Today let’s take a stroll through Lincoln Park – not the part of town formerly known as the West End, but the park itself. This lush strip of boreal forest cuts through that part of Duluth from Third Street to Skyline Drive with Miller Creek wending its way down the middle of the mainly block-wide park between 25th and 26th Avenues West in its lower reaches and 24th and 26th above Eighth Street.
On our stroll, let’s magically venture into the past as well as tread today’s roadways and paths of this nature preserve, presciently set aside by our forebears more than a century ago. It lies right in the middle of a then-burgeoning residential area established by immigrants and other settlers drawn to Duluth by its vibrant early economy fostered by plentiful jobs in the steel, lumber and shipping industries.
And what a gem it remains, even as the neighborhood it slices through has changed, although the original housing stock largely remains as well.
I grew up in one of those houses, just two blocks from Lincoln Park. Once old enough to roam the park’s nooks and crannies with childhood friends, we discovered it was a four-season paradise for play. So our stroll today includes my own memories, shared, I’m sure, by others whose childhoods were enhanced by having such a wonderful playground in which to set their imaginations free to make the park whatever they wanted it to be.
For me it was at various times Sherwood Forest (inspired by the Errol Flynn Robin Hood movie), an Old West woods (thank you John Wayne and Lone Ranger), a World War II combat zone, and even a jungle (very much like Tarzan’s) with crocodile- and piranha-infested waters.
Well, at least trout-infested waters, we hoped when we tried to fish Miller Creek. Today, Miller Creek is a valued trout habitat, protected by environmental laws that have had a bearing on mall construction far above the park on top of the hill where the creek’s source is located (not far from the Rice Lake Landfill, of all places).
There were no malls when I was a youngster, and I had the distinct impression that no one really cared about keeping the creek clean, either. Widespread environmental concerns didn’t exist until the 1960s. When I played in Lincoln Park and in and around Miller Creek (we never called it Miller Creek; it was known as Lincoln Creek), it was full of junk, and who knew how much sewage runoff. Discarded tires, old bedsprings and other refuse were common sights along the way.
So we just assumed Miller Creek was “dirty,” although there was a well-used swimming hole at Eighth Street that I was forbidden to swim in by my parents due to polio concerns. I did sneak in for a dip a few times, though, always expecting to contract polio and end up in an iron lung. Never did.
Oh, and about those fishing attempts. I knew an older boy (who really knew how to fly fish—you could tell he was an expert because he sported a wicker creel), who caught a German brown trout one day and the word spread throughout the West End. I never heard of another fish being taken in Miller Creek in those days, but not for want of trying.
A decade before those days of my youth, the 1930s, Lincoln Park was the site of Depression-era work projects that greatly altered the park. Manmade rock walls defined the creek bed, major paths were upgraded and bridges built, somewhat domesticating this mostly wild urban park. These amenities exist today, along with a large stone pavilion in the lower (southern) reaches of the preserve.
When I was a child, that pavilion was the site of the annual Swedish Midsummer Festival (always called the “Swede’s Day Picnic”) each year that drew large crowds and hosts of politicians the likes of Hubert Humphrey and Luther Youngdahl together with civic leaders. Duluth had a string of Scandinavian mayors in the ’40s and ’50s, two of which were surnamed Johnson.
Not far up the hill from the pavilion is Lincoln Park’s most distinctive landmark, Elephant Rock. A natural outcropping of Duluth gabbro, it is shaped like the back and head of a huge elephant – larger than any elephant ever was or ever will be. It is a site of eternal fascination for children (and graffiti practitioners) through the generations.
A grandchild of mine, just three years old, recently expressed a concern I recall having when I was his age. On a visit to Elephant Rock, he mentioned that you can’t see the elephant’s “nose” (trunk). You’ve got to be a little older to imagine the trunk and legs beneath the ground below its hulking body.
My most recent stroll in the park came a day after Duluth’s historic 500-year rainfall in June. I have never seen the creek angrier in more than a half century of observing it, skipping rocks in it, swimming in it. No swimming that day.
The torrential rains had swelled the creek beyond its banks in many places and formed separate rivers that left and then returned to the main stream, leaving flattened grass and debris in their wake. The angry waters swept tons upon tons of boulders downstream, where they now rest near where the creek passes beneath Third Street. Just outside the park proper, south of Third Street, the creek caused major flooding of century-old residences never before affected by its waters.
Three blocks upstream, though, that elephant whose trunk and legs are hidden below ground remained unmolested, placidly standing where it has stood since the last 500 year rain, patiently waiting for the next one. One day I hope that my 3-year-old grandchild will bring a grandchild of his own to Elephant Rock and wonder, like so many other children before him, where the elephant’s nose is.