Duluth’s 19th-Century Squares

From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.

When the first settlers in the 1850s platted the townships that later joined to become Duluth, they set aside land for public squares—open spaces in the heart of the townsite that could be used for community gatherings. This pattern of development soon fell out of favor as the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, gave rise to the new concept of “landscape architecture.” Olmsted believed that “the greatest counterpoint to urban form was pure wilderness,” an idea Duluth’s park board would embrace when it began establishing the city park system in the 1890s. Over the next one hundred years, some of Duluth’s public squares were left undeveloped, some were used for purposes other than parks, and others became the central feature of the neighborhoods that surround them.

The pavilion and observatory built in Cascade Park in 1895, photographed ca. 1900. [IMAGE: Duluth Public Library]
The pavilion and observatory built in Cascade Park in 1895, photographed ca. 1900.
[IMAGE: Duluth Public Library]

Cascade Square

Located above Fifth Street between Lake Avenue and Second Avenue West, Cascade Square is one of Duluth’s oldest parks. Originally a four-acre parcel bisected by Clarkhouse Creek, Cascade Square was set aside as public open space when the land was platted in the 1850s as part of Duluth Township.

In 1889 the newly created Duluth Board of Park Commissioners took over responsibility for Cascade Square, but board members focused their resources on developing the scenic park system proposed by William K. Rogers. They described Cascade Square as “the most unsightly and unmanageable land in the entire city. In a block of about five acres there was a fall of 100 feet in 300. It was cut by an ugly gully and broken by rocks whose roughness lacked picturesque qualities.” In October 1891 the board gave a local contractor permission to dump “refuse rock and earth in Cascade Square,” illustrating its lack of interest in the park.

But in late 1892 the city council officially requested that the park board make improvements to the city’s public squares. Because of Cascade Square’s prime location in the heart of the city, the board decided to intentionally create the picturesque qualities that the land lacked. In 1895 a crew of fifty men went to work on improvements that cost a total of $16,807. They built a stone-lined channel to contain Clarkhouse Creek (so named because it once flowed close to Duluth’s first major hotel, the Clark House) and created a charming waterfall to justify the name Cascade. The improvements also included a large covered pavilion, walkways, benches, trees, flowers, and grass.

As a result of this transformation, Cascade Square rapidly became one of the city’s most beloved parks. The Duluth News Tribune described it in flowery terms:

This park, although but a square in extent is well worth visiting and is, it may be said, in the heart of the city. Cascade Square contains a fine display of flowers and plants as well as many beautiful and ornamental shade trees such as maple, willow, box elder, mountain ash and four kinds of poplar. Erected on the pinnacle of this park is a substantial and artistic brownstone observatory surmounted by a pagoda shaped wood and iron canopy. Splendid views are here obtained of the downtown section of the city, harbor, and lake, Park Point and Superior beyond, as well as the new government ship canal, piers and lighthouses, with the vessels passing to and fro.

Unfortunately, the park board soon learned that maintaining the elaborate improvements at Cascade Square required a high level of investment. Heavy rainstorms often resulted in flash floods along the channels of Duluth’s many streams, including Clarkhouse Creek. A heavy downpour in July 1897 caused major damage at Cascade Square. The day after the storm newspapers reported that “Cascade Square is a sight to make the park commissioners and the frequenters of that popular resort weep. The pavilion is badly wrecked, the walks are badly damaged, the stone steps were torn up, an incandescent light pole in the center of the park washed out and fell across a path, gorges are cut through the property, the flower beds and grass are wrecked and things have been torn up ruthlessly.”

Cascade Park ca. 1908. (Photo by the Detroit Publishing Company.[IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS]
Cascade Park ca. 1908.
(Photo by the Detroit Publishing Company.[IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS]
The board moved quickly to repair the damage, but just twelve years later, in July 1909, another major storm hit the city. The newspaper reported that “at Cascade Park the principal disaster was wrought. The main channel for the creek was quickly choked up, allowing an immense torrent of water to sweep over the place. This carried away with it masonry and shrubs, and left the beauty spot in a very bedraggled condition. Work will commence as soon as possible to clear the channel and restore the park to its former condition.”

The park board once again restored Cascade Square, but by this time the park system included many parks and playgrounds that required attention. In addition, the automobile was becoming affordable,
providing more people with the option of traveling greater distances to visit the larger parks on the outskirts of town. Maintenance of Cascade Square slipped lower and lower on the city’s priority list.

By the end of World War II, nearly every family in Duluth had an automobile and the increased traffic downtown made street improvements a necessity. When preparing a plan for widening Mesaba Avenue, the Minnesota Department of Transportation proposed cutting straight through Cascade Square instead of going around it. Inevitably yielding to the demands of the automobile, in the early 1950s workmen tore down the park’s remaining structures, covered over the channel of Clarkhouse Creek, and sacrificed the western half of the park to Mesaba Avenue. This small but lovely public square that once exhibited the best in landscape design and park planning became an eyesore.

When it entered its second century as a park, Cascade Square consisted of about two and a half acres of land, providing some much-needed (but poorly maintained) greenspace in the densely developed Central Hillside neighborhood. In 1966 the News Tribune printed a short article about Cascade Square, lamenting its neglect and urging restoration. “The grass is almost knee-high; tansy, dock and ragweed ring the perimeter of the area, and the poisonous nightshade plant greets visitors.… For all practical purposes it is being returned to wilderness, except no self-respecting wilderness has so much garbage and litter strewn about.”

Another major flood in August 1972 sent Clarkhouse Creek cascading down First Avenue West, carrying much of the street’s pavement along with it. Cleanup after this flood included a limited restoration of Cascade Park, during which the city installed walkways and picnic tables. When Mesaba Avenue was widened in 1975 to accommodate traffic heading toward Miller Hill Mall and the surrounding retail developments, more of the park was sacrificed. The city demolished the remaining sandstone structures and sent Clarkhouse Creek completely underground. The city then built a concrete towerlike structure on the pavilion’s old sandstone foundation. The words “Cascade Park” are still visible, carved into the original sandstone. That foundation and portions of the rock wall supporting Mesaba Avenue are all that remain of the original structures. Rededication of the park took place on July 1, 1975.

In the late 1990s, neighbors and other concerned citizens began to care for the park. The League of Women Voters, the Central Hillside Garden Club, and students from nearby Nettleton School adopted Cascade Park and worked to beautify it by planting and maintaining flower beds.

As of 2016, a small modern playground and a few scattered benches and picnic tables give nearby residents a reason to visit. But for those who do not know the history of Cascade Square, the park appears rather formless and puzzling. What is left of the old stone retaining wall ends awkwardly, cut off by the concrete barricade that supports four lanes of traffic on Mesaba Avenue. The characterless concrete pavilion contains nothing but a mysterious round concrete plinth that serves no apparent purpose. The pavilion still provides an impressive view of downtown and Lake Superior, but no benches or other amenities invite visitors to linger. An attempt to beautify the park with public art became a highly controversial issue in 2011, and the project’s many critics consider the effort a failure.

Most curious of all today is the name Cascade Park. Except when Clarkhouse Creek breaks free of its concrete prison following a major rainstorm, as it did once again in June 2012, no evidence remains of the small stream that once cascaded through the park. Visitors who listen carefully, however, can hear the stream flowing underground. Those who follow the sound can peer down through a small sewer grate and see the glimmer of moving water, now cascading secretly through the heart of the city.

Portland Square c. 1905. (Image: Zenith City Press)
Portland Square c. 1905. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Portland Square

Portland Square, located between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues East from Fourth Street to Fifth Street in Duluth’s East Hillside, holds a clue to Duluth’s early development. Its name comes from Portland Township, established in 1856 by a group of men including James D. Ray, Clinton Markell (Duluth’s second mayor), and Judge Josiah D. Ensign. The township itself occupied the space from Third Avenue East to Chester Creek, from the lakeshore to approximately the location of today’s Skyline Parkway.

Duluth’s park board first turned its attention to Portland Square in June 1894 when board member Bernard Silberstein pushed for its improvement. The board had to clear a small hurdle first: Carl Eskelson, who the News Tribune described as “an old man who lives on Fourth street adjoining the property,” claimed he owned the square. Eskelson even staked out his property and built a fence around it and “served notice on the mayor.” The newspaper reported that “no attention will be paid to the notice and if Eskelson attempts to interfere with the work he will be arrested.” There were no further reports on the issue.

Work began that summer, with the News Tribune acting as cheerleader, claiming the square would soon become “the garden spot of Duluth.” Its central feature was a fountain, described as a “shell and dolphin design, of cast iron, handsomely bronzed. It throws seven sprays, and is said to present a very pretty appearance when in operation.” The fountain, which cost $400, was surrounded by a concrete pool which itself was encompassed by a sixteen-foot diameter concrete basin. During the summer the pool was planted with water lilies and stocked with goldfish. Sidewalks lined with concrete benches led from each of the square’s four corners to the fountain at its center. The borders of the square were lined with trees, and its interior spaces filled with shrubs, flower gardens, and a circular promenade.

By 1896, according to the News Tribune, Portland Square had become a popular gathering place for “the ladies and little ones,” particularly because it sat along the streetcar line, making it easily accessible to everyone. In 1908 the square helped Duluth launch the local playground movement, but noise complaints by local residents ended the experiment after just three days. In 1927 the park department chose Portland Square as one of five sites throughout the city to build ramps to serve as “snow slides.”

Like most Duluth parks, Portland Square eventually fell into a state of neglect, particularly following World War II. The fountain and its surrounding pool are gone, with no record of what became of them, but the original layout of the park’s 1894 concrete elements is relatively intact. While the flower beds no longer exist, trees still line the walkways, and playground equipment offers neighborhood children a place to play without anyone complaining about the noise.

Fond du Lac Square

When the founders of Fond du Lac Township platted its streets in 1856, they set aside a square block of public open space between today’s West Third Street (State Highway 23) and Fourth Street from 130th to 131st Avenues West. In the late 1860s when the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad was built along the St. Louis River, connecting Duluth to the Twin Cities, the railroad tracks were laid straight through Fond du Lac Square. Then in the 1930s the State of Minnesota took additional land from the square for Highway 23. In 1956 the St. Louis County Historical Society, along with the Minnesota Highway Department, erected a historical marker at the center of the square along the highway, but the square remains otherwise undeveloped.

Lakeside’s Squares

Hugh McCulloch platted and named the streets and public squares of New London Township, now Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood. [IMAGE: PUBLIC DOMAIN]
Hugh McCulloch platted and named the streets and public squares of New London Township, now Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood. [IMAGE: PUBLIC DOMAIN]
According to historian Warren Upham, when Jay Cooke’s business associate Hugh McCulloch platted New London in 1871 he included five public squares each measuring “two and seven tenths acres” (two square blocks) and named all but one of them after public squares in London, England. The squares became part of the Village of Lakeside in 1889, which became the City of Lakeside in 1891, which was annexed by Duluth in 1893, at which point the squares became part of Duluth’s park system.

Located between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Avenues East from McCulloch Street to Gladstone Street, Grosvenor Square is likely named after Grosvenor Square in London’s upscale Mayfair district, which takes its name from Hugh Grosvenor, named the first Duke of Westminster in 1874. Lakeside’s Grosvenor Square retains its original two-block size and is mostly wooded, except for a few pieces of playground equipment and a large field in the southwest quadrant.

Manchester Square, between Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh Avenues East from Peabody Street to Colorado Street, takes its name from an eighteenth-century garden square in London’s once-fashionable Marylebone neighborhood. Lakeside’s Manchester Square has been reduced to one square block and is entirely covered with trees. Its northern border, Colorado Street, was originally named Summit Street, which served as the northern boundary of the New London township.

Situated between Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh Avenues East from McCulloch Street to Gladstone Street, Portman Square became a public playground in 1910 following plans developed by landscape architects Anthony U. Morell and Arthur R. Nichols. The square was named after London’s Portman Square, once part of the nearby estate of England’s aristocratic Portman Family (Edward Berkeley Portman became the first Viscount of Portman in 1873). Lakeside’s Portman Square today is still two blocks in size and, as it has for over one hundred years, serves as a public playground with a fieldhouse, a baseball diamond, and three hockey rinks in the winter. The fieldhouse was built in 1940 as part of a Works Progress Administration improvement effort.

Russell Square lies between Forty-second and Forty-third Avenues East from Pitt Street to Jay Street. Like Manchester Square it has been reduced to one square block in size and, except for the stretch along Jay Street, it is entirely wooded. The Russell surname is famous in England as the family name of the Duke and Earl of Bedford, including John Russell, who became the First Earl of Russell in 1861 and briefly served as England’s Prime Minister from 1865 to 1866. England’s Russell Square is located in the London borough of Camden, near the University of London and the British Museum.

The only square in Lakeside not named for a London square, Washington Square sits between Forty-second and Forty-third Avenues East from Superior Street to Regent Street. In 1911 Morell & Nichols offered two different plans for the park. One, shown on the previous page, featured a pavilion in the center, surrounded by groves of trees, picnic grounds, and a meadow. The other plan included a baseball diamond that could be flooded and used as a skating rink in the winter. Today the square is partially wooded and includes playground equipment. It is named not after New York City’s famous Washington Square—also established in 1871—but rather for Philadelphia’s long-established Washington Square, located just four blocks from Jay Cooke’s bank, where McCulloch once worked.

The Public Squares of Minnesota Point

Minnesota Point’s original two parks, Franklin Square and Lafayette Square, were set aside when the land was platted in 1856. These small squares, less than two acres each, became city parks when the Village of Park Point joined Duluth in 1889. Despite Minnesota Point’s popularity as a summer resort, the park board never developed amenities at either location. Instead, these parks housed other public facilities for most of their histories.

Duluth's life-saving station was the first of what became known as "Duluth-style" stations. Dozens were built across the U.S. over the next 20 years, including the one pictured above in Provincetown, Rhode Island. (Image: Provincetown History PreservationProject)
Duluth’s life-saving station was the first of what became known as “Duluth-style” stations. Dozens were built across the U.S. over the next 20 years, including the one pictured above in Provincetown, Rhode Island. (Image: Provincetown History PreservationProject)

Franklin Square, named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, originally included the land between Lake Avenue South and Minnesota Avenue from Twelfth Street to Thirteenth Street. The site—then the northern border of Middleton Township (predecessor to the Village of Park Point)—contained an early cemetery used for burials of European pioneers, which may be the reason it was left undeveloped. Shifting sand dunes do not provide stable ground for a cemetery, and in 1883 the human remains, along with remains from two other burial sites on Minnesota Point, were moved to Forest Hill Cemetery.

In 1894 the City of Duluth deeded Franklin Square on Minnesota Point to the federal government for the location of the Duluth Life Saving Station of the U.S. Life Saving Service. Designed by federal architect George R. Tolman, the station opened in June 1895. Tolman’s design for the main building (below), with its distinctive watch tower, was called the Duluth style. It soon became one of the standard models for life-saving stations built along the East Coast of the United States. Donald McKenzie was appointed the station’s first keeper, with Captain Murdoch McLennan taking over when McKenzie died of cancer three years later.

The Duluth Life Saving Station crews maintained a visual watch of Lake Superior and the Duluth harbor from the station’s tower and also by regularly walking the beach all the way to the southern end of the point. Always ready to launch their boats to assist any ship that appeared to be in trouble, crew members followed a regular schedule of daily practice exercises, including gun and beach apparatus practice (right) on Mondays and Thursdays, boat practice on Tuesdays, signal practice on Wednesdays, and “resuscitation of the apparently drowned” on Fridays. According to U.S. Coast Guard records, during its first six years the Duluth station assisted in sixty-five rescue operations, nearly eleven each year.

Member of DUluth's U.S. Lifesavers practice firing a lifeline from a small cannon, c. 1905. (Image: Zenith City Press)
Member of DUluth’s U.S. Lifesavers practice firing a lifeline from a small cannon, c. 1905. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Unfortunately, during Duluth’s most tragic storm the crew of the station stood helplessly onshore. The nor’easter of November 28, 1905, aka the Mataafa Storm, wrecked or damaged twenty-six vessels on Lake Superior and stranded seventeen others; thirty-three men died, nine of them just outside the Duluth Ship Canal. The steamer Mataafa had struck the canal’s north pier broadside and broke in two about 150 yards offshore. At the time the life-saving crew was assisting the R. W. England, which was beached about two miles south of the canal. By the time the lifesavers could get to their boats at the station—nearly three hours later—the seas were so rough that McLennan and his crew could not even launch their rescue vessels. They were forced to wait until the next day. By then, the sailors trapped in the Mataafa’s aft section had frozen to death.

Outside of the Mataafa storm, between 1901 and 1915, the station was called to assist only ten times. In 1915 the U.S. Congress merged the U.S. Life Saving Service and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Minnesota Point facility became the Duluth Lifeboat Station. McLennan continued as its keeper until 1924.

In 1938 the Duluth Port Authority announced plans to construct a maritime center on Minnesota Point that would extend from the lakeshore to the harbor between Twelfth and Thirteenth Streets, including the Franklin Square land. The plan called for drill grounds and new quarters for the coast guard, the Duluth’s naval reserve, and the lighthouse service; the old lifeboat station was to be abandoned and Franklin Square restored as a city park and extended to the lakeshore to include a supervised bathing beach. A paved road would cut diagonally through the square to connect Lake Avenue and Minnesota Avenue (prior to that Twelfth Street South was used as the connector). Supporters of the maritime center project applied for funding from the federal Public Works Administration, but the funds did not materialize and the project was put on hold.

Money finally became available in 1949 for a new Coast Guard station, essentially a scaled-back version of the maritime center idea. Located on the harbor shoreline west of Minnesota Avenue between Twelfth and Thirteenth Streets South, the building opened in 1953. Ownership of the Franklin Square parcel reverted to the City of Duluth, and within a few years the Public Works Department had demolished the old lifeboat station. Following construction of a playground west of the bathing beach in 1971, the square became known as the Franklin Tot Lot.

Lafayette_PD
Marquis de Lafayette. (Image: Public Domain)

Located on the lake side of Minnesota Avenue between Thirtieth and Thirty-first Streets South, Lafayette Square was named in honor of Gilbert Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, the young French aristocrat who helped the fledgling United States defeat the British in the War of Independence. Biographies of Lafayette have often reported that “no other foreign dignitary has ever had so many places named after him as Lafayette”; apparently in 1856 Middleton Township simply followed the lead of other U.S. communities.

Lafayette Square sat undeveloped and ignored from its creation in 1856 until 1905, when the Independent Duluth School District asked the city for permission to build a school on a portion of the park to serve students living in the lower half of Minnesota Point (those living closer to the canal attended the 1892 Whittier School along Minnesota Avenue at Twelfth Street South). Permission was granted for a two-room frame building at the cost of $1,808—just over $5,000 in today’s money. The school district named the building for another Frenchman, explorer and fur trader Pierre-Esprit Radisson. Radisson and his brother-in-law Médard Chouart des Groseilliers are thought to be the first men of European descent to visit the Head of the Lakes; in 1765 they reached at least as far as Chequamegon Bay at the site of today’s Ashland, Wisconsin.

Two teachers taught grades five through eight at Radisson Elementary. Records indicate that no more than fifty students attended the school at any time during the twenty-four years it served Minnesota Point residents. It closed along with Whittier in 1919 when Park Point Elementary opened at 2400 Minnesota Avenue to serve all students living south of the canal.

After the closing of Radisson School, the Duluth Board of Education gave the building to the city to use as the Park Point Community Center and, in part, as the headquarters of the Park Point Community Club. In the 1920s the club and its president Samuel Clark Dick (pictured)  led the charge to convert the famous Duluth Aerial Bridge from a transfer bridge to a lift bridge, even putting forth the idea that Park Point landowners would pay for a portion of that work. The club’s efforts included finding the company that executed the conversion.

In 1922 club members asked Mayor Sam Snively to improve Lafayette Square with landscaping, benches and tables, fire grates for cooking, and a wooden walkway across the sand from the clubhouse to Lake Superior. Members of the community club volunteered to paint the old school. Many of the club’s requests for improvements were probably not honored, as in following years mention was often made of the building’s unsatisfactory condition.

ZCA_ARCH_PPCommClub_2013_XcommBy 1933 demands for improvements in the park and clubhouse had increased. Depression-era efforts by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) included remodeling and expanding the clubhouse following a design (pictured) by Duluth architect A. Reinhold Melander. His design called for a two-story building with a warming room for the skating rink, playground headquarters, a large community room with fireplace, and a branch of the Duluth Public Library that would open only on evenings and Friday afternoons. Initially the WPA funded $20,000 for the plan, but the 1938 Duluth Park Department Annual Report indicates that funds spent on the clubhouse and park totaled $40,000, nearly $650,000 today.

The renovation involved moving the school building northeast from its original location and raising it to serve as part of the new building’s second story. A full first floor was built as a warming house and playroom, and a wing was added on the north side for restrooms. Dedication of the Park Point Community Center took place in September 1936. Dignitaries providing speeches included club president Dick, Mayor Samuel F. Snively, and Duluth author Margaret Culkin Banning, then president of the Duluth Library Board.

For decades Lafayette Square supported skating and hockey rinks and fielded summer baseball and softball teams. Today much of the square is dedicated to a community garden, and the center remains the home of the community club, which organizes the annual Park Point Rummage Sale and Park Point Art Fair and is also involved in the care of the point’s natural resources and other issues that affect its residents. The club has never relinquished its concerns for crossing the canal and has made several efforts—some temporarily implemented—to reduce or schedule bridge raisings so that residents wouldn’t get “bridged”—stuck on one side of the bridge trying to get to the other side while the center span is up—nearly as often.

From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.

Sources:

  • Nelson, Nancy and Tony Dierckins. Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 160 Years. Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota: 2017.
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