From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.
Perhaps due to its location along the shore of Lake Superior and because the Duluth Lakewalk passes through its heart, Leif Erikson is one of Duluth’s most-visited parks. It has also undergone more changes—including name changes—than any other park in the Zenith City. Various plans for its development in the early 1900s included expanding the park by creating new land along the lakeshore as far as the Duluth Ship Canal. While these plans never came to fruition, at least not as part of the park, today they are reflected in the recent developments of the Lakewalk and Lake Place Park.
The Birth of Cullum Park
Early in 1905, a small triangle of land at the convergence of East Superior Street and London Road became the spark that ignited a community effort to create a new park on the shore of Lake Superior. The triangular sliver, roughly between Ninth and Tenth Avenues East, had already been divided into sixteen fifty-foot-wide lots, several of which were occupied by houses. In addition, the city’s board of public works was getting ready to install a large granite fountain at the westernmost point of the triangle, which extended west of Ninth Avenue. As the Duluth News Tribune explained, the new fountain would “take the place of the cheap iron affair placed in the locality by the city several years ago.” Donated by Clara Stone Blood of St. Paul, the fountain was a monument to the memory of her father, pioneer George C. Stone, who arrived in the city in 1869 to work as the cashier of Duluth’s first bank.
Despite these obstacles, John Millen, vice president of the Alger-Smith Lumber Company and managing director of the Alger-Sullivan Lumber Company, offered to donate to the city one undeveloped lot in the middle of the triangular plot. Millen asked only that the city acquire the remainder of the area and dedicate it as a park.
The News Tribune reported that the proposition met with “instant and popular approval.” The newspaper promised to donate $1,000 toward purchase of the additional lots and recommended the project to the Duluth Board of Park Commissioners “in the hope that this greatly desired feature of Duluth’s landscape shall be quickly added.”
Park board Vice President Bernard Silberstein responded by saying, “The site would certainly make a handsome park. It was intended originally for such a purpose, but through accident houses were built there.” Board President Luther Mendenhall agreed, but he called on the citizens of Duluth to find the money. “The park board has no funds to make a purchase of this land at present, but I would think that it ought to be easy to raise the required amount among the neighboring property owners.”
The triangle of land was soon forgotten, however, after real estate investor Louis Loeb, who lived nearby at 1123 East Superior Street, suggested that the project be enlarged to include the lakeshore below London Road. The Northern Pacific Railroad (NP), owner of the lakeshore property, offered to sell the land from Eighth to Thirteenth Avenues East for $20,000, half of its market value. The park board agreed to provide half the purchase price if Duluth citizens would come up with the rest.
Duluth’s newly elected mayor, Dr. Marcus B. Cullum, announced his support with the comment that “any movement toward the extension of the park system is good. It is to be regretted that the park fund is so small.… The project would have to be carried out by public subscription since the park fund is not sufficient to keep the present parks in the proper order. It is a great pity that more of the lake shore property was not reserved when it was not so expensive.”
Other than contributing $10,000, the park board did very little to help acquire the land. Instead, Mayor Cullum took the lead. In May 1905 he called together property owners and interested citizens to discuss ways to raise money for the project, which at that point was referred to by a variety of names including East End Park, Lakeside Park, Lake Front Park, and Lake Shore Park.
Money came in slowly despite frequent pleas in the newspapers. One editorial published in The News Tribune on May 21, 1905, came from local businessman Charles Schiller, who wrote, “The funds at the disposal of the board are insufficient to do much in the way of acquiring new properties and it is therefore up to the public spirited citizens to come to the front and show their loyalty to their city by loosening their purse strings.”
A year later nearly $5,000 had been collected, leaving the city $5,000 short. Mayor Cullum continued to lead the fundraising drive. “In response to repeated admonitions from numerous residents of the East End,” the News Tribune reported, “and from his own deep conviction of the desirability of the park, he is now trying to bring the matter to a successful conclusion.”
By August 1906 time was running out on the city’s option to buy the land, and the mayor made a final strong push by sending out urgent appeals to many of the prominent property owners in Duluth’s East End. The News Tribune editorial staff also continued to encourage the public: “Duluth has not today a foot of lake front park.… It will be exceedingly short-sighted and false economy if this park is not secured, and if this opportunity passes, the day will come when every citizen of Duluth will bitterly regret it.”
The mayor’s efforts finally succeeded. On September 30 he announced that Watson S. Moore, First Ward alderman and part owner of the Spencer-Moore Grain Company, “has assured the people of Duluth that the ten acres…have been practically secured by the city and will be converted into a park.”
In June 1907 the city took ownership of the land below London Road from Eighth Avenue East to Thirteenth Avenue East. Although the park board never officially named the new greenspace, it became known as Cullum Park in recognition of the mayor’s key role in acquiring the land.