Preserving Public Access to the Lakeshore

The History of DUluth's Kitchi Gammi Park and Congdon Boulevard:

From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.
The Lake Superior shore east of the Lester River, c. 1900. This area would later be developed into the Brighton Beach Tourist Camp, today's Kitchi Gammi Park. (Image: X-comm)
The Lake Superior shore east of the Lester River, c. 1900. This area would later be developed into the Brighton Beach Tourist Camp, today’s Kitchi Gammi Park. (Image: X-comm)

Duluth’s Chester Congdon is best known as the man who built Glensheen, the elegant Jacobean manor house and estate perched along the shore of Lake Superior at 3300 London Road. Congdon, an attorney by trade, made his fortune after becoming chief counsel for the Oliver Mining Company in 1892. When the company was bought out by J. P. Morgan in his effort to create U. S. Steel, Congdon became one of the wealthiest men in Minnesota. The lifelong Republican was an admirer of Teddy Roosevelt—particularly Roosevelt’s efforts to expand the national park system. Using his newfound wealth, Congdon laid the groundwork for an international highway along Lake Superior’s North Shore.

London Road and Congdon Boulevard 

Chester and Clara Congdon were living in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1880s—the time when neighboring Minneapolis was developing its extensive parkway system that linked together parks, lakes, residential neighborhoods, and the river.

In 1889 Duluth’s new Board of Park Commissioners—likely inspired by the Minneapolis parkways as well as board president William K. Rogers’s experience with rival Chicago’s park system—set out to build its own parkway system. The board members planned a boulevard across the hillside that would be connected by stream corridor parks to a boulevard along the shore of Lake Superior. In their 1894 annual report, park board members wrote, “London road is the Lake Shore boulevard and continues on to the Lester River….This drive is in full view of the lake where one can enjoy the cool and refreshing lake breeze, and also enjoy the wild scenery of rocks and woods. This boulevard is to Duluth what the Lake Shore Drive is to Chicago.”

The mouth of the Lester River photographed some time between 1888 and 1926, before there was a bridge over the river along London Road. The building at right is the 1888 U.S. Fish Hatchery; the street at left is Lester River Road. Prior to 1924 there was no road east of the river along the same path as London Road. [IMAGE: DULUTH PUBLIC LIBRARY]
The mouth of the Lester River photographed some time between 1888 and 1926, before there was a bridge over the river along London Road. The building at right is the 1888 U.S. Fish Hatchery; the street at left is Lester River Road. Prior to 1924 there was no road east of the river along the same path as London Road. [IMAGE: DULUTH PUBLIC LIBRARY]

London Road had been built around 1871 to connect Duluth with the newly platted township of New London (now Lakeside). When, in August 1872, editors of the Duluth Minnesotian went on an inspection tour of the new development, they traveled to New London on what they called London Avenue. According to the newspaper, “the expense of building the road between the city and London has thus far been borne by the city, the town of Duluth, Mr. Tischer, and Messrs. Norton & Wisdom—only one property owner, Mr. Mitchell, of Lexington, Ky., having refused to contribute to that object…. As the town of Duluth and the county have each been taxed to the utmost limit for road purposes, the property owners along the road, except Mr. Mitchell, have determined to complete the road in front of their premises in the same manner as that portion in the city limits.” The newspaper also reported that the road had already become “quite a fashionable drive-way.”

By the 1890s, London Road was paved with macadam, a type of road surface made up of even-sized broken rock that was compacted and held together with tar. Bicycles were all the rage, as they had become available and affordable for middle-class families, and London Road was a popular place for “wheeling,” the term used for the new sport of bicycle racing. In 1892, the same year Chester Congdon moved his family to Duluth, the local cycle club held its first annual Duluth-to-Lester Park race on London Road.

When Chester and his wife, Clara, chose the site for their home, London Road was still mostly forested between Twenty-first and Fortieth Avenues East. He was likely already forming plans to extend this scenic road north to Canada, but he did not share his vision publicly. According to Glensheen Director Daniel Hartman, around the time he began construction of the estate, Congdon also started purchasing land along Lake Superior’s North Shore, from Duluth’s Tenth Avenue East to the county line just outside of Two Harbors.

Congdon knew he would not be able to purchase all the land needed for the road on his own, and he recognized that the City of Duluth did not have the power to condemn land outside the city limits. While serving as a state legislator between 1909 and 1913, he introduced a bill allowing “cities of the first class” (Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth) to annex land outside of city limits for transportation reasons. Passage of this bill was an important step in making it possible for Congdon to realize his vision for a scenic North Shore road.By 1913 he had succeeded in purchasing about one-third of the land he needed to build the road from Duluth to Two Harbors. He went public with his plan when he asked the city to condemn the parcels he had been unable to buy outright. He offered to cover the cost of acquiring the land and constructing the road, which he called the Lake Superior International Highway.

Congdon Boulevard near Kitchi Gammi Park, 1929. (Photo by F. R. Paine.) [IMAGE: UMD MARTIN LIBRARY]
Congdon Boulevard near Kitchi Gammi Park, 1929.
(Photo by F. R. Paine.)
[IMAGE: UMD MARTIN LIBRARY]

The plan, as described by the News Tribune in May 1913, included a bridge across the Lester River near the U.S. Fish Hatchery (at that time the only bridge was on Superior Street). Beyond the Lester River, the roadway would be one hundred feet wide and divided into five sections: two for automobiles, one for other vehicles, and two paths for pedestrians—one on each side of the road. And “at Stony Point, 17 miles from Duluth, the boulevard will take a turn from the lake shore and circle around a 165-acre tract, which will be converted into a park.” The newspaper predicted that “Stony Point will undoubtedly become the mecca for all tourist parties coming to the head of the lakes.”

The city began condemnation proceedings on fifty-three tracts of land for what was informally called the North Shore Boulevard, and in May 1915 city commissioners officially accepted Congdon’s gift and agreed to abide by its conditions that the boulevard property would never be converted to any other purpose. As the News Tribune explained: “Mr. Congdon has paid all engineering expenses in connection with the boulevard sight [sic], and has borne the cost of award through condemnation by the city. Mayor Prince announced that this amounted in round numbers to $40,000. The right-of-way includes rights in the lake along the scenic stretch.”

Unfortunately, Congdon died unexpectedly in November 1916, leaving city leaders without the assurance of financial backing, and construction was postponed. According to his family, shortly before his death Congdon had written a letter in which he stated that improvement of the lakeshore road should be taken up “when the appropriate time shall arrive.” A little over three years after Chester’s death, in March 1920, Clara felt that the time had arrived. Speaking on behalf of the estate, she offered to pay up to $125,000 for half the cost of the five-mile portion of the road that was within city limits—provided the entire boulevard was improved and paved.After the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners agreed to build the road from the city limits to the Lake County line, construction moved forward, with the cost shared equally by the Congdon family, the county, and the city. Morell & Nichols were hired to design the parkway’s landscaping. Construction of the concrete-paved road from the Lester River to the Knife River, already called Congdon Boulevard, took place between 1923 and 1925.

The Lester River Bridge, designed by Morell & Nochols, shown in a postcard made between 1925 and 1939. (Image: Zenith City press)
The Lester River Bridge, designed by Morell & Nochols, shown in a postcard made between 1925 and 1939. (Image: Zenith City press)

During this same period Minnesota politicians were developing State Highway 1, which would span the state from the Iowa border south of Albert Lea to the Canadian border at Pigeon River. Congdon Boulevard became a link in this new state highway—as well as a link to the city’s parkway system—and in the 1920s state tourism actually referred to the road by the name Congdon gave it: the Lake Superior International Highway. While the full measure of Congdon’s investment in this highway has never been detailed, in 1933 Park Superintendent F. Rodney Paine outlined his calculations of Chester Congdon’s gift:

Mr. Chester A. Congdon…made a gift to the City of inestimable value—probably the greatest park asset Duluth has next to the Rogers Boulevard [Skyline Parkway]. Mr. Congdon authorized the city to acquire, and he paid for, the right of way for what is now Highway No. 1, from Lester Park to the Lake County line. In this was included the land between the road and the lake wherever the distance was less than about four hundred feet. This preserved two hundred thirty acres and 8.8 miles of lake frontage forever for the enjoyment of the people of Duluth, of the State, and of the country.

The bridge over the Lester River was built between 1924 and 1925 on land acquired from the U.S. Fish Hatchery. As with the boulevard, the Congdon family, the county, and the city shared the construction costs. Morell & Nichols were hired to design the bridge; they received help from Duluth city engineers William H. Cruikshank and John Wilson as well as the Minneapolis architectural firm of Tyrie & Chapman. The bridge was built by Duluth contractor C. R. McLean, whose firm constructed the road through Jay Cooke State Park the following year. In January 1926 the Duluth News-Tribune called the bridge a “Work of Art” and went on to describe it:

The bridge is constructed of reinforced concrete faced with native stone carefully selected both as to color and texture. The trimmings are of granite from Rockville, Minn. The lanterns and lantern supports are of special design to harmonize with the delicate yet substantial lines of the bridge. The lanterns are painted to conform with the granite trimmings, while the glass was specially rolled and burned to give the diffusion of light and shade desired, Mr. Nichols of Morell and Nichols giving much of his personal attention to this small but important detail.

The dedication ceremony for both Highway 1 and Congdon Boulevard—each recently completed—took place on the bridge simultaneously in September 1925. Organized by the Duluth Automobile Club, the event kicked off with a parade from central Duluth to the bridge with the U.S. Naval Reserve Band leading the way. Mayor Sam Snively gave a speech, as did his predecessor Judge C. R. Magney, and County Commissioner W. H. Tischer, whose family had once owned the land that became Congdon Park and the Glensheen estate. The Congdon family was represented by Edward Congdon, Chester and Clara’s second-oldest son.

The Lester River Bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. According to the International Concrete Repair Institute, in 2011 the bridge was “selected as one of twenty-four Minnesota bridges to receive a higher level of maintenance and preservation due to its historical significance.” In 2013 it underwent a major rehabilitation as its integrity had been undermined by decades of exposure to deicing chemicals, which had corroded the bridge’s steel reinforcement. Contractor PCI Roads of St. Michael, Minnesota, completed all repairs “to replicate the original historic appearance of the bridge”—right down to the ornamental lanterns Arthur Nichols had designed so carefully.

Kitchi Gammi Park: Built for Automobile ‘Gypsies’

As automobiles became widely available in the 1920s summer vacations turned into road trips, creating a new style of tourism. When Sam Snively had become Duluth’s mayor in 1921, he recognized the potential to attract the new “auto tourists” to town. Snively, along with Duluth’s Commercial Club, Auto Club, and the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway Association, supported the local Lions Club’s campaign to develop tourist campsites in the city. In an interview with the News Tribune, Snively said, “Relying upon the persuasiveness of our natural attractions to draw the tourist to our city, we sit and watch the tourists come and watch the tourists go, without taking thought of their comfortable entertainment while they dwell within our gates.”

Auto tourists stayed in tents and makeshift lean-tos in the early years of the Brighton Beach Tourist Camp. (Image: Tom Kasper)
Auto tourists stayed in tents and makeshift lean-tos in the early years of the Brighton Beach Tourist Camp. (Image: Tom Kasper)

Snively knew that when Congdon Boulevard was completed, public access to the lake would be crucial for the auto tourists. The city already owned some shoreline property between Lester River and the Lakewood Pump House at Eighty-first Avenue East. The land had been purchased in 1896 when the pump house was built to supply Duluth with clean drinking water that would help prevent typhoid epidemics. In 1921 Snively convinced city commissioners to purchase additional land east of Lester River where he wanted to develop a tourist camp. After visiting the site, he told the News Tribune, “The preservation of our lake frontage means much in bringing tourists to Duluth, as it is primarily the lake they come for.” In September 1921 the city commissioners agreed to pay $46,200 for a sixty-nine-acre parcel of lakeshore that was known as Brighton Beach.

In 1922 Snively and Park Superintendent Henry Cleveland created the city’s first tourist camps at Brighton Beach, Indian Point, and Chester Bowl. The timing was perfect for taking advantage of the boom in auto tourism. In August 1922 the News Tribune reported “Northern Minnesota’s ‘Playground of a Nation’, that pine-scented park-and-land of ten thousand lakes…is drawing heavily on the vastly increased automobile ‘gypsies’ this summer. At times the arterial highways present almost a parade-like appearance as cars of high and low estates, each carrying the inevitable camping outfit, some elaborate and others confined to a lean-to and anti-rain hope, proceed on their journey.”

The Brighton Beach Tourist Camp was hugely successful. The original camp provided tent sites, water, and toilet facilities. By the time F. Rodney Paine replaced Cleveland as park superintendent in 1926, the new Lester River Bridge connected London Road directly to Congdon Boulevard, providing an easy route for tourists to reach the campground. Paine added eight cabins at the Brighton Beach Tourist Camp and unofficially began calling the entire lakeshore area Kitchi Gammi Park, although he did not explain why he chose this name.

When F. Rodney Paine became Duluth's Parks Superintendent in 1926, he had cabins built at the tourist camp. (Image: Tom Kasper)
When F. Rodney Paine became Duluth’s Parks Superintendent in 1926, he had cabins built at the tourist camp. (Image: Tom Kasper)

While there are no records of how the park was named, it may be in recognition of some of the wealthy Duluthians who donated money and land to Duluth’s parks and who also belonged to Duluth’s exclusive Kitchi Gammi Club, founded in part by Paine’s father, Frederick W. Paine, the secretary of Duluth’s first park board. These men included Luther Mendenhall and Major John Upham (both members of Duluth’s first park board), Chester Congdon and his sons (including Edward, once the club’s president), Guilford Hartley, William Sargent, and even C. R. McLean (builder of the Lester River Bridge), and others, including Paine himself.

In 1927 the tourist camp hosted over four thousand cars; the price was fifty cents per night per car. Paine added four more cabins in 1930, five in 1931, and three in 1934. By this time the nation was deep into the Great Depression, so work on city parks was limited by budget constraints. The tourist camps at Brighton Beach and Indian Point provided a bright spot in an otherwise dark time by bringing in a profit every year. The Brighton Beach Tourist Camp operated into the late 1950s. By the 1960s the camp was gone, and the land became the site for the National Water Quality Laboratory, which today is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mid-Continent Ecology Division.

Thanks to the foresight of Chester Congdon, Sam Snively, and many other Duluthians, public access to Lake Superior has been preserved along this scenic segment of the shoreline. Although the tourist camp is gone, Brighton Beach at Kitchi Gammi Park and the scenic Congdon Boulevard remain some of the city’s most popular public areas.

From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.

The History of DUluth's Kitchi Gammi Park and Congdon Boulevard:

4 Responses to Preserving Public Access to the Lakeshore

  1. Stayed at Brighton Beach tourist camp in cabins with family in the 1950’s when I was a preteen. The log cabins were approx $4 and a unit in the duplex was about $7 a night. No bathrooms in the cabins or showers. Cabins were one room with a small cook stove and there might also have been a sink. Public showers were located in the duplex for renters of the cabins to use. We’d walk across the main road in front down a steep bank to have a bonfire by the lake. There was a path in the woods along the railroad tracks we’d take to Lester river to go swimming. Also would go to a corner store across the tracks to buy comic books and candy with older brother or sister. It was woodsey and I always was on the look out for bear but never seen one there. Great fun and memories. Thanks to my parents and the City of Duluth!

  2. Of course, what we call things and what they are technically named are often very different. For instance, Chester park was originally named–by the city–Garfield Park, for the slain president. But everyone in Duluth called it Chester park because of the creek’s name, and the city ended up renaming the park because of that. I’m wondering where the name “Brighton Beach” comes from, outside of the Brighton Beach neighborhood in New York City. Visit the park some day, Dave, and you’ll see that the signs read Kitchi Gammi Park.

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