From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.
When the first settlers in the 1850s platted the townships that later joined to become Duluth, they set aside land for public squares—open spaces in the heart of the townsite that could be used for community gatherings. This pattern of development soon fell out of favor as the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, gave rise to the new concept of “landscape architecture.” Two squares platted along Minnesota Point were later adapted for different uses. Lafayette Square became came the site a public school while Franklin Square was turned over to the effort of saving lives.
Named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin Square originally included the land between Lake Avenue South and Minnesota Avenue from Twelfth Street to Thirteenth Street. The site—then the northern border of Middleton Township (predecessor to the Village of Park Point)—contained an early cemetery used for burials of European pioneers, which may be the reason it was left undeveloped. Shifting sand dunes do not provide stable ground for a cemetery, and in 1883 the human remains, along with remains from two other burial sites on Minnesota Point, were moved to Forest Hill Cemetery.
In 1894 the City of Duluth deeded Franklin Square on Minnesota Point to the federal government for the location of the Duluth Life Saving Station of the U.S. Life Saving Service. Designed by federal architect George R. Tolman, the station opened in June 1895. Tolman’s design for the main building, with its distinctive watch tower, was called the Duluth style. It soon became one of the standard models for life-saving stations built along the East Coast of the United States. Donald McKenzie was appointed the station’s first keeper, with Captain Murdoch McLennan taking over when McKenzie died of cancer three years later.
The Duluth Life Saving Station crews maintained a visual watch of Lake Superior and the Duluth harbor from the station’s tower and also by regularly walking the beach all the way to the southern end of the point. Always ready to launch their boats to go to the assistance of any ship that appeared to be in trouble, crew members followed a regular schedule of daily practice exercises, including gun and beach apparatus practice on Mondays and Thursdays, boat practice on Tuesdays, signal practice on Wednesdays, and “resuscitation of the apparently drowned” on Fridays. According to U.S. Coast Guard records, the Duluth station was kept busy during its first six years, assisting in sixty-five rescue operations, nearly eleven each year.
Unfortunately, during Duluth’s most tragic storm the crew of the station stood helplessly onshore. The nor’easter of November 28, 1905, aka the Mataafa Storm, wrecked or damaged twenty-six vessels on Lake Superior and stranded seventeen others; thirty-three men died, nine of them just outside the Duluth Ship Canal. The steamer Mataafa had struck the canal’s north pier broadside and broke in two about 150 yards offshore. At the time the life-saving crew was assisting the R. W. England, which was beached about two miles south of the canal. By the time the lifesavers could get to their boats at the station—nearly three hours later—the seas were so rough that McLennan and his crew could not even launch their rescue vessels. They were forced to wait until the next day. By then, the sailors trapped in the Mataafa’s aft section had frozen to death. (Read more about the Mataafa Storm here.)
Outside of the Mataafa storm, between 1901 and 1915, the station was called to assist only ten times. In 1915 the U.S. Congress merged the U.S. Life Saving Service and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Minnesota Point facility became the Duluth Lifeboat Station. McLennan continued as its keeper until 1924.
In 1938 the Duluth Port Authority announced plans to construct a maritime center on Minnesota Point that would extend from the lakeshore to the harbor between Twelfth and Thirteenth Streets, including the Franklin Square land. The plan called for drill grounds and new quarters for the coast guard, the Duluth’s naval reserve, and the lighthouse service; the old lifeboat station was to be abandoned and Franklin Square restored as a city park and extended to the lakeshore to include a supervised bathing beach. A paved road would cut diagonally through the square to connect Lake Avenue and Minnesota Avenue (prior to that Twelfth Street South was used as the connector). Supporters of the maritime center project applied for funding from the federal Public Works Administration, but the funds did not materialize and the project was put on hold.
Money finally became available in 1949 for a new Coast Guard station, essentially a scaled-back version of the maritime center idea. Located on the harbor shoreline west of Minnesota Avenue between Twelfth and Thirteenth Streets South, the building opened in 1953. Ownership of the Franklin Square parcel reverted to the City of Duluth, and within a few years the Public Works Department had demolished the old lifeboat station. Following construction of a playground west of the bathing beach in 1971, the square became known as the Franklin Tot Lot.