Perhaps best known as the man who built Duluth’s historic Glensheen estate, Chester A. Congdon also contributed generously to the development of Duluth’s park system with the creation of Congdon Park and Congdon Boulevard. Moreover, Glensheen’s construction introduced Minnesota to Anthony U. Morell and Arthur R. Nichols, who would go on to become the state’s foremost landscape architects.
Congdon was born in Rochester, New York, in 1853. In 1871 he enrolled at Syracuse University where he met San Francisco–native Clara Hesperia Bannister—like him, the child of a Methodist minister—and together they graduated in 1875. Clara took a job teaching in a women’s college in Ontario; Chester studied law and was accepted to the New York bar. After a brief, financially frustrating stint as a school principal in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, he was off to St. Paul, Minnesota, to practice law.
There he took a job as assistant to William Billson, the U.S. district attorney for the State of Minnesota. A year later Billson left his post to move to Duluth to begin a private practice. Congdon, meanwhile, married Clara in Syracuse and brought his bride west to St. Paul. There they started a family while Chester made the transition to private practice. His work often brought him to Duluth, where he visited with Billson. In 1892 he accepted Billson’s offer of a partnership and moved his growing family to the Zenith City.
Chester found early success in Duluth. Henry Oliver of Pittsburgh’s Oliver Steel—the second-largest steel maker in America—hired Congdon to oversee his ore purchases in Minnesota. Together they created the Oliver Mining Company, which would become the largest iron ore producer on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. Working for Oliver, Congdon expanded and defended the company’s Minnesota interests. He also purchased stock in the company. In 1901 J. P. Morgan bought out John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Oliver Mining, and others to form United States Steel. In six short years the value of Congdon’s stock rose 555 percent; almost overnight Congdon had become one of the wealthiest men in Minnesota. He then partnered with Oliver and others investing in ore property on the Western Mesabi and diversified by opening copper mines in Arizona and building an irrigation canal in Washington’s Yakima Valley, where he developed fruit orchards. In Duluth he served as an executive with the American Exchange National Bank of Duluth, the Marshall-Wells Company, the Gowan-Lenning-Brown Company, and other enterprises.
Construction of Glensheen began in 1905 and took four years to complete. While the estate was being built, Congdon became interested in politics. He served as the Republican representative from Minnesota’s Fifty-first Congressional District from 1909 to 1913. In November 1916, just days after Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the presidential election, Chester Congdon died of a pulmonary embolism in St. Paul.
His obituary read in part, “Not because he was a rich man but because he was a good man with sound instincts and large capacities for service and with an ever increasing will to give his energy and means to wholesome public enterprises the loss of Chester A. Congdon is a great blow to the community, to the state and to the nation.”
From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.
Van Brunt, 1922:
Chester Adgate Congdon was born June 12, 1853, at Rochester, New York, and died November 21, 1916, at St. Paul, Minnesota. His father, Sylvester Laurentus Congdon, was a Methodist clergyman. His mother was Laura Jane Adgate Congdon. On the paternal side he is sixth in descent from James Congdon, a Quaker from England who settled in Rhode Island in the first half of the seventeenth century. On the paternal side all ancestors were of English origin. On the maternal side he is a grandson of Chester V. Adgate and Hannah Berger, the latter the daughter of Berger and Jane Van Horn. The Adgate family were from New England and presumed to be of English descent. The Berger and Van Horn families were from the Hudson River Valley and are of Holland origin. Chester Adgate Congdon obtained his education in the public schools of Elmira, New York, after which he attended the East Genesee Conference Seminary at Ovid, New York, and took the degree of A. B. at Syracuse University in 1875. His early occupation was school teaching, which continued for one year. He was admitted to the bar of the state of New York as attorney and counsellor-at-law October 13, 1877, and to the bar of the state of Minnesota, January 9, 1880. He practiced law at St. Paul, Minnesota, from January, 1880 until January, 1892, when he moved to Duluth, Minnesota, and became a member of the firm of Billson & Congdon, which firm was changed November 1, 1893, to Billson, Congdon & Dickinson. On the death of Judge Dickinson the title returned to the original style, Billson & Congdon, which continued until January 1, 1904, at which time both members retired from the forensic profession.
Mr. Congdon entered into various business enterprises and was an officer or director of numerous iron mining corporations, the Calumet and Arizona Mining Company and other copper mining corporations, also the American Exchange National Bank, Marshall-Wells Hardware Company, and Gowan-Lenning-Brown Company in Duluth. He also went into the fruit growing and cattle raising business in the Yakima Valley, Washington. He was assistant United States attorney, District of Minnesota, 1881 to 1886; a member of the House of Representatives, Minnesota Legislature, 1909 and 1911 sessions; a member of the Duluth Charter Commission from October 7, 1903, until his death; and at the time of his death was the Minnesota member of the Republican National Committee. He was a member of various clubs and college fraternities, including Psi Upsilon and Phi Beta Kappa.
Mr. Congdon was married at Syracuse, New York, September 29, 1881, to Clara Hesperia Bannister, the union being blessed with seven children: Walter Bannister, Edward Chester, Marjorie, Helen Clara, John (deceased), Elizabeth Mannering and Robert Congdon.
The following editorial appeared in the Duluth Herald of November 21, 1916:
“In the passing of Chester A. Congdon, Duluth’s and Minnesota’s loss is far greater than many people realize. It is not the loss of Minnesota’s wealthiest man, if Mr. Congdon was Minnesota’s wealthiest man, that counts, for in the hush of death riches have faint voice. It is the rich personality and the human possibilities of the personality that constitute the loss.
“Many, perhaps, knew Mr. Congdon as a man of stern and even rather grim exterior, of distance and aloofness; yet what they saw was not the man at all. Those who really knew him found in him a man of tender heart and warm human sympathies. That misleading exterior was beyond question the product of an unconquerable diffidence, strange as it may seem to many; and it was this same diffidence that kept secret his many beneficences.
“Mr. Congdon was a close student of government and state policies, a foe of waste and inefficiency, a friend of political progress as he saw it, a champion of clean public life and sound government. He was always the good citizen, eager to have his part in every forward movement in directions that he judged to be wise; and his share in the development of better things in public life in this state has been far greater than many people know.
“Not because he was a rich man but because he was a good man with sound instincts and large capacities for service and with an ever increasing will to give his energy and means to wholesome public enterprises the loss of Chester A. Congdon is a great blow to the community, to the state and to the nation.”