From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.
When the first settlers in the 1850s platted the townships that later joined to become Duluth, they set aside land for public squares—open spaces in the heart of the townsite that could be used for community gatherings. This pattern of development soon fell out of favor as the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, gave rise to the new concept of “landscape architecture.” Olmsted believed that “the greatest counterpoint to urban form was pure wilderness,” an idea Duluth’s park board would embrace when it began establishing the city park system in the 1890s. Over the next one-hundred years, some of Duluth’s public squares were left undeveloped, some were used for purposes other than parks, and others became the central feature of the neighborhoods that surround them.
Portland Square, located between Tenth and Eleventh avenues east from Fourth Street to Fifth Street in Duluth’s East Hillside, holds a clue to Duluth’s early development. Its name comes from Portland Township, established in 1856 by a group of men including James D. Ray, Clinton Markell (Duluth’s second mayor), and Judge Josiah D. Ensign. The township itself occupied the space from Third Avenue East to Chester Creek, from the lakeshore to approximately the location of today’s Skyline Parkway
Duluth’s park board first turned its attention to Portland Square in June 1894 when board member Bernard Silberstein pushed for its improvement. The board had to clear a small hurdle first: Carl Eskelson, who the News Tribune described as “an old man who lives on Fourth street adjoining the property,” claimed he owned the square. Eskelson even took steps to stake out his property and build a fence around it and “served notice on the mayor.” The newspaper reported that “No attention will be paid to the notice and if Eskelson attempts to interfere with the work he will be arrested.” There were no further reports on the issue.
Work began that summer, with the News Tribune acting as cheerleader, claiming the square would soon become “the garden spot of Duluth.” Its central feature was a fountain, described as “a “shell and dolphin design, of cast iron, handsomely bronzed. It throws seven sprays, and is said to present a very pretty appearance when in operation.” The fountain, which cost $400, was surrounded by a concrete pool which itself was encompassed by a sixteen-foot diameter concrete basin. During the summer the pool was planted with water lilies and stocked with goldfish. Sidewalks lined with concrete benches led from each of the square’s four corners to the fountain at its center. The borders of the square were lined with trees, and its interior spaces filled with shrubs, flower gardens, and a circular promenade.
By 1896, according to the News Tribune, Portland Square had become a popular gathering place for “the ladies and little ones,” particularly because it sat along the streetcar line, making it easily accessible to everyone. In 1908 the square helped Duluth launch the local playground movement, but noise complaints by local residents ended the experiment after just three days. In 1927 the park department chose Portland Square as one of five sites throughout the city to build ramps to serve as “snow slides.”
Like most Duluth parks, Portland Square eventually fell into a state of neglect, particularly in the post-war era. The fountain and its surrounding pool are gone, with no record as to what became of them, but the original layout of the park’s 1894 concrete elements is relatively intact. While the flower beds no longer exist, trees still line the walkways, and playground equipment offers neighborhood children a place to play without anyone complaining about the noise.
Fond du Lac Square
When the founders of Fond du Lac Township platted its streets in 1856, they set aside a square block of public open space between today’s West Third Street (State Highway 23) and Fourth Street from 130th to 131st avenues west. In the late 1860s when the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad was built along the St. Louis River, connecting Duluth to the Twin Cities, the railroad tracks were laid straight through Fond du Lac Square. Then in the 1930s the state of Minnesota took additional land from the square for Highway 23. In 1956 the St. Louis County Historical Society, along with the Minnesota Highway Department, erected a historical marker at the center of the square along the highway, but the square remains undeveloped.
Minnesota Point’s Squares
Minnesota Point’s original two parks, Franklin Square and Lafayette Square, were set aside when the land was first platted in 1856. These small squares, less than two acres each, became city parks when the Village of Park Point joined Duluth in 1889. Despite Minnesota Point’s popularity as a summer resort, the park board never developed any amenities at either location. Instead, these parks housed other types of public facilities.
Franklin Square, named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, originally included the land between Lake Avenue South and Minnesota Avenue from Twelfth Street to Thirteenth Street. The site—then the northern border of Middleton Township (predecessor to the Village of Park Point)—contained an early cemetery used for burials of European pioneers, which may be the reason it was left undeveloped. Shifting sand dunes do not provide stable ground for a cemetery, and in 1883 the human remains, along with remains from two other burial sites on Minnesota Point, were moved to Forest Hill Cemetery.
The city deeded the Franklin Square property to the federal government in 1894 to be used by the U.S. Life Saving Service—predecessor to the U.S. Coast Guard—as the location for the Duluth Life Saving Station, which opened in June 1895. The Coast Guard built a new facility in 1959, and ownership of the Franklin Square parcel reverted to the city of Duluth. Within a few years the Public Works Department had demolished the old Lifeboat Station, constructed the “S-curve” connecting Lake and Minnesota avenues, and provided a parking lot with access to the lakeshore. The Tot Lot playground opened in 1971, paid for with funds raised by the Park Point Community Club and assistance from the Coast Guard, the American Legion, and the Duluth Parks and Recreation Department.
Located on the lake side of Minnesota Avenue between Thirtieth and Thirty-first streets south, Lafayette Square was named in honor of Gilbert Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, the young French aristocrat who helped the fledgling United States defeat the British in the War of Independence. Biographies of Lafayette have often reported that “no other foreign dignitary has ever had so many places named after him as Lafayette;” apparently in 1856 Middleton Township simply followed the lead of other U.S. communities.
The square never received any attention from the park board, and in 1905 the city gave the Independent Duluth School District permission to build a school on a portion of the land. Named Radisson Elementary in honor of another historic Frenchman, explorer Pierre-Esprit Radisson, the two-room school served residents on the southern end of Park Point. In 1910 the Board of Education proposed closing the Radisson School, primarily because the building was small, drafty, and heated only by a wood stove. Residents objected, and while the debate raged a story in the <News Tribune> asked “What will the park board do with the property on which stands the abandoned Radisson School?” According to the newspaper, the response from the board indicated that “…some of them did not seem to be aware that the school was on park property.”
When the school finally closed in 1919, Park Superintendent Henry Cleveland requested that the building be sold to the city for one dollar for use as a community center. Instead, in 1921 the board of education gave the building to the Duluth Department of Public Welfare. The former school became a gathering place for the Park Point Community Club, a function it still serves.
According to historian Warren Upham, when Jay Cooke’s business associate Hugh McCulloch platted New London in 1871 he included five public squares each measuring “two and seven tenths acres” (two square blocks) and named all but one of them after public squares in London, England. The squares became part of the Village of Lakeside in 1889, which became the City of Lakeside in 1891, which was annexed by Duluth in 1893, at which point the squares became part of Duluth’s park system.
Located between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth avenues east from McCulloch Street to Gladstone Street, Grosvenor Square is likely named after Grosvenor Square in London’s upscale Mayfair district, which takes its name from Hugh Grosvenor, named the first Duke of Westminster in 1874. Lakeside’s Grosvenor Square retains its original two-block size and is mostly wooded, except for a few pieces of playground equipment and a large field in the southwest quadrant.
Manchester Square, between Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh avenues east from Peabody Street to Colorado Street, takes its name from an eighteenth-century garden square in the once-fashionable Marylebone area of London. Lakeside’s Manchester Square has been reduced to one square block and is entirely covered with trees. Its northern border, Colorado Street, was originally named Summit Street, which served as the northern boundary of the New London township.
Situated between Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh avenues east from McCulloch Street to Gladstone Street, Portman Square became a public playground in 1910 following plans developed by landscape architects Anthony U. Morrell and Arthur R. Nichols. The square was named after London’s Portman Square, once part of the nearby estate of England’s aristocratic Portman Family (Edward Berkeley Portman became the first Viscount of Portman in 1873). Lakeside’s Portman Square today is still two blocks in size and, as it has for over one hundred years, serves as a public playground with a fieldhouse, a baseball diamond, and three hockey rinks in the winter. The fieldhouse was built in 1940 as part of a Works Project Administration improvement project.
Russell Square lays between Forty-second and Forty-third avenues east from Pitt Street to Jay Street. Like Manchester Square it has been reduced to one square block in size and, except for the stretch along Jay Street, it is entirely wooded. In 2014 city officials considered making Lakeside’s Russell Square a dedicated dog park. The Russell surname is famous in England as the family name of the Duke and Earl of Bedford, including John Russell, who became the First Earl of Russell in 1861 and briefly served as England’s Prime Minister from 1865 to 1866. England’s Russell Square is located in the London borough of Camden, near the University of London and the British Museum. In 2014 city officials considered making Duluth’s Russell Square a dedicated dog park.
The only square in Lakeside not named for a London square, Washington Square sits between Forty-second and Forty-third avenues east from Superior Street to Regent Street. In 1911 Morell & Nichols offered two different plans for the park. One featured a pavilion in the center, surrounded by groves of trees, picnic grounds, and a meadow. The other plan included a baseball diamond that could be flooded and used as a skating rink in the winter. Today the square is partially wooded and includes playground equipment. It is named not after New York City’s famous Washington Square—also established in 1871—but rather for Philadelphia’s long-established Washington Square, located just four blocks from Jay Cooke’s bank, where McCullough once worked.
And what of Cascade Park in Duluth’s Central Hillside, the first park established in Duluth Township in 1856? Zenith City Online published its history in September 2012, and you can read the story here.
Nancy Nelson and Heidi Bakk-Hansen also contributed to this story.