From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.
Duluth’s Park Board members spent much of their time, energy, and resources from 1889 to 1913 creating the parkway. Lincoln Park and Chester Park formed the bookends of the scenic roadway and were the first parks created intentionally by the park board.
To establish the western end of the parkway, in 1889 the board started purchasing land along Miller Creek between Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Avenues West. According to Duluth historian Heidi Bakk-Hansen, the creek was named for pioneer Robert P. Miller, a native of Pennsylvania who came here in the late 1850s and built a cabin and small farm on the east side of the stream. Miller left his farm to fight for the Union in the Civil War. He never returned to Duluth, as he died from dysentery in Vicksburg on June 21, 1864. Newspaper stories from the 1890s mention “the ruins of an old mill with still and silent water wheel,” within the park, but it is not known if this was built by Robert Miller.
The board referred to the area as “Millers Creek Park” and sometimes as “Cascade Park” (creating confusion with Cascade Square in downtown Duluth) until 1894 when they officially named it “Lincoln Park.” The board members gave no reason for the choice of name. Perhaps they were copying their rival city, Chicago, which already had a Lincoln Park, named for Abraham Lincoln, who had been assassinated in 1865. At the same time they changed the name of Chester Park to Garfield Park, after President James Garfield, assassinated in 1881. Dozens of American cities have (or once had) parks named in honor of these fallen presidents.
Lincoln Park Takes Shape
Minimal work was required to make Lincoln Park an appealing place for families to spend time. In the words of the board, “the ravine is so rich in beauty that little had to be done in the way of formal treatment.” The board ordered the construction of rustic benches, a small pavilion, sidewalks, bridges, ponds, and a driveway along Miller Creek from Third Street up the hill to Sixth Street. On July 4, 1896, the board formally dedicated Lincoln Park during what the Duluth News Tribune described as a “grand celebration of the National Birthday.” Festivities included music by the West End Band and Glee Club, a New England dinner served by “the ladies,” and a variety of speakers.
Just one year later a major storm on July 3 damaged most of the city’s parks, including Lincoln, where water from the rain-swollen Miller Creek washed away bridges and embankments and strong winds blew over trees. The board had planned a huge Independence Day celebration for Lincoln Park, so Secretary Henry Helm hired every man he could find to help with clean up. The News Tribune reported that “the park looked like a beehive along toward night, with men working everywhere.” They succeeded in getting Lincoln Park restored well enough for the July 4 celebration to take place as planned.
Located in the heavily populated West End and easily accessible by street car, Lincoln Park quickly became a favorite place for family picnics and outings. Newspapers soon began to report that “every pleasant day the park is almost crowded with ladies and children who take their lunches and spend hours in the favored retreat. On Sundays thousands visit the spot if only for the pleasure of a brief stroll through the secluded paths and to listen to the music of the stream as it tears over the rocks on its way to the great Gitchi Gummee.”
In the winter of 1896, the park became home to one of the first public skating rinks in the city when the park board agreed to flood about an acre of land adjacent to the creek and to temporarily convert the pavilion into a warming house for skaters. But for the most part, Lincoln Park remained in a relatively wild state; in the words of the News Tribune, it was “almost as nature left it.”
Unfortunately young people soon found Lincoln Park to be a convenient place to congregate late at night. Newspaper reports of the arrest of young hoodlums, drunks, and trespassers became all too common. As the park system grew and public use increased, the board members realized they needed to hire men to watch over the parks. David Vaugh was sworn in as Lincoln Park’s first park policeman in 1890; by 1902, Civil War veteran and former city alderman Ambrose Cox filled the position. Cox also built a pavilion on land he owned adjacent to the west side of Lincoln Park on Fifth Street, between Twenty-sixth and Twenty-seventh Avenues West, and operated it as a dance hall.
Sadly, Cox was not long on the job. In November two workmen were repairing a sewer at Twenty-seventh Avenue West and needed help to shift a pipe. Cox descended into the pit to help and was quickly overcome by sewer gas. He was pulled out by the workmen and neighbors, and although he briefly regained consciousness, he later fell into a coma and died three days later. His wife Mabel was left alone to raise their four daughters and one son.
Mabel Cox continued to own and rent out the pavilion, which became her source of income. But the facility also precipitated a community debate over dance halls and liquor in the parks. By 1903 neighbors considered the pavilion, which was still used as a dance hall, to be a nuisance and a disgrace to the neighborhood. The building burned to the ground in the summer of 1904, and three hundred neighbors petitioned the board to purchase the land so the pavilion would not be rebuilt. The petitioners stated that the building had “greatly depreciated the value of their property and deprived them of the enjoyment of their home life.” The board first voted to move ahead with the purchase, but when dance hall manager John Moore threatened to reopen it on another lot adjacent to the park, the board members quickly realized that purchasing property to prevent a nuisance was not a practical solution and abandoned the idea.
Instead, in February 1905 the city council unanimously passed an ordinance that would prevent “noisy amusement” within five hundred feet of any park. The ordinance prohibited any business, calling or vocation, either for amusement or profit, in the conduct of which any dancing, disorderly conduct, noisy demonstration, shows, theatrical exhibitions, concerts, merry-go-rounds, or any other act or thing is permitted which will, in the opinion of the Board of Park Commissioners of the city of Duluth be likely to result in disturbing the quiet, orderly, and suitable use and enjoyment of the public park or parkways situated within five hundred feet thereof, without having first obtained from the Board of Park Commissioners a permit in writing.
At about the same time, Mrs. Cox leased the property to W. J. Chestock who intended to rebuild the pavilion and use it for dancing, skating, indoor ball games, and musical entertainment. But when Chestock applied for a license to serve liquor, the neighbors strongly objected. They claimed that it was not so much the dancing they were opposed to, but rather the liquor. They feared that the park as a “family fresh air ground” would suffer from the introduction of liquor. On May 30 the city council turned down the application, but Chestock persevered, and in May 1906 the council finally granted him a license to operate a dancing, concert, and amusement pavilion on the condition that it did not violate any city ordinances.
In November 1916, fire once again destroyed the pavilion, but the controversy that had been ignited by the dance hall continued to burn for many years.
Home of Duluth’s First Playground
When the Park Board began developing the city’s park system in the 1890s, the idea of creating urban parks for public use was still relatively new. Initially these urban parks were viewed primarily as “breathing spots” and a place for families to get outdoors to enjoy a picnic or a stroll along the tree-lined paths.
But this was a time of great social change throughout the country as millions of farm families and immigrants moved into urban areas that were not prepared to handle them. Many people looking for a better life instead found themselves living in poverty in overcrowded neighborhoods with poor sanitation and uncontrolled crime. As conditions in the larger cities deteriorated, many social reform movements sprang up, agitating for changes that would improve the lives of the urban masses. Even the role of the parks began to change, and as a result of one national reform movement, Lincoln Park became the site of the city’s first official playground, thanks to the efforts of the Duluth Playground Association.
Opened on July 17, 1908, the Lincoln Park playground consisted of little more than swings and sand piles, but two supervisors were on hand to control the children. The News Tribune reported that on the beautiful sunny day of July 19, people flocked to all the city parks “as though they had never before in their lives seen a park,” and at Lincoln Park the children loved the new playground. While standing in line to try the swing, “the children were orderly and patient, as a rule, in waiting for their turns to come, some of them never did get a turn all day, so long were the lines of waiting youngsters.”
At the end of the 1908 summer season, the Playground Association members decided to close the playground for the winter. They removed the equipment and stored it for future use. Mayor Haven reported that “the Lincoln Park playground was more an experiment than anything else, but its success has been greater than we expected…the playground scheme next year will be handled on a much larger scale.”
The following year the Lincoln Park site was deemed too small and the playground was not rebuilt, but the Park Board and the Playground Association did, indeed, expand their efforts and began to add playground equipment to existing parks and acquire land throughout the city specifically for the purpose of creating supervised playgrounds for the children of Duluth.
A Community Gathering Place
By the early 1900s, community groups of every kind were holding summer picnics and gatherings in all the city parks. While improvements to Lincoln Park were at first quite minimal, around 1906 the park board added an artificial lake 150 feet long by 100 feet wide, fed by pipes that brought water from the creek. A wading pool was added a few years later, located adjacent to the stream near Sixth Street. For many years a fountain, highlighted by colored lights, rose from the center of the pool. And in 1912 the board enlarged the park by purchasing property along the banks of Miller Creek from Sixth Street all the way upstream to the parkway at Fourteenth Street.
Lincoln Park became the favored picnic location for the Duluth Retail Grocers Association, the Modern Woodmen of America, the United Order of Foresters, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Thousands of people attended these gatherings. The Retail Grocers Association picnics regularly drew three thousand or more people for a day filled with sporting events, refreshments, dancing, and musical programs. Following the 1904 grocers picnic, the News Tribune reported that “from early in the morning until a late hour of night Lincoln Park was thronged with the retailers and their guests and each was convinced that he had never spent a more enjoyable day.”
Of all the gatherings, the annual Swedish-American Midsummer Festival became Lincoln Park’s signature event. The first was held on June 23, 1911, when all the Swedish societies of the city joined together to create a celebration similar to the traditional Midsummer Fests they knew in Sweden. The News Tribune estimated that—despite the cold, windy weather—nearly 12,000 people attended the “greatest gathering of Swedish Americans ever held in Duluth and one of the largest of any kind.”
The festivities began with a parade that moved along Superior Street from Second Avenue East to Lincoln Park. Both the Marine Band and the Third Regiment Brand provided music as members of the Order of Vasa and the Linnea Society marched between automobiles carrying the festival chairman, dignitaries including Mayor Marcus Cullum, and the “Midsummer bride.”
As paraders arrived for the festival they found that the “park and park buildings were bright with flags and bunting and brilliant with thousands of Japanese lanterns and colored electric lights at night, the Edison Electric Company installing the lights without charge. They were strung along the drives in profusion and outlined all of the buildings, even covering the tall Midsummer pole.”
For the first five years of the festival, the celebration began on the evening of Midsummer Day with a dance at the privately owned dance hall located adjacent to Lincoln Park. But after fire destroyed the dance hall in 1916, organizers were forced to find a new location for the opening dance, which eventually disappeared completely from the program.
The Swedish-American Midsummer Festival took place annually at Lincoln Park until at least 1949 and usually drew 10,000 to 20,000 people. Speakers at the festival regularly included Duluth’s mayor, Minnesota’s governor, congressional representatives, and prominent Swedish-American leaders from throughout the Midwest.
The 1918 festival, in addition to celebrating midsummer, also marked the end of World War I. Duluth mayor Clarence Magney’s opening speech offered an optimistic view of the future when he said, “We have gathered to celebrate the signing of the greatest document ever signed by man. I feel that today is the beginning of a new era. There is a possibility that all wars will be avoided in the future by some peaceful means.”
For nearly a decade, it seemed as if Magney’s optimism would hold true. In 1926 the city extended the road through the park (Lincoln Park Drive) from Sixth to Tenth Streets. The following year saw the construction of the Lincoln Park Bridge, which carries Tenth Street over Miller Creek. The project was driven by the West End Hillside Improvement Club, which made sure the bridge, built of concrete but faced with rustic stone, could carry streetcar tracks to help increase mobility—and local property values. A bronze plaque commemorated the club’s efforts, along with Mayor Snively and the Duluth City Council. Unfortunately, two years after the bridge was completed the United States sank into the Great Depression, followed by World War II.
During the Depression, Mayor Sam Snively and Park Superintendent F. Rodney Paine took advantage of government funding to put unemployed men to work on projects in all the city’s parks. Duluth’s City Works Administration hired jobless Duluthians to build a toboggan run and ski jump in Lincoln Park in 1931, though the popularity of these winter activities was short-lived in the West End park. Lincoln Park’s stone pavilion was built in 1934 with funds and labor from two of the earliest government relief programs—the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA) and the Civil Works Administration (CWA). Reportedly two dozen of the CWA laborers gave three days’ work without pay to get the Lincoln Park pavilion ready for the annual Midsummer Festival.
Following the end of World War II, Lincoln Park suffered the same neglect that afflicted all of the city’s parks—a result of the 1956 change in Duluth’s government combined with a slowing economy. The News Tribune reported in 2014 that “after years of deterioration of the pavilion and other parts of Lincoln Park, a neighborhood group initiated repair and restoration work in the park in the late 1990s and early 2000s.” That worked included a $130,000 restoration of the pavilion in 2002, which earned the project a 2003 award from the Duluth Preservation Alliance. The Lincoln Park Bridge underwent a major rehabilitation in 2006 to 2007. The 2012 flood damaged the bridge and the pavilion, and in July 2014, vandals torched the pavilion, causing another $75,000 in damages.
Yet Lincoln Park’s future looks bright. In 2015 the City of Duluth invited residents to participate in meetings about proposed renovations to the park, which qualified for the Grand Avenue Parks Fund, part of the St. Louis River Corridor Project. Plans, approved in February 2016, include repairing existing park infrastructure to reduce maintenance; upgrading park destination areas to improve safety and meet ADA accessibility requirements; creating amenities to better serve the needs of children, adult, and senior park user groups; and improved access to the Duluth Traverse and Superior Hiking Trail systems.