From Duluth’s Historic Parks: Their First 100 Years by Nancy S. Nelson & Tony Dierckins, Zenith City Press, Spring 2017.
In 1900 the Duluth News Tribune poetically described Minnesota Point as “a penciled eyebrow on the face of nature.” Since the establishment of Superior, Wisconsin, and the townships that make up modern Duluth, residents of both cities, along with thousands of visitors, have taken advantage of this narrow sandbar as a delightful summer resort—a place to picnic, camp, swim, and play on the Lake Superior shore.
Minnesota Point is the northern portion of the world’s longest natural sandbar, which formed over the last several thousand years at the place where Minnesota’s St. Louis River and Wisconsin’s Nemadji River meet the waters of Lake Superior. As the sand and silt carried by the flowing water was deposited, it built up a narrow barrier that shelters the bay behind it from the wind and waves of Lake Superior. The same natural processes that formed the sandbar also cut it into two sections: Minnesota Point makes up the northern seven miles, Wisconsin Point the southern three miles. When European explorers first came to the area in the 1600s, there was only one opening through the sandbar—the natural gap between the two points, now the location of the Superior entry.
Prior to the increasing westward expansion of the United States, both Minnesota Point and Wisconsin Point served as summer gathering spots for generations of native peoples, a tradition that continued with the Ojibwe in the 1850s. After the 1854 Treaty of LaPointe opened land north and west of Lake Superior to settlement, pioneers moved in quickly. Between 1856 and 1859, they established eleven townships on the Minnesota side of the lake, including several along Minnesota Point. Near the northern end of the point, early settlers platted Duluth Township. Further down the point, Robert Reed and T. A. Markland platted a township that extended from today’s Thirteenth Street South to Thirty-ninth Street South. They called the fledgling community Middleton and set aside a parcel of land for an open public space called Lafayette Square. Another open space, Franklin Square, was platted at Middleton’s northern border. (See chapter 1, “Nineteenth-Century Squares,” for more information.) The federal government owned the remaining land on Minnesota Point south of Middleton; known as the Barrens, this long stretch of sand and pine forest extended to the Superior entry.
Although Minnesota Point had two public squares, most of the summer activity during Duluth’s first fifty years centered around Oatka Beach, four blocks of sand on the bay side of the point beginning roughly at today’s Fortieth Street South. Oatka is Ojibwe for “an opening”—in this case probably referring to an opening in the forest that covered much of the sandbar. As early as the 1860s, day-trippers from Superior and surrounding Minnesota townships came to the point by rowboat, sailboat, or canoe to spend the day at the public picnic grounds, referred in the Duluth Minnesotian as the “Centennial Picnic Grounds” and likely located at Oatka Beach. Reminiscences shared with the Minnesotian by an unnamed “lady friend” in September 1869 called the point “a resort for the citizens of Superior” and described the grounds and activities held there:
A platform for dancing, over which a broad canvas spread its protecting wings, was erected nearly opposite the town [Superior], and swings were suspended from the overhanging trees. At evening parties of ladies and gentlemen visited this shore, crossing the placid waters in boats and canoes, to the music of flutes, violins, and guitars, mingled with the voice of song.
She forgot to mention promotional speeches. It was at an Independence Day picnic on Minnesota Point in 1868 that Minnesotian publisher Dr. Thomas Foster first called Duluth the “Zenith City of the unsalted seas.”
In March 1870 the townships, including those on the point, combined to form the City of Duluth. The next spring the city completed the first cut of a ship canal through Minnesota Point along Portage Street; the following spring the canal was complete, but it had turned the point south of the canal into an island. The citizens of Middleton lobbied hard for a bridge over the new waterway. A temporary bridge was built for use during the winter, when shipping traffic was halted, But life for those living south of the canal became complicated.
The Financial Panic of 1873 caused great economic hardships in Duluth, and in 1877 the city lost its state charter. Many of the original townships then reverted to independent status, but Middleton and others stayed with Duluth Township to form the new Village of Duluth. In 1881, with no bridge in sight, citizens living south of the canal—the area now collectively called Park Point—had had enough. That March state legislation turned the community of Middleton into the independent Village of Park Point. When Duluth returned to city status in 1887, Park Point refused to rejoin until they had a more convenient way to cross the canal. Duluth promised a bridge, and in 1889 Park Point rejoined Duluth. The bridge, however, wouldn’t arrive until 1905.