Between two Novembers separated by more than ninety years, Duluth pioneer Samuel Snively spent nearly seven decades of his life helping develop, settle, and promote the lake head region. As a private citizen, Snively was widely regarded for his integrity and vision as a developer, road builder, and gentleman farmer. Later, as Duluth’s mayor, he treated residents as family, aiding them during difficult times and inviting them to celebrate with him the uniqueness of their beautiful hillside city. Little if anything can be found that tarnishes Snively’s public service in Duluth. His recognition of the city’s natural beauty led him to help create a park system considered second to none in America, and with everything else earned him the epitaph that appears on his grave: “Duluth’s Grand Old Dad.”
Sam Snively’s long love affair with Duluth began appropriately on the first day of Spring in 1886. The weather was unusually warm for March 21st, and as the story goes, the first thing he did when he stepped off the ferry from Superior, Wisconsin, was to search out a room where he could change out of the two pair of long underwear he had worn as a precaution against Duluth’s notoriously cold weather. Snively was only 27 years old and had just $15 in his pocket, but in his valise he carried a law diploma from the University of Philadelphia—and he was ready to take on any and all challenges that lay ahead.
“Uncle was a pretty good-sized man,” said niece Zelda Snively Overland, who lived with Snively in Duluth for a time in the 1920s and later cared for him in his declining years. “Broad shouldered, with a tenor voice, steel-blue eyes, light brown hair. Gregarious, outgoing, but stern. He didn’t fool around, he wasn’t that kind of person.”
Samuel Frisby Snively was born in Pennsylvania, near the town of Greencastle. His Swiss ancestors were engineers, named Schnebele, who emigrated to America in 1714 to escape religious persecution. Snively’s direct descendent, Johann Schnebele, worked as a land agent for the Penn family and was given large sections of land as payment. By the time Sam came along on November 24, 1859, the land had been divided up among many descendants and the name Schnebele had become Snively. Sam Snively was second of seven children born to Jacob and Margaret Snively, and was named after his paternal grandfather. One of young Sam’s earliest memories was accompanying his namesake to nearby Gettysburg battlefield to see President Lincoln give his famous speech there.
Snively was raised and educated surrounded by the heavily wooded mountains that framed the Cumberland Valley. He graduated from Dickinson College with a Masters of Arts degree in 1882, then headed east to Philadelphia to work in the law office of Benjamin Harris Brewster, then Attorney General of the United States under president Chester A. Arthur. After earning his law degree, he decided to head west to seek his fortune. A railroad fare war brought him as far as Chicago for a single dollar. Another thirteen got him to St. Paul where former law school classmate Charles Craig urged him to try his luck in Duluth. Snively followed Craig’s advice—and Craig—and headed north to the Zenith City.
In 1886 Duluth was emerging from a long slump caused by the Panic of 1873 and Jay Cooke’s abandonment of the region. But with interest in lumber and iron ore on the rise, the port town was poised to become a great center of transportation both via the railroads and Great Lakes shipping. Within a year it would incorporate into a city again.
Snively and his friend joined forces and opened the law firm of Snively and Craig in the Metropolitan block on West Superior Street. Much of their law practice involved handling real estate transactions for others, but Snively was also building up a substantial portfolio for himself—not only in land, but also in oil, metal fabrication, newspaper publishing, and mining. By early 1893, he and two other Duluth men incorporated the Snively Mining company, with a capital stock of half a million dollars. Snively’s interest in Mesabi iron ore resulted in the Snively Mine at Mountain Iron. He also held interest in the Milford Mine in Crow Wing County.
The Panic of 1893 changed everything. Several railroad and bank failures along with a run on gold sent the U.S. economy into a severe economic depression that left 18 percent of the workforce without jobs. Companies closed, families lost their homes and savings, and riots and strikes flared up across the United States. It was the worst downturn experienced by the country at that time.
Snively called it “a financial massacre,” and Douglas Overland remembers his great-uncle explaining his sudden change in fortune: “I went to bed a millionaire, my boy, and I woke up and I looked out the window and I didn’t have a goddamn cent. And I didn’t have a goddamn thing but a shirt on my back, goddamn it.”
Like a hundred thousand others, Snively headed for the Yukon gold fields hoping to strike it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush that began in 1897. But the endeavor proved a miserable failure. He barely made it back to Seattle where he found himself stranded and broke. He told of having to sew rocks into the cuffs of his cheap trousers so they wouldn’t shrink, and of not having enough money to buy a beer so he could enjoy the free lunch that came with it. But somehow Snively made his way back to Duluth to start over.
Snively resumed his law practice and soon found himself involved in the business of farmland development. He and two other men, Jed L. Washburn and John G. Williams, purchased 200,000 acres of Northern Pacific Railroad land in St. Louis and Carlton counties which they sold off over several years. He also purchased large tracts of land along the south shore of Lake Superior and helped colonize the area between Superior and Bayfield, Wisconsin.
As Snively’s fortunes improved, he began construction of a house in the backcountry above the Duluth neighborhoods of Lakeside and Lester Park that served as centerpiece to a large 400-acre farm.
Summer cotillions were a yearly event at Snively’s farm. Guests danced to a live orchestra and enjoyed catered meals on the house’s large porch, or among the pines at creek-side just north of the house where Snively had carefully designed and assembled a number of picnic sites. His appreciation of the outdoors was a trait inherited from his mother, “a lover of all that was grand and beautiful in nature, and an influential representative of that which was most ennobling and uplifting in life.”
This same sensibility, coupled with a desire for a less difficult connection to his farm, led Snively into what would later become his hallmark as mayor: building parkways and boulevards. Using mostly his own money and property donations, Snively built a parkway along picturesque Amity Creek that he later gave to the city. It would one day become known as Seven Bridges Road.
For the time, Snively was once again enjoying the good life. But as before, that was about to change. On October 10, 1918, a forest fire blazed across northeastern Minnesota, literally destroying the towns of Moose Lake and Cloquet, and killing more than 500 people. Most of Duluth proper was spared, but the fire swept across much of hilltop above the city—including Snively’s celebrated farm. His stone house survived but the deadly conflagration destroyed almost everything else.
Snively was now sixty-one years old. At an age when most individuals retire or at least slow down, he began the most memorable phase of his life. In February 1921, he announced his candidacy for the office of city mayor. He not only won, but held the seat for the next sixteen years, proving himself to be one of Duluth’s finest administrators.
“When I was a little boy, I always associated city hall with cigar smoke,” said Doug Overland. “There were spittoons in city hall. Cigar smoke and spittoons. My uncle carried a pocketful of cigars with him. He’d give them away, because he didn’t smoke himself—he was a teetotaler.”
Throughout Snively’s mayoral term, the door to his office at city hall remained open to anyone seeking his counsel. His desk was often piled with written requests from out-of-work men asking for any kind of employment. If they showed up in person, Snively would offer advice or suggestions, or simply listen. Sometimes he would take matters into his own hands, whether it meant making a personal appeal to a disgruntled landlord, or issuing a citywide request through the local press for clothing or other donations for the needy.
The mayor’s official duties included heading the parks and boulevards department, and without a doubt, Snively’s greatest contribution as mayor was his work in this capacity. Snively believed Duluth could be made one of the most beautiful cities in America because “it possesses those peculiar physical characteristics out of which can be developed a system of parks and boulevards second to no other in the world.” He warned against politicizing the issue, reasoning that it should remain non-partisan, noting that beautiful parks and driveways had nothing to do with politics.
The completion of Skyline Parkway became his pet project during his time in office, and the fact that city funds for parks were often scarce or non-existent didn’t stop him from achieving that goal. Snively was a master at securing private donations of both property and money for park development. He even made a personal appeal to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that resulted in a donation.
Most of Snively’s park work was done on his own time, before his official duties began or after they were completed. By his second term, Skyline Parkway was well established, and total park acreage in Duluth had increased from 400 acres to more than 2500 acres. By his third term, when an acre of parkland per one hundred people was considered well off, Duluth topped the U.S. Department of Labor’s park census list with an acre of parkland per forty-one residents.
Many of Mayor Snively’s park and boulevard projects served as sources of employment for out-of-work men. Often, the mayor paid them out of his own pocket. Other times, men would work just for firewood from timber cleared along the boulevard route.
Ironically, for all his road building, Snively never learned to drive an automobile. He’d prefer to walk, but when driving was necessary he’d enlist others to chauffeur him to and from boulevard projects and other city business.
“I drove him everywhere,” said Zelda Overland. “He was scared to death of driving.”
This fear was probably compounded by Snively’s involvement in several auto accidents, both as a pedestrian and a passenger, and by the fact that he was blind in one eye from a botched sinus infection operation. Even when the city council authorized money for a car for the mayor, Snively declined it—and had the money donated to the zoo fund.
Snively never married, remaining a life-long bachelor, but he treated Duluth’s citizens like family. During the 1930s Snively initiated annual picnics at the city zoo for the children of the city’s three orphanages. Local businesses donated food and drink, and free rides were provided by the zoo. Snively personally hosted the yearly event.
It wasn’t unusual for Duluthians to reciprocate. Stories are common of folks inviting the mayor over for a family dinner after a chance meeting around city hall or at a bus stop, and Snively taking them up on the offer.
“He was a man who loved to talk around dinner. And he’d get talking and one thing would lead him to the next and off he’d go talking. If he had a listener, he’d talk.”
In his fifth bid for office Snively was defeated by less than 900 votes. He was 77 years old. At a testimonial dinner given in the his honor, Judge C.R. Magney said this of the out-going mayor: “He retires with a clear conscience—no one in his 16 years has accused him of dishonesty; no one has ever thought it of him; no inference has ever been given of it.”
Soon after the election, Snively was named as the fourteenth inductee into the Duluth Hall of Fame for his tireless work on the city’s parks and boulevards. But his work on the boulevard really never ended. He was named Superintendent of Boulevards and given a small office in city hall where he’d spend his days poring over maps and figuring out ways to improve the city’s parks and boulevards.
“We’d go by bus out to the zoo and my uncle had a satchel and he carried tools in there,” Doug Overland said. “And I can remember many times he would rake and do some little fixing up. Maybe the rain had come down and washed out a little bit of a part of the path, and he would get his shovel and fix it up.”
Snively died on November 7, 1952, a few weeks short of his 93rd birthday. One of the most photographed men in Duluth’s history, his likeness had graced the pages of a local newspaper two days prior to his death. The picture showed the pioneer Duluthian marking his ballot for the 1952 presidential election.
“He had no ego whatsoever,” said Douglas Overland. “He did have, I’m sure, tremendous pride, you can see it in his writing. But he had no ego. His life was doing things. He just literally didn’t do anything to elevate himself. A very curious man.”