Franklin Square: Once a cemetery, now a lot for tots

This detail from an 1883 birds-eye perspective map of Duluth by Henry Wellge shows the cemetery at Franklin Square, home to the “Tot Lot” playground since 1971. (Image: Zenith City Press)

[NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on September 9, 2020]

This month Ted B. of Duluth asks Northlandia, “What’s the history of the cemetery that once stood on the current Tot Lot site on Minnesota Point?”

That’s a great question to dig into during the month that ends with Halloween.

The cemetery, in use long before Duluth even existed, was one of several Ojibwe burial grounds located along Minnesota Point in the 19th century. In fact, according to “An Ethnographic Study of Indigenous Contributions to the City of Duluth,” commissioned by the Duluth Indigenous Commission, at least 10 Ojibwe burial sites were found in what is now Duluth and Superior.

When Duluth incorporated in 1857, the cemetery site was set aside as “Franklin Square,” named for Benjamin Franklin. Its official borders lay between Lake Avenue South and Minnesota Avenue from 12th Street to 13th Street.

Until 1869 Duluth was home to more Ojibwe than EuroAmericans, and the Indigenous population allowed early Duluthians to bury their dead within the cemetery, which they continued to do until 1879. The Duluth Minnesotian often referred to the site, thought to contain about 400 graves, as the “Point Cemetery.”

In 1871 Duluthians first gathered at Franklin Square to celebrate Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day. While the day was set aside to remember soldiers who died fighting in the Civil War, Duluthians heard a speech by Union veteran Albert Seip honoring Dorus Martin, who survived the war but was laid to rest in the cemetery in 1867.

Martin was born in Vermont in 1800 and worked as a farmer in Clinton, New York, where he was patriarch of a large family. But, as Seip explained, due to “domestic affliction, care of numerous family, and the desire to carve out a fortune in the trackless wastes,” he left his family behind and set out alone for Superior in 1855.

By 1860 he had crossed the bay to Duluth, but he never even whittled himself a living, let alone carved a fortune. In 1863, broke and “overwhelmed with patriotism,” Martin borrowed $25 to travel to St. Paul to enlist in the Union Army. But his gray hair and whiskers betrayed his 63 years, and he was rejected. So Martin dyed his hair, crossed the border into Wisconsin, and — after passing a rigorous physical and claiming he was just 43 — enlisted as an infantry private with the 30th Wisconsin Regiment. He served until his honorable discharge in June 1865.

Duluthians, including members of the city’s first volunteer fire department, gather at the cemetery at Franklin Square in 1871 to celebrate Decoration Day. (Image: UMD Martin Library)

Martin returned to Duluth and lived quietly in a cabin along the shore, beloved by all and considered “a man of singular eccentricity … marked with traits of character that threw a halo of beauty around memory.” Determined to die in his Union uniform, Martin took to wearing it every day. In June 1867 Martin was found “seated in his chair near the open door of his cottage, in full uniform, even to his hat.” He was buried in his dress blues with full military honors.

In July 1883 St. Louis County commissioners ordered the removal of bodies from the Point Cemetery. The commissioners declared that unknown remains — likely including those in Ojibwe graves — were to be “buried in potter’s field,” the county’s Greenwood Cemetery for paupers along Rice Lake Road.

Bodies of the known dead, including Dorus Martin’s, were relocated to the 1879 Forest Hill Cemetery, centered on what is now the lower portion of Chester Park above Fourth Street. (In 1890, they were again moved, this time to the new Forest Hill Cemetery along Woodland Avenue.)

The 1883 disinterments included one notable incident involving Mary Landregan, a local woman with a violent temper and a taste for drink said to be “well known but not well-favored” and an “unceasing expense to the county.”

According to the Duluth Weekly Tribune, a drunken Landregan came to the cemetery to oversee the removal of her son’s body. As she waited impatiently for workers to get to her son’s grave, Landregan sat on a coffin and unleashed a verbal assault upon the shoveling men “until the loose earth gave way, and she was precipitated head first into the grave, the coffin falling in after her.” Those she abused came to her rescue.

In 1894 the federal government leased Franklin Square to serve as location site of the Duluth Life Saving Station of the U.S. Life Saving Service. Its crew maintained a visual watch of Lake Superior and the Duluth harbor from the station’s tower and also by regularly walking the beach to the southern end of the point. When the U.S. Coast Guard was formed in 1915, the facility became the Duluth Lifeboat Station.

After the Coast Guard Station Duluth opened nearby in 1949, ownership of Franklin Square reverted to the city. Following construction of a playground west of the bathing beach in 1971, the square became known as the Franklin Tot Lot. You can read a much more detailed history of Franklin Square here.

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