so that the entire tower could be lit in a variety of colors to recognize a variety of events—for example, on April 21, 2016, Enger Tower was bathed in purple light to honor the unexpected passing of Minnesota music legend Prince. Other renovations were made to the park, including the addition of a new gazebo large enough to accommodate one hundred people and new trails designed to be accessible to people of all ages and abilities. The old pavilion and restrooms were updated and the parking lot expanded.
Norway’s royal couple visited Duluth on October 17, 2011, to rededicate Enger Tower to the memory of Bert Enger. Minnesota Public Radio reported that Harald told the crowd of over five hundred Duluthians that it was “very moving” for him to follow in his father’s footsteps. The king added, “Standing here, I can easily see why so many Norwegian immigrants decided to settle here in this area, by the splendid shores of Lake Superior. They must have missed Norway and those they left behind, but I’m sure they found comfort in this peaceful and beautiful landscape. Thanks to recent extensive restoration work, Enger Tower will continue to be a symbol of the hard work and dedication of the Norwegian immigrants, and their stories will continue to be told to future generations of Americans.”
Read more about Bert Enger here.
The American-Japanese Peace Bell
Enger Park’s most recent addition is the Japanese Peace Bell Garden, installed in 2010. The garden surrounds the Peace Bell, which is a replica of a cherished Buddhist temple bell in Ohara, Japan. At the end of World War II, American sailors on the USS Duluth brought the original bell home with them as a war souvenir. They had found it in a Japanese shipyard, waiting to be melted down as part of the war effort. The crew of the Duluth gave it to the City of Duluth upon their return to the United States. In 1954 a visiting professor from Japan traced the bell’s origins back to Ohara. Duluth mayor George D. Johnson, acting on a request from Japan, returned the bell. Grateful Ohara citizens renamed it the American-Japanese Peace Bell. In 1990 Duluth and Ohara became sister cities at the suggestion of Mayor Yoshihito Saito. As a gift, the citizens of Ohara had a replica bell fabricated and sent to Duluth, arranging the construction of a bell tower to house it as well. The bell and tower were placed in Enger Park, oriented so that persons who ring the bell are facing Ohara. In 2005 Ohara merged with the city of Isumi. The Japanese garden surrounding the bell was dedicated in April 2010, with past and present mayors of Duluth and Isumi City (aka Ohara-Isumi), city councilors, and representatives of both cities’ Sister City committees on hand for the celebration. Barbara Auerbach, daughter of the late Mayor Johnson, spoke of her father’s gesture in 1954, stating that he considered returning the bell “an act of common decency between people of goodwill.”