With William K. Rogers as its President, in 1889 the newly established Duluth Park Board went to work building a scenic parkway across the hillside that would eventually link all the pieces of the city’s planned park system. But the Parkway quickly consumed the Board’s resources, and as a result of growing debt, within two years the Board was reorganized and Duluth’s mayor appointed new members with more business expertise. (Read previous articles in this series here and here.)
The new Park Board president Luther Mendenhall also served as president of the First National bank and invested heavily in the Duluth Street Railway Company. Vice President Bernard Silberstein was a partner in the Silberstein & Bondy department store. Secretary Henry C. Helm founded and presided over the West End Building and Loan Association.
But even under the competent guidance of Mendenhall, Silberstein, and Helm, the minutes of Park Board meetings paint a picture of a city whose enthusiasm and desire for parks always outstripped its ability to pay for them.
Because of financial constraints, the Board found it necessary to trim back the original plans for the city’s park system. In their first annual report, published in February 1892, the Board wrote, “There was included in the system of parks and parkways, as planned by the former board, and put under condemnation by them, land to the amount of about $700,000. This amount was considered by the present board as being out of proportion with the amount of funds available for the purchase of land, and it was deemed best by them to revise and reduce the system to such proportions as would make it practicable in the end to acquire what remained. This, after due consideration, they proceeded to do, and finally agreed upon and formulated a plan and system which is estimated to cost, for the acquirement of the land, from $400,000 to $450,000.”
The new Board spent most of its resources during the first three years (1891–1893) on the Parkway, which extended from Miller Creek at Third Street (Miller’s Creek Park, later renamed Lincoln Park) across the hillside to Chester Creek at Fourth Street (unofficially called Chester Park). Board members spent many hours overseeing construction, reviewing maps and deliberating over the alignment of the road, even shifting sections of the constructed roadway from “temporary” to what they hoped would be “permanent” locations. Where they could not acquire land by willing purchase, they acquired it through eminent domain.
By 1892 the Board reported that they controlled 145 acres, including the right of way for the Parkway, land along Miller Creek and Chester Creek, Central Park (on the hillside below today’s Enger Park), Portland Square in the east hillside (former Portland Township), and Cascade Square along Clark House Creek just above downtown.
The people of Duluth loved the parks immediately, and they soon began asking for improvements. Residents west of Miller Creek requested a foot bridge over the creek at or near Tenth Street, and the Council encouraged the Board to improve the public squares.
Board members wanted to comply with these requests, but they did not have enough money to acquire land and carry out all the desired improvements. In June 1892 the Board reported that the balance due on property under condemnation was $41,379.23. After evaluating all available funds, they estimated a shortage of $20,000 to $25,000. They requested a temporary loan from the city, which they proposed to repay with money raised through an assessment.
Unfortunately, everything came to a screeching halt a little more than a year later (and several months after a stock market crash that caused the nationwide Financial Panic of 1893) when at their August 8, 1893, meeting, “the financial condition of the Board was considered, and owing to a lack of funds it was deemed advisable to stop all improvements and to lay off all but two men on August 12.” The Board did not meet again until eight months later, in April 1894.
The meeting minutes shed little light on where the Board found the money to resume work, but it is clear that the financial problems continued.In May 1894 Leonidas Merritt, whose family had suffered huge financial losses in the Panic of 1893, asked the Board to repay money he had loaned four years earlier (at the request of William K. Rogers) for building the Parkway. And in July 1896, A. & D. Sang Contractors requested $3,663.58 that had not yet been reimbursed for work done in 1890 on construction of the Parkway—also at Rogers’ request.
Despite the constant struggle for funding, the Board moved ahead on several projects. In June 1894 they used a $2,000 loan to improve Portland Square. Although they specified that the cost of the improvements should not exceed $2,000, the final total reached nearly $6,000. To cover the extra cost, the Park Board requested that the city levy an assessment on nearby properties that benefited from the improvements. The Board also began a major tree planting effort, authorizing the purchase of $2,000 worth of trees and shrubbery.
As Board members began to better understand the task of creating a park system, they realized that their own processes needed to be more formalized. In November of 1894, Commissioner Helm introduced a resolution that “the park in the west end of the city, and now known as Cascade or Millers Creek Park, be designated and hereafter known as Lincoln Park.”
During the discussion of this resolution, the question arose as to whether any of the park grounds of the city had been formally named or designated by the Board. After looking back through the minutes, Secretary Helm reported that no formal action had ever been taken.
As a result, in December of 1894, the Board officially designated “Lincoln Park” in the west end (from Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Avenues West between Third and Fourteenth Streets), “Central Park” in the heart of the city (from Thirteenth and Eighteenth Avenues West between First and Eighth streets), and “Garfield Park” in the east end (from Thirteenth and Fifteenth Avenues East between Fourth and Fourteenth streets, later renamed Chester Park). The Board also officially named the Parkway “Rogers Boulevard…in recognition of the valuable services rendered the city by the late Col. Wm. K. Rogers former President of this Board in planning and supervising the construction of the Parkway connecting the above system of parks.”