Duluth’s Park Board began to make real progress on the park system in the late 1890s. Taxes, assessments, and short-term loans provided a relatively steady flow of funds to work with, and the Board members used the money cautiously. The board continued to acquire land for the permanent alignment of Rogers Boulevard and worked on expanding it to the west. They added more land to the park system, including forty acres in West Duluth, which it named Fairmount Park. It hired park policemen, built playgrounds and skating rinks throughout the city, and began to subsidize music in the parks. It also planted and maintained trees in the parks and along the city streets.
As a result of the increased activity, in 1899 the Parks Board created the position of superintendent of parks and hired Henry C. Helm—who had served as secretary of the Board since 189— at a salary of $75 per month. This arrangement worked out so well that in 1900 the Board continued Helm’s contract. In 1901 they combined the positions of secretary and park superintendent, and in 1903 Helm resigned from the Board to devote all his time to the job of superintendent.
The citizens of Duluth not only loved and used the parks, they also helped to acquire land, make improvements, and maintain facilities.
For example, Chester Congdon, owner of the Glensheen estate, donated money in 1904 to purchase land for a linear park along Tischer Creek, later named Congdon Park in his honor. And, although not recorded in the Park Board minutes, Bernard Silberstein—park board member from 1891 to 1911—quietly provided money when it was needed. According to Silberstein’s obituary in the Duluth Herald of September 4, 1922, “…he often advanced the money to the city for the purchase of park property. It was the cash that brought the best deals and in these early days the city had very little money with which to do any high financing. But he took a chance and advanced the money that Duluth might have a park system to be proud of.”
In October 1906 a group of citizens led by F. A. Patrick approached the Board and offered to furnish money to construct a better connection to the eastern end of Rogers Boulevard between Eighth Street and the Chester Creek bridge. The Board accepted their offer, and construction of the new road was completed within a year.
Public donations helped purchase fourteen acres of land from the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1907. Known informally as Lake Shore Park (now Leif Erikson Park), the land extended “along the Lake Shore from Eighth Avenue East to Chester Creek and north to London Road.” Of the $20,000 paid for the land, $8,000 was raised by subscriptions from “public spirited citizens” while the remainder came from the park fund.
In 1909 Sam Snively (who served as Duluth’s mayor from 1921 to 1937) “offered to place $10,000 of park bonds, provided proceeds of same would be expended for the restoration of the Snively Road.” Work on the road—now called Seven Bridges Road—began in 1910, with the official opening in July 1912. (Read last month’s feature story on the road’s history by Mark Ryan here.)
Neighborhood youths as well as organized clubs helped maintain skating rinks in the parks. In response to a petition from 121 boys and girls of the West End, the board gave them permission to create a skating rink in Lincoln Par—as long as there was no expense to the park fund. The Board also appropriated $200 for a warming house at Portman Square with the requirement that the Lakeside Club take care of it throughout the year. In 1910 the Board reported fifteen free skating rinks in the city, eight of which were “wholly furnished by the park board, and seven furnished by private subscriptions.”
November 1909 brought the first major change in park personnel. After having served the Board in various capacities for over eighteen years, Henry C. Helm resigned as park superintendent because of failing health. Captain Henry Cleveland, a professional landscape architect who had worked for the city since 1900, became the new superintendent.
By 1911 the Board once again ran short of funds. In early August, in the midst of many ambitious projects, they asked the city to sell $50,000 in bonds to raise money for acquiring and improving land for the park system. And, to save money, the secretary was ordered to “lay off all the night keepers except Cascade and Lincoln Parks from and after August 15, 1911.”
Despite this setback, the Board was back at work the next year, proposing to acquire land for the extension of several parks. Unfortunately, even the beloved park system was subject to the whims of the people. Politics always played a crucial role in fulfilling (and sometimes interfering with) the implementation of Duluth’s vision for a park system. In spite of the successes of the board and the overwhelming public support for the park system, politics brought an abrupt end to Duluth’s Park Board in 1913.
By this time urban areas throughout the country were expanding rapidly as immigrants poured into the United States and people from rural areas moved to cities to find jobs in expanding industries. The government was widely viewed as corrupt, and reformers advocated for greater accountability at all levels of government. In Duluth, citizens agitated for enforcing the closing laws for saloons and cleaning up the city’s red light district (in what is now the Canal Park Business District).
In the spirit of progressive reform, a new model for city government swept across the country. It reached Duluth in December 1912, when citizens voted to completely change the city charter and adopt the commission form of government. In Duluth this meant that five commissioners would run the city instead of a mayor and council. Each commissioner had charge of one department and was responsible for all things that happened in that department; one commissioner also served as mayor. The Duluth News Tribune of December 4, 1912, reduced this astounding reorganization of city government to one simple sentence, “Under the provisions of the new charter, all the present city officers will be thrown out of office April 14.”
Perhaps most citizens did not realize that voting for the new charter would mean the elimination of all citizen boards and commissions, but when the charter change took effect, Duluth’s Board of Park Commissioners was dissolved. The city would never again have a group of citizens with the dedication and power to create and maintain the park system. The minutes from the last meeting of the Park Board on April 7, 1913, ended with a sense of resignation: “Meeting then adjourned subject to provisions of the Commission Charter legislating all present officials out of office on April 14, 1913 at 12 o’clock noon. Finis.”