Leif Erickson Park (aka Lakeshore Park)
As the city of Duluth entered the twentieth century, a small triangle of land at the junction 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. But the triangular sliver, between Ninth and Tenth avenues, had already been divided into sixteen fifty-foot wide lots, several of which were occupied by houses. Despite this obstacle, in April 1905 John Millen, vice president of the Alger, Smith & Co. 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 remainder of the tract be acquired by the city and dedicated as a park.
The Duluth 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 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.”
However, the triangle of land was soon forgotten after real estate investor Louis Loeb suggested that the project be enlarged to include the lake shore below London Road. (In November, 1905, an even smaller triangular plot just west of the property became the first home of the Stone Memorial Fountain built by Mrs. T. L. Blood to honor her father, Duluth pioneer George C. Stone. The fountain moved to what is now Duluth’s Rose Garden in the 1980s as part of the I-35 expansion.)
The Northern Pacific Railroad, owner of the lakeshore property Loeb suggested the city purchase for the park, offered to sell the land from Eighth Avenue East to Thirteenth Avenue East to the city 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.”
Surprisingly, other than contributing $10,000, the Park Board did very little to help the city 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 Duluth 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, but the city still needed another $5,000. Mayor Cullum continued to lead the fundraising drive. “In response to repeated admonitions from numerous residents of the East End…and from his own deep conviction of the desirability of the park, he is now trying to bring the matter to a successful conclusion,” The Duluth News Tribune reported.
By August of 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 the East End. The Duluth News Tribune editorial staff also continued to encourage the public, with words such as, “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 park, it became known as Cullum Park in recognition of the mayor’s key role in acquiring the land. The name would soon change to Lake Shore Park, however, as local entrepreneurs hatched an even bigger plan.
When the opportunity to create a park along the Lake Superior shore first emerged in 1905, the Park Board had no funds to take advantage of it, prompting Mayor Marcus Cullum to take the lead, raising enough money from public donations to purchase the land for a public greenspace that would be named Cullum Park in his honor. Local entrepreneurs soon decided that the park should be expanded into a much larger facility with a new name, Lake Shore Park. The excitement started on January 31, 1909, when a grand new plan for Duluth’s lakefront filled the front page of The Duluth News Tribune.
Inspired by Chicago’s example, which since the late 1800s had been adding fill to its lakefront to create parkland, the News Tribune proposed that the city of Duluth acquire the rest of the Lake Superior shoreline from Cullum Park’s western border at 8th Avenue East all the way to the ship canal, build a breakwater about 500 feet out from the shore, and fill in the lake between the wall and the existing shore.
As the newspaper explained it, “The plan would be to have the government fix a harbor line where one does not now exist, to construct a concrete sea wall to mark the outer limits of the park and driveway and by a filling-in process to make solid ground where now there is water, then to go ahead with the beautification of the grounds with walks and driveways, with trees and shrubbery, fountains and flowerbeds and all things that go to make up an ideal public park.”
Proponents of the plan suggested that the breakwater could be constructed from boulders blasted from Point of Rocks, which engineers were working on eliminating because the massive rock outcrop obstructed traffic and divided the city in two. Sand dredged from the harbor could be used as fill. The result would be 45 acres of land that could be turned into a beautiful park.
Not only would the project create an attractive park on the lakefront, it would also clean up the area that today is known as Canal Park, which at that time was the city’s red light district filled with boarding houses, saloons, and “houses of ill fame,” more commonly referred to as brothels.
A few days later the News Tribune reported that the proposal had “created much interest and is being endorsed on every hand by Duluth people.” G. W. Preston, advertising manager of the News Tribune, received credit as the original creator of the lake shore park idea. Many local businessmen led by Albert Comstock, vice president of Marshall-Wells, offered support.
All agreed that the plan would be costly, but they believed the investment worthwhile. They also argued that the land should be purchased right away, before it became even more expensive. On February 23, 1910, the Duluth News Tribune speculated, “If it is done now it will cost, on the estimate, $120,000. If done in the future, no one knows what the cost will, be, but in ten years it would probably be ten times as great. It is true that the city has not now any money to invest in this way. But that does not mean that the movement must stop and wait.”
But wait it did. Despite the proclamations of widespread support, nothing happened. Over the next few years the proposal—with creative variations—reappeared periodically in the newspaper. Not all the ideas were good ones. When Dr. John McCuen took office as Duluth’s new mayor in March 1912, his first message to the citizens of Duluth included an unfortunate choice of words, “…the city could make use of the lake shore as a public dumping ground for the disposal of excess material and in the course of time as the amount of material deposited increases, the city would acquire a park…at practically no cost.”
Others suggested building a “sewage purifying plant” in the filled area. Park Superintendent Henry Cleveland, always ready with big plans, envisioned a public swimming pool with water warmed by a steam-heating plant that would also supply a public laundry, where poor people without facilities at home could find hot and cold water and facilities for doing the family washing.
Encouraged by Mayor McCuen’s support, in the spring of 1912 Park Board members began negotiations with representatives of the Northern Pacific Railway, which controlled the rights to most of the lakefront property. In November the men reached a tentative agreement that would hand over the shoreline to the city provided the breakwater was built within three years. The newly created land was to be used for park purposes only, except for nine acres that would be deeded to the railroad. Park Commissioner F. A. Patrick strongly supported this arrangement, which, as a result, became known as the “Patrick Plan.”
Despite this progress, the project faded quietly away following the city charter change a year later, in April 1913. The new charter eliminated the Park Board and removed all elected officials from office. Nine new commissioners were elected to run the city. William Prince, first mayor under the new charter, became responsible for the parks, and for undisclosed reasons he did not continue negotiations with the railroad.
Although the grander vision never became reality, people began to refer to Cullum Park as Lake Shore Park. Under the leadership of several different mayors and park superintendents, the city continued to work on beautifying the original 14-acre park and making it more accessible to the public.
Lake Shore Park
William Prince took office as Duluth’s mayor in April 1913. While he did not pursue the grand vision of expanding Lake Shore Park, he did encourage people to use the greenspace. Access to the lake was difficult because of the lack of footbridges over the railroad track, so most activity occurred along London Road where the city maintained a ball field that was flooded in winter for ice skating.
With the help of Park Superintendent Henry Cleveland, in October 1913 Mayor Prince hosted a city-wide Halloween celebration at Lake Shore Park. Jack-o-lanterns, apples, games, speeches, and children in costume filled the park late into the evening. A huge bonfire chased away goblins while the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) fife and drum corps provided music. The News Tribune reported that, “The boom of the drum and the shrill notes of the fifes were kept up as incessantly as human musicians can play and were heard above the din of the clamoring youngsters.”
Because the celebration was such a success, the Mayor planned an even bigger event for 1914. According to the News Tribune, the Third Regiment band led a parade in which “…hundreds of children and a few grownups, many of them masked and in costumes, marched to an accompanying din produced by tin pans, copper boilers and squawkers.” Two bonfires and dozens of carbon lamps were lighted when the parade-goers arrived at the park. The highlight of the evening came when youngsters scrambled for nuts that leaked from a hole in the 100-pound bag of peanuts carried by Police Sergeant Aldrich Youngberg as he ran through the park.
Thousands of Duluthians flocked to the Halloween celebration every year, which the Mayor and Park Superintendent continued to sponsor through the 1920s. The only year without a Halloween party was 1918. That year, as World War I drew to a close, the influenza epidemic swept through Minnesota. In an attempt to stop the spread of the flu, public gatherings were banned. And on October 12 a massive forest fire caused devastation from Moose Lake to Duluth. Halloween was forgotten as everyone’s energy was directed toward helping the injured and homeless recover from the disaster.
The annual Halloween party was one of the few large community activities at Lake Shore Park in the first decade of its existence. While citizens happily used the park for picnics and ballgames, city leaders continued to propose a variety of big plans for the site.
In 1913 the park nearly became the site of the Duluth Armory. The existing Armory, located at First Street and Second Avenue East, had been built in 1896 to house two companies. By 1913, three companies of infantry, two divisions of the naval militia, and the Third Regiment band used the building. Recognizing that it was time for a larger space, the city administration hoped to take advantage of the state legislature’s offer of financial aid up to $15,000 for the construction of armories.
A committee of officers from the Third Regiment, known as the “Military Lunch Club,” led the search for a location. In May the Duluth News Tribune began promoting the eastern end of Lake Shore Park as the site for the new armory. “The park includes 14 acres, which is more than sufficient for a splendid parade ground. The drills would afford amusement and instruction to tens of thousands,” the paper suggested. “It would arouse vastly greater interest in the militia, would promote attendance and at once place the Duluth contingent first in all the state.”
Although the city had owned Lake Shore Park for six years, it had not made any significant improvements to the property. The News Tribune argued that if the armory were to be built there, “…instead of the present park, which is anything but sightly, which is wholly unimproved, would be a stately building of the armory type, which has strength, dignity, and fine proportions, with every remaining foot of the entire 14 acres beautified and made useful.”
Duluth’s newly adopted City Charter had eliminated the Park Board, so the decision of whether to build a new armory in the park was up to the five commissioners who ran the city. They knew consent would be needed from the Northern Pacific Railroad, which had sold the land on condition that it would be used only for park purposes. However, the commissioners didn’t realize that they would also need the approval of Duluth citizens. In September, businessman Frederick W. Paine and Victor Stearns appeared before the commissioners to register their opposition to the proposal. Both knew what they were talking about: Paine had been a Park Commissioner from 1889 to 1891) and Stearns father had helped create Lester Park. Both men had donated money to purchase the land for the park, and Stearns told the council, “The residents who contributed to buy the park are opposed to giving away part of it…. This is the only park on the lake front, and we don’t want to see it given away. I appeal against the proposed deed on the ground of ordinary honesty.”
As a result of their protests, Mayor Prince announced that he would contact the other 75–100 people who had given money. Unfortunately, although the Mayor exhausted every resource to get the names of the contributors, no records were found. The need to contact donors became unnecessary by October. Attorneys advised the mayor that the council did not have the legal authority to give away property belonging to the city, and the proposal was abandoned. Instead, the commissioners decided to purchase land for the new Armory; they settled on a site directly across London Road from the park, at the corner of Thirteenth Avenue East. The Armory was built there in 1915, and Lake Shore Park remained intact.
The following year Park Superintendent Henry Cleveland once again proposed a large municipal center for Lake Shore Park, including an auditorium, public gymnasium, and bathhouse. According to Cleveland, “When not in use as a convention place, the building could be utilized as a public gymnasium with complete equipment and qualified instructors in charge…. The building would have a roof garden, affording a magnificent lake view.” The commissioners ignored his proposal.
While Sam Snively was mayor, he offered a new variation on the park expansion plan. In March, 1927 Snively proposed a breakwater that would extend 500 feet out into the lake from the back of the Curling Club at the foot of Fifteenth Avenue East and run southwest approximately parallel with the shore for about 1,500 feet to a point opposite Eighth Avenue East. A road would be built on top of the breakwater, and the enclosed area would be filled to create more parkland. As in earlier proposals, boulders from the Point of Rocks would be used to build the breakwater. Although city engineers did their best to blast away the Point of Rocks, they eventually abandoned that project as too costly, eliminating the source rock for the breakwater and once again putting the expansion project on hold. Lake Shore Park remained a 14-acre public open space with few amenities.
While Duluth’s leaders continued to dream about creating a larger park, a Viking ship replica named the Leif Erikson set sail from a small Norwegian village in 1926. Its arrival in Duluth would bring significant changes to Lake Shore Park.
Lakeshore Park becomes Leif Erickson Park
Despite the persistent but unrealized dream of building a breakwater and creating new land to expand Lake Shore Park, two unrelated events in 1926 finally determined the direction of the park’s development: Mayor Sam Snively chose 37-year-old F. Rodney Paine as Duluth’s new Park Superintendent, and a replica Viking vessel named the Leif Erikson set sail from a small Norwegian village, headed for Duluth.
Rodney Paine began work as superintendent of Duluth’s parks on January 1, 1927, following the retirement of 82-year-old Henry Cleveland. A native Duluthian, Paine had graduated from Princeton and earned a Master of Forestry degree from Yale. After fighting in World War I, he returned to Duluth and served for several years as manager of Jay Cooke State Park.
Prior to Paine’s time as superintendent, development of Duluth’s parks had been somewhat haphazard. The Park Board, which existed from 1889 to 1913, had focused its efforts on purchasing land, knowing that the cost would only increase in the future. By 1927 most of the city’s major parks had been established, so Mayor Snively and Rodney Paine set to work on implementing their shared vision for improving the existing parks.
One of the first projects Paine took on was Lake Shore Park. He soon reported, “That portion of the park lying next to London Road which has been a dumping ground for years was leveled off, top-dressed and seeded. …The area was designed to accommodate large crowds and is to remain practically unobstructed.”
Paine’s plan for Lake Shore Park changed, however, when the Leif Erikson sailed into the Duluth harbor in June 1927. According to the diary of Captain Gerhard Folgero, the vessel, a copy of the style of craft that Leif Erikson would have sailed when he became the first explorer to land in North America around the year 1000, had been built at his request by master boatbuilders in the city of Borgen, Norway.
Folgero and his crew departed from Hemnesberget, Norway, on May 1, 1926, crossing the Atlantic Ocean and sailing through the Great Lakes, eventually arriving in Duluth on June 23, 1927. Five miles from the Duluth harbor, the Leif Erikson was met by the U. S. Naval reserve training ship Paducah, with an orchestra on board playing the Norwegian anthem. Closer in, more boats joined the convoy and thousands of people lined the canal in welcome.
[Editor’s note: Read a much more detailed account of the replica vessel and its journey here.]
After landing, the crew paraded through the city to the courthouse, where Mayor Snively and Congressman William Carss praised the courage and enterprise of the Norsemen. An evening banquet at the Spalding Hotel rounded out the celebration. Folgero reported in his diary, “We had made it to our destination. It was an event for us, our country, and Duluth.”
Following the festivities, Carss suggested Duluthians raise funds to purchase the ship and move it to Lake Shore Park. Duluth furniture salesman Bert Enger then stepped forward and offered to purchase the vessel and donate it to the city. Enger’s only requirements were that the boat be placed at Lake Shore Park as a monument to Norwegian history in America, and, at Carss’s suggestion, that the park be rechristened after the Norse explorer and boat’s namesake. [Editor's Note: It has long been thought that Enger’s business partner Emil Olson was also involved with the purchase, but Olson died in 1926; his wife Marie is thought to have helped finance the vessel's purchase.]
The city accepted Enger’s gift and temporarily placed the ship in storage at the Duluth Boat Club on Park Point until a permanent location could be selected. In 1929 the ship was finally moved to the park, which was renamed Leif Erikson Park, as Enger had requested. In his Annual Report of 1927, Rodney Paine reflected that, “The presentation to the city of the Lief Ericson [sic] boat necessitated the making of a new general plan of development as one of the requirements accompanying the gift was that it be placed in this park.”
As part of this new plan, park department employees constructed an outdoor amphitheater for band concerts and pageants designed by Abraham Holmstead and William Sullivan (who also designed Denfeld High School and the St. Louis County Jail). Paine described the building as “…attractive and unique in design…of native stone and slate construction. The stage is backed by a wall and flanked with a tower on either side. Under the stage are dressing rooms, store rooms and toilets.” The amphitheater was completed in 1928 for a cost of nearly $22,000. It promptly became a popular spot for community gatherings, including seven summer band concerts in 1929.
Paine’s staff also began planting trees and large flower beds (mostly annuals) in the area between London Road and the railroad tracks. In 1928 the Veterans of Foreign Wars presented a memorial flag pole to the city for installation at Leif Erikson Park, and the Duluth Peony Society donated fifty named peonies to be planted around the base of the pole.
The park’s first rose garden was created in 1930. In his annual report Paine wrote that “The beds in upper Leif Erikson Park which had previously been planted every spring to annual bedding plants were planted this year to hybrid tea and hybrid perpetual roses. Some of these plants were furnished from the municipal nursery and the balance were furnished by the Central Group of the Duluth Garden Flower Society. It is the intention of this group to be responsible for these rose beds in that they will replace any plants that may die from time to time.”
Expanded over the years, and replanted in the 1990s after the interstate highway was completed, the Rose Garden has become one of the most popular attractions in Duluth. It now includes the Stone Memorial Fountain, a beautiful piece of stonework originally designed to provide water for horses and dogs; the fountain was moved from its original location at the junction of Superior Street and London Road during the I-35 extension. The western edge of the Rose Garden is marked by a statue of Leif Erikson sculpted by Norwegian-American John Karl Daniels in 1956 and contributed to the city by the now-defunct Norwegian American League of Duluth. [Editor’s Note: The statue is noted for the horns sprouting from Erikson’s helmet, but Norse history experts all agree that no Viking ever wore a helmet adorned with animal parts; that is a product of 20th-century imagination.]
Nearly two decades before the arrival of the Leif Erikson and Rodney Paine, The Duluth News Tribune had proposed a grand plan for expanding 14-acre Lake Shore Park by filling along the shoreline. The newspaper described the vision in idyllic terms, writing “It needs little imagination to picture the completed pleasure ground, with its driveways and walks, its playgrounds, lawns, flower beds, shrubbery and ornamental trees, its fountains and lights, its artistically designed pavilions and colonnades. The mind’s eye can easily see the thousands who will throng there of summer evenings to enjoy the breezes, watch the ships come and go, meet their friends and mingle with the crowds.”
Although that plan was never implemented, much of its vision became reality when the I-35 project resulted in the creation of the Lakewalk, Lake Place Park, and the expanded Rose Garden, providing everyone with the opportunity to enjoy the Lake Superior shoreline at Lake Shore/Leif Erikson Park and beyond.
Story by Nancy Nelson; originally appeared on Zenith City Online May–August, 2014.