From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.
The Duluth Board of Park Commissioners spent thousands of dollars in the 1890s purchasing land and developing Lincoln Park in the West End and Chester Park in the eastern part of the heavily populated city center. Further east, Lester Park and five small squares were donated to the park system when Duluth annexed Lakeside. West Duluth, however, had no park. In April 1898, the Duluth News Tribune reported, “There is a growing sentiment in West Duluth in favor of having a park. For years it is said that West Duluth has been looking for a breathing spot and playground such as is enjoyed in nearly every other part of the city, but so far has failed.”
The issue erupted publicly when the park board began work on a retaining wall in Lincoln Park. The cost of the improvement triggered protests from West Duluth citizens, and their frustration made it into the newspapers: “Lincoln Park of the West End has been constantly improved, it is claimed,” the News Tribune reported, “while all requests for West Duluth’s proposed park are met with a deaf ear.” The park board responded defensively: “You never offered us any land, and other parts of the city have donated…large tracts for park purposes.”
The dispute succeeded in pushing the development of a West Duluth park to the top of the board’s priority list, and its members began searching for a suitable site. By December 1900 the board had identified four areas, and a group of West Duluthians met to consider the options. The group settled on a forty-acre tract along Kingsbury Creek near Seventy-second Avenue West, which was available for $4,000. The park board accepted the group’s recommendation and purchased the land in March 1901.
Kingsbury Creek’s name came from pioneer William Wallace Kingsbury, a Pennsylvania native, who had established a homestead along its banks in the 1850s. Kingsbury represented northeastern Minnesota as a member of the Territorial House of Representatives in 1857 and served as a delegate to the state Constitutional Convention. That same year the Democrat was elected to congress. By 1865 he was back in Pennsylvania; he died in Florida in 1892.
The board promptly started work on the new park, which was christened Fairmount Park in response to a request submitted by the Fairmount School Alumni Association. Almost immediately newspapers and even the park board members began misspelling the name as “Fairmont,” an error others have perpetuated to this day. The News Tribune reported, “The new park…will not need as much work as the others about the city owing to its splendid natural advantages. …A little stream tumbles through a rocky chasm included in the park, and when the rains come the purling brooklet is suddenly transformed into a torrent, its water deep, treacherous, foaming, and to lovers of the harsh and wild in nature is then one of the most inspiring sights in this region.” Park employees built paths and installed benches, and—although the streetcar extended only as far as Fortieth Avenue West—Fairmount Park rapidly became popular for family outings and picnics. In June 1903 an official entrance was constructed for the park and work started on a pavilion. Because of the ongoing citywide controversy about the evils of dance halls, the board had to assure worried neighbors that the pavilion was only intended as a picnic shelter.
When the street railway company finally extended the streetcar line all the way to the park in early 1905, Fairmount became a favorite summer picnic site for groups ranging from Sunday school classes to the Sons of Norway.
Many labor unions also held their annual picnics at Fairmount Park, and in 1906 the Duluth Trades Assembly formed the “Union Labor Park Pavilion Association” so union members could build their own facilities. Using money donated by members of the various unions, the association purchased sixteen lots adjacent to Fairmount Park and went to work building a pavilion and sports fields. The association hired an extra crew of workers to get the pavilion completed in time for the 1906 Labor Day picnic, which featured tight-rope walker Henry DeRouch and a balloon ascension by aeronaut Professor R. Thompson. According to the News Tribune, at least three thousand union members marched in the Labor Day parade and ten to fifteen thousand people visited the park grounds.
In 1909 the Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific Railroad submitted a plan to construct a new line into Duluth. The proposed route of the track cut through the northern portion of Fairmount. Despite protests from citizens, the proposal was approved by city leaders. As part of the agreement, the park board required the railroad to donate a ten-acre parcel of land adjacent to Fairmount Park in exchange for the land lost to the right-of-way, expanding the park to nearly fifty acres. The wild beauty of Fairmount was diminished somewhat by construction of the railroad, but in spite of the intrusion the park’s popularity continued to grow.