From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.
Duluth’s Park Board members spent much of their time, energy, and resources from 1889 to 1913 creating the parkway. Lincoln Park and Chester Park formed the bookends of the scenic roadway and were the first parks created intentionally by the park board.
To establish the western end of the parkway, in 1889 the board started purchasing land along Miller Creek between Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Avenues West. According to Duluth historian Heidi Bakk-Hansen, the creek was named for pioneer Robert P. Miller, a native of Pennsylvania who came here in the late 1850s and built a cabin and small farm on the east side of the stream. Miller left his farm to fight for the Union in the Civil War. He never returned to Duluth, as he died from dysentery in Vicksburg on June 21, 1864. Newspaper stories from the 1890s mention “the ruins of an old mill with still and silent water wheel,” within the park, but it is not known if this was built by Robert Miller.
The board referred to the area as “Millers Creek Park” and sometimes as “Cascade Park” (creating confusion with Cascade Square in downtown Duluth) until 1894 when they officially named it “Lincoln Park.” The board members gave no reason for the choice of name. Perhaps they were copying their rival city, Chicago, which already had a Lincoln Park, named for Abraham Lincoln, who had been assassinated in 1865. At the same time they changed the name of Chester Park to Garfield Park, after President James Garfield, assassinated in 1881. Dozens of American cities have (or once had) parks named in honor of these fallen presidents.
Lincoln Park Takes Shape
Minimal work was required to make Lincoln Park an appealing place for families to spend time. In the words of the board, “the ravine is so rich in beauty that little had to be done in the way of formal treatment.” The board ordered the construction of rustic benches, a small pavilion, sidewalks, bridges, ponds, and a driveway along Miller Creek from Third Street up the hill to Sixth Street. On July 4, 1896, the board formally dedicated Lincoln Park during what the Duluth News Tribune described as a “grand celebration of the National Birthday.” Festivities included music by the West End Band and Glee Club, a New England dinner served by “the ladies,” and a variety of speakers.
Just one year later a major storm on July 3 damaged most of the city’s parks, including Lincoln, where water from the rain-swollen Miller Creek washed away bridges and embankments and strong winds blew over trees. The board had planned a huge Independence Day celebration for Lincoln Park, so Secretary Henry Helm hired every man he could find to help with clean up. The News Tribune reported that “the park looked like a beehive along toward night, with men working everywhere.” They succeeded in getting Lincoln Park restored well enough for the July 4 celebration to take place as planned.
Located in the heavily populated West End and easily accessible by street car, Lincoln Park quickly became a favorite place for family picnics and outings. Newspapers soon began to report that “every pleasant day the park is almost crowded with ladies and children who take their lunches and spend hours in the favored retreat. On Sundays thousands visit the spot if only for the pleasure of a brief stroll through the secluded paths and to listen to the music of the stream as it tears over the rocks on its way to the great Gitchi Gummee.”
In the winter of 1896, the park became home to one of the first public skating rinks in the city when the park board agreed to flood about an acre of land adjacent to the creek and to temporarily convert the pavilion into a warming house for skaters. But for the most part, Lincoln Park remained in a relatively wild state; in the words of the News Tribune, it was “almost as nature left it.”
Unfortunately young people soon found Lincoln Park to be a convenient place to congregate late at night. Newspaper reports of the arrest of young hoodlums, drunks, and trespassers became all too common. As the park system grew and public use increased, the board members realized they needed to hire men to watch over the parks. David Vaugh was sworn in as Lincoln Park’s first park policeman in 1890; by 1902, Civil War veteran and former city alderman Ambrose Cox filled the position. Cox also built a pavilion on land he owned adjacent to the west side of Lincoln Park on Fifth Street, between Twenty-sixth and Twenty-seventh Avenues West, and operated it as a dance hall.
Sadly, Cox was not long on the job. In November two workmen were repairing a sewer at Twenty-seventh Avenue West and needed help to shift a pipe. Cox descended into the pit to help and was quickly overcome by sewer gas. He was pulled out by the workmen and neighbors, and although he briefly regained consciousness, he later fell into a coma and died three days later. His wife Mabel was left alone to raise their four daughters and one son.
Mabel Cox continued to own and rent out the pavilion, which became her source of income. But the facility also precipitated a community debate over dance halls and liquor in the parks. By 1903 neighbors considered the pavilion, which was still used as a dance hall, to be a nuisance and a disgrace to the neighborhood. The building burned to the ground in the summer of 1904, and three hundred neighbors petitioned the board to purchase the land so the pavilion would not be rebuilt. The petitioners stated that the building had “greatly depreciated the value of their property and deprived them of the enjoyment of their home life.” The board first voted to move ahead with the purchase, but when dance hall manager John Moore threatened to reopen it on another lot adjacent to the park, the board members quickly realized that purchasing property to prevent a nuisance was not a practical solution and abandoned the idea.
Instead, in February 1905 the city council unanimously passed an ordinance that would prevent “noisy amusement” within five hundred feet of any park. The ordinance prohibited any business, calling or vocation, either for amusement or profit, in the conduct of which any dancing, disorderly conduct, noisy demonstration, shows, theatrical exhibitions, concerts, merry-go-rounds, or any other act or thing is permitted which will, in the opinion of the Board of Park Commissioners of the city of Duluth be likely to result in disturbing the quiet, orderly, and suitable use and enjoyment of the public park or parkways situated within five hundred feet thereof, without having first obtained from the Board of Park Commissioners a permit in writing.
At about the same time, Mrs. Cox leased the property to W. J. Chestock who intended to rebuild the pavilion and use it for dancing, skating, indoor ball games, and musical entertainment. But when Chestock applied for a license to serve liquor, the neighbors strongly objected. They claimed that it was not so much the dancing they were opposed to, but rather the liquor. They feared that the park as a “family fresh air ground” would suffer from the introduction of liquor. On May 30 the city council turned down the application, but Chestock persevered, and in May 1906 the council finally granted him a license to operate a dancing, concert, and amusement pavilion on the condition that it did not violate any city ordinances.
In November 1916, fire once again destroyed the pavilion, but the controversy that had been ignited by the dance hall continued to burn for many years.