Story by Mark Ryan; originally appeared on Zenith City Online July, 2012.
On July 6, 1912, Duluth officials announced the reopening of a popular boulevard located in the eastern neighborhood of Lester Park. The newly restored road followed the winding Amity Creek up through idyllic wooded vistas, crossing the stream several times over nine new stone arch bridges beautifully faced with native rock. Over time, a rerouting of the boulevard would isolate two of the bridges from the main drive. The seven remaining spans would withstand decades of use and punishment from the elements while providing long service and enjoyment to residents and visitors—and eventually lead the parkway to become known as Seven Bridges Road.
The origin of Seven Bridges Road dates back to 1899 when Duluth pioneer Samuel Snively decided to build an easier route to his hilltop property on the outskirts of Duluth. The only access at the time was the Howard Mill Road, a steep and difficult climb from London Road. Snively, who would later become one of Duluth’s greatest mayors, owned about 400 acres of land in the backcountry above the communities of Lakeside and Lester Park. He and several other Duluth men owned “gentlemen’s farms” in the area that served as rural oases from their busy city life in downtown Duluth.
Snively, a lawyer and land developer, also set aside some of his property as a development tract he called Spring Garden. The property bordered nearby Amity Creek—the western branch of the Lester River—where Snively often took long walks to take in the natural beauty of the stream and woods. It was during one of these treks that he conceived a plan to build a new road that would serve both as an easier route to his property and as a beautiful parkway that would one day connect with the recently built Rogers Boulevard, the popular hilltop drive above Duluth proper.
Snively donated 60 acres of his property to the project then acquired the necessary rights-of-way from other area property owners. He hired a crew of local men who started the road’s construction from Lester Park, just north of the rustic bridge that connected the two carriage paths—Occidental and Oriental—that ran through the park.
“It was a very costly and difficult road to build,” Snively said, “For amid the dead and down timber the brush and trees had grown and there were many trees and stumps all difficult of removal, and the nature of the creek demanded long and high bridges and there was also the important feature of building the road to assure the best scenic and park development without regard to the ease of construction.”
The bridgework was divided between two crews working from both ends of the planned drive. Each bridge was constructed of wood gleaned from the area and fortified with log cribs filled with heavy boulders. In all, ten rustic bridges were built, the largest measuring 75 feet in length and spanning 30 feet above the creek bed.
Several prominent Duluthians donated to the project, including substantial sums from the owners of the Jean Duluth Farm, the largest on the hilltop, and from the Lakeside Land Company. The city of Duluth pledged an additional $1,500 with the understanding that once completed the road would be given to the city. By 1903, the road extended into Glen Avon near the head of Tischer Creek, but never quite reached Rogers Boulevard. Snively wanted to call the road Spring Garden Boulevard, after his hilltop development, but locals just took to calling it Snively Road. Today many Duluthians are familiar with the short section of road between Glenwood Street and Woodland Avenue that still retains that name.
Once opened there was no shortage of enthusiasm for Snively’s new road and the convenience it provided. Although more than half of the road’s $12,000 construction costs had come out of his own pocket, Snively handed it over to Duluth as promised. But economic difficulties made it impossible for the city to properly maintain it; weather and the elements took their toll on the wooden bridges and several soon fell to ruin. Automobile passage became impossible and even pedestrians struggled to cross the creek. But in 1909 the situation changed. The city gave the road to the park commission, and that same year a $50,000 park bond was passed which included improvement of Snively Road.
“When the park board decided to take over and improve this roadway, it greatly pleased me,” Snively recalled. “It assured the consummation of the very purpose I had in view, the appropriation by the city for park and boulevard purposes of some of the most scenic and natural park property in and about the city.”
Frederick Law Olmsted’s creation of New York’s Central Park in the 1850s had initiated a major park-building trend, and the new field of landscape architecture. The urban-planning movement known as City Beautiful swept the country, using neoclassic styles to promote beauty not just for its own sake, but also to create civic and moral harmony among growing urban populations. (Duluth’s Civic Center complex is an example of the City Beautiful movement.) Parks, of course, were central to the movement.
The Duluth park board hired the Minneapolis landscape architectural firm of Morell & Nichols to draw up plans for new, more permanent bridges for the river portion of Snively Road. Both of the firm’s principals were disciples of City Beautiful and its philosophy of blending artifice with natural elements and surroundings. Anthony Morell was hired by Duluth lawyer Chester Congdon in 1906 to design Congdon Park and the landscaping for Glensheen, Congdon’s lakefront estate then under construction. Arthur Nichols arrived soon after, and the two established themselves in the Twin Cities designing the grounds for many estates and lake properties there. The firm would also design several other Duluth parks and the steel town of Morgan Park.
As plans for the nine new stone arch bridges were being finalized, workers spent the 1910 construction season preparing the route for restoration. Any of the original wooden bridges still standing were dismantled and discarded with the remains of the dilapidated ones.
Sam Snively involved himself heavily in the road’s reconstruction, soliciting further donations of land and rights-of-way for parkway purposes. He also attended monthly park board meetings, helped select stone and other building materials, and accompanied commissioners on tours of the road and bridges during the construction phases.
Records show that work began first on bridge #5, the highest and longest span. Its elevated double arches also made it the most expensive, costing over one third of the $28,000 bridge construction budget. Excavation, culverts, grading and other roadwork would be extra.
In early April of 1911, as Arthur Nichols surveyed the road grades and elevations, a notice appeared in the local papers soliciting bids for the bridgework. The nine stone bridges (and a tenth steel pipe and concrete bridge) would be constructed somewhat simultaneously, with no more than two bridges given to any one bidder. All materials would be supplied on site at each bridge, and plan drawings could be viewed at Snively’s law office. All interested parties were taken on a tour of the different bridge sites and given a detailed explanation of the work involved.
Awarded contracts went to stonemasons Charles Caralo, J. B. Mor, and the firm of Smith & Dennett. Park board secretary Henry Cleveland oversaw general operations while Morell and engineer Carl F. Meyers provided onsite supervision. Quarryman John J. Teigland was hired to supply most of the building stone and to clear out river jams and remove loose brush and debris from around the construction sites. Rock used for facing the reinforced concrete arches was quarried from local sources, including nearby outcrops and the riverbed, and delivered in cords (128 cubic feet) to each bridge site. Pink granite used for detailing, capping the walls, and topping the piers came from quarries in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Carloads of fine sand necessary for the work were brought in by the Duluth & Iron Range Railroad to the switch area below Sixtieth Avenue East, where it was sacked and hauled up to the various bridges.
By late May of 1911, construction on bridges #2 and #5 was well advanced with the cement on #5 setting nicely, and work on its center pier scheduled to begin shortly. Bridge #9 was about half-finished, although the wing wall was angled from the original plan to save material and add reinforcement. Work on bridge #1 would commence within days, and by July, the plans for bridge #3 would be near completion.
A large wall of rhyolitic rock caused the upper Amity creek to make a sharp turn, so it was decided that bridges #8 and #9, standing in close proximity to each other on either side of the loop, would be treated as a single span. This necessitated slight alterations to the original plans.
The park board had hoped all bridgework would be completed by mid-summer of 1911 and the road would re-open soon after, but that didn’t happen. Difficulties getting materials delivered to the worksites dragged out the schedule, and further delays occurred when stonemasons Smith and Dunnett, for reasons unknown, were suddenly removed from the project. Day laborers eventually filled in for the missing crew and finished the job under direct supervision of Morell and engineer Meyers.
Morell reported the delays would likely increase overall bridge cost estimates, but the park board pushed ahead and the new and improved Snively Road was finally opened to the public the following summer. The road opened July 6, 1912, and the Duluth News Tribune ran articles about the “most beautiful driveway in the world” prior to and on the day it first opened (read them here: SnivleyRoad_1912-07-03_DNT, SnivleyRoad_1912-07-06_DNT.
Residents were eager to view the finely crafted bridges and experience the beauty of the parkway as it wound its way through forests of pine, birch and poplar. After finishing touches were complete—including graveling and landscaping with wild flowers—the road was renamed Amity Boulevard, adding nearly six miles to Duluth’s boulevard system. Several postcards featuring the picturesque bridges helped advertise the new parkway.
The results greatly satisfied Sam Snively, who went on to become Duluth’s greatest park and boulevard builder during his four terms as mayor starting in 1921.
In 1928, a new stone arch bridge similar to the others but lacking in some details was built to replace the old rustic bridge connecting the Lester Park carriage paths. (This bridge would later add some mystery to the parkway’s current name: why is it called Seven Bridges Road if there are eight bridges?)
In the 1930s, with the help of federal relief programs, Mayor Snively completed a new connecting route across the south side of the hill where the popular Hawk Ridge overlook is located today. The new link, which had always been part of Snively’s original plan, gave travelers some of the most spectacular views of Lake Superior and the surrounding region, but it also made two of the nine stone arch bridges obsolete, at least to automobile traffic.
The remaining seven bridges, however, served the parkway well. But as the Twentieth Century neared its end, the city of Duluth decided the stone arch bridges were in desperate need of repair. Eight decades of automobile collisions, snowplow damage, and general vandalism were showing their effects. The structures in general were still fairly strong, but aesthetically lacking. Walls were weakened with the loss of fill stone, while many of the pink granite caprocks had been pushed into the creek. Holes were apparent in the decks, and large chunks of the walls on several bridges had been knocked loose.
Jill Fisher of Duluth’s City Planning Department set into motion a plan to rehabilitate the bridges using a Federal Highway Administration grant and monies from a city lawsuit settlement. Bridge #2 located near the Lakeview hockey rinks was the first to be restored. Workmen spent the summer of 1996 patching up the concrete arch, restructuring the bridge walls, and filling in gaps with concrete and new facing stones. Pink granite, freshly cut from quarries in St. Cloud, replaced missing coping stones.
Bridge #6 was next in line for repair, and over the next decade each of the remaining bridges was restored to its former glory. Bridges #1, #3 and #7 were completely torn down and rebuilt from the ground up. The original facing rocks were retained and cut in half to facilitate the refacing of the bridge walls. The last bridge to be reconstructed was #7 just beyond the junction with Maxwell Road, which crews finished in 2007.
One hundred years ago there was no formal ceremony celebrating the re-opening of the restored parkway with its new stone bridges, but Sam Snively, in a newspaper interview, recounted how the road came to be built, and praised the park board for its work in improving his scenic drive. “The strong and artistic stone and concrete bridges,” he said, “will last, needless of repair, for ages.”
Well, that was, perhaps, a bit of wishful thinking on Mr. Snively’s part. But at least the recent repairs will allow the bridges to survive for future generations to enjoy. Let’s hope they’re still standing in the next century.