‘Many Beautiful Breathing Spaces’

A History of Duluth's Undeveloped Parks

From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.


The view from Bardon’s Peak in Magney Park, 1932.  (Photo by F. R. Paine.) [IMAGE: UMD MARTIN LIBRARY]
The view from Bardon’s Peak in Magney Park, 1932. Photo by F. R. Paine. [(Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)
Although many of Duluth’s well-known parks have complex histories that reflect the changing needs and tastes of each generation, other parks have a much simpler story—one of quietly remaining in their natural state. Today these undeveloped parks make up over six thousand acres within the city’s limits. They are found from Fond du Lac to Lester Park, and they became part of the park system through a variety of methods.

Some undeveloped parks were platted along with first townships and later neighborhoods as the city grew, but plans to develop them were never carried out or, in many cases, were never made. Other park land was acquired to create a right-of-way for the city’s boulevards, particularly Skyline Parkway—in fact, most of Duluth’s undeveloped parks are found adjacent to the twenty-seven-mile-long roadway. And some of the city’s undeveloped parks came through private donations; these were often named to memorialize the person who gave the property to the city or someone he or she greatly admired.

Many more acres came from acquiring tax-forfeited properties. During the Great Depression, thousands of acres of land became tax delinquent as owners could not or would not pay their taxes. In 1935, in an attempt to return these acres to private ownership, the Minnesota Legislature provided for forfeiture of these delinquent lands, thereby enabling their resale to others. As a result, in the State of Minnesota, when land owners don’t pay their property taxes, the land is forfeited and becomes the property of the state. Tax-forfeited land is managed by the local county board, which classifies each parcel as conservation or non-conservation. “Conservation” parcels remain in public ownership, to be used mainly for forest management. “Non-conservation” parcels are put up for sale at public auction. Duluth, as a “city of the first class” can request that the county board classify parcels within city limits as “conservation” land to be used for public purposes such as parks. Some of Duluth’s tax-forfeited conservation lands have been formally acquired by the city and dedicated as parks, while other areas have been set aside under the less formal designation of “forest parks.”

According to Duluth’s 2006 Comprehensive Plan, forest parks “are not official parks, but areas within which tax forfeited lands are managed for a public purpose. Some of them essentially function as and are widely regarded as parks, while others have been developed or partially developed for a variety of purposes.” Some of these forest parks include state-owned land as well. In fact, according to the city, “the borders of the forest parks have been mapped, but the borders are not coincident with publicly-owned land parcels. Land within the Forest Park boundaries includes a variety of types of land ownership. Land ownership can be private, public, or owned by a non-profit entity.”

The four largest of these preserves are Fond du Lac Forest Park; Bardon’s Peak Forest Park; Oneota Forest Park; and Colbyville, Lakeview, and Lester River Forest Park.

Bardon’s Peak Forest Park

The largest of Duluth’s forest parks, Bardon’s Peak Forest Park encompasses 2,775.5 total acres and includes Magney-Snively Park (once two separate parks), tiny Gasser Park, Spirit Mountain Recreation Area, 21 acres along Knowlton Creek Boulevard, and 986.5 acres of state-owned land.

Gasser Park, just two acres in size, was dedicated in 1911 as part of the plat of Spirit Lake 2nd Division, intended to be a residential neighborhood. The park and nearby street of the same name were christened in honor of Mathew M. Gasser, a German immigrant who started a very successful grocery business in Duluth in 1889. This neighborhood was never developed, and the property is now part of the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area, which includes more than one thousand acres of land set aside by state legislation in 1973, much of it acquired using Land and Water Conservation Fund financing. Managed by the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area Authority, the area
offers alpine ski hills, cross-country ski trails, a campground, an alpine coaster, a zip line, a miniature golf course, and two chalets. Although far from being “undeveloped,” Spirit Mountain makes up a large portion of the forest park.

C. R. Magney. (Image: Duluth Public Library)
C. R. Magney. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Magney Park

In 1920 Mayor Clarence R. Magney—a strong supporter of the city’s park system—initiated a project to create a connecting road between Duluth and Jay Cooke State Park. To find the best route he worked closely with F. Rodney Paine, who at that time served as the manager of the state park. Magney wanted to extend the parkway from its western terminus near Thompson Hill across the hillside to Becks Road and then south along Mission Creek to the St. Louis River. He intended to acquire land around Bardon’s Peak to provide a right-of-way for this new segment of the parkway.

Magney did not remain in office long enough to see the western extension of the parkway become a reality. He resigned as mayor on September 15, 1920, to campaign for a position as judge of Minnesota’s Eleventh Judicial District (he won). At the time of Magney’s departure from office, the Duluth News Tribune wrote, “[Magney] was a park fan…. In fact, he is in a large way, the father of our park system…. To him Duluth owes a great debt for many beautiful breathing spaces.”

Learn more about Judge Magney here.

Former Duluth mayor Trevanion Hugo finished out Magney’s term as mayor, and seven months later, in April 1921, Sam Snively was elected the city’s chief executive. Snively had already contributed a great deal to the development of the city’s parks as a private citizen, and as mayor he intended to do even more. Shortly after his election, Snively announced his vision to make Duluth the most beautiful city in the area. “Beautiful parks, broad scenic highways, and modern tourist camp sites are the strongest advertisements a city can have,” Snively told the newspapers. “It is my hope that Duluth’s parks and beauty spots will make it universally known.” An important part of this plan was to extend the parkway both west and east so tourists would be able to drive from Jay Cooke State Park to the Lester River, with connections along the way to all the city’s parks.

Snively also recognized the importance of the mature hardwood forest surrounding Bardon’s Peak, which had survived the 1918 Cloquet Fire. “A far-sighted person can see that forested areas of northern Minnesota are fast dwindling,” Snively said, “and that in not more than 10 years a stand of timber of this size will be almost a novelty.”

Snively wasted no time in carrying on the work that Magney had started. In May 1921 he completed the purchase of 330 acres surrounding Bardon’s Peak for $37,000. Snively named the new area Magney Park in recognition of his mayoral predecessor’s contributions to the Duluth park system and announced that few changes would be made to the land. “The source of the proposed boulevard extension is now a mere footpath through the densely wooded beauty spot,” the mayor pointed out. “I should like to see this wood land left in its natural state with the only mark of improvement being a hard surfaced highway through it.” In 1925 Snively opened Bardon’s Peak Boulevard to traffic.

A History of Duluth's Undeveloped Parks

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