Creating Canal Park (1975–1985)

The construction the the Canal Park Marine Museum, today’s Lake Superior Maritime Museum, kicked-started what has come to be known as the Canal Park Renaissance. [Image: Zenith City Press]

Mayor Boo resigned his post to become the WLSSD’s director in 1974. City council president Bob Beaudin served out Boo’s term. Like two of his predecessors, Beaudin was a veteran employee of the Minnesota Steel Company plant. Beaudin’s daughter Shannon later explained to newspapers that he entered politics because “there wasn’t enough talk about jobs.” Beaudin ran unopposed in the 1975 election. During his tenure Duluth tightened its embrace of tourism as jobs, and people, continued to leave.

Duluth took strides to revitalize its downtown, both to draw tourists and to compete with the ever-expanding retail landscape of Duluth Heights. The city demolished the historic Lyric Theatre as part of its effort to redevelop the upper 200 block of West Superior Street with the Normandy Inn and Normandy Mall, renamed Holiday Mall when the hotel became a Holiday Inn. The project marked the start of Duluth’s skywalk system, which connects downtown buildings along portions of Michigan, Superior, and First streets. After I-35 pushed through downtown, a new link in the system called the Northwest Passage connected downtown to the Arena Auditorium.

Meanwhile, the need for public restrooms near the aerial bridge had evolved into the revitalization of Minnesota Point between the Lake Avenue Viaduct over the railroad tracks and the ship canal. The oldest portion of developed Duluth, this segment of town had gone through many changes and was known by many names, since Duluth first became a city. In the chaotic boom-and-bust 1870s it was considered No Man’s Land. During the 1880s it was divided among residential Finn Town, the Lake Avenue saloons and flophouse hotels of Uptown, and the brothels of the St. Croix district. One hundred years of industrial effort included a tannery, lumber mills, a shipyard, a slaughterhouse, fisheries, metal fabricators, an appliance manufacturer, a mattress factory, and Halvorson Tree, which made brightly colored, three-foot-tall Christmas trees from the lopped-off tops of spruces.

When the federal government improved the ship canal in the 1890s, it also acquired land on either side of the canal. Along the north pier the government built an office building in the Neoclassical Revival style for the US Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw the canal’s operation. The remaining property became green space dubbed Canal Park. In 1938 the city purchased and demolished the nearby Weiland Flats tenement house, built a parking lot on the site, and also named the lot Canal Park.

By the 1960s, while the aerial bridge attracted nearly half a million visitors a year, the rest of the district had deteriorated. The brothels and most bars had cleared out in the 1930s, and Finn Town’s shanties went away in the mid 1950s with the St. Croix Redevelopment Project, part of the federal Urban Renewal Program. Manufacturers closed and warehouses stood empty. A scrap-metal yard filled the space between Morse and Buchanan streets, and abandoned cars and major appliances lined the lakeshore from the canal to the corner of the lake.

And no public bathrooms near the Aerial Bridge. As more tourists came, the problem became an embarrassment. A plan for restrooms adjacent to the Corps of Engineers Building lead to the creation of the Canal Park Marine Museum, today’s Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center. The center’s success lead other s to consider investing in the are as well.

In 1976 Jeno Paulucci’s son, Michael “Mick” Paulucci, and Andy Borg purchased the Sand Bar adjacent to the marine museum, filled it with kitschy antiques from their vast collection, and reopened it as Grandma’s Saloon & Grill. Their friends in the North Shore Striders running club organized a marathon from Two Harbors to Duluth that summer, and the restaurant served as its finish line. One hundred sixty runners participated in the first Grandma’s Marathon, which soon grew into the city’s largest summer event, drawing nearly ten thousand runners from around the world. Paulucci, Borg, and others then began buying nearby property, and over the next twenty years what was once the city’s most blighted district evolved into its center of tourism, the Canal Park business district—known to most simply as Canal Park.

In the 1980s Duluth continued its focus on revitalizing the waterfront and Canal Park. Mayor Fedo and city planner Jerry Kimball met with the mayors of other struggling Rust Belt cities in 1988. Kimball told them: “We on the Great Lakes have our own history and color, and we must learn to promote it.” Fedo said the challenge confronting Great Lakes cities is that they were designed “to face away from the lakes.” He urged his fellow mayors “to turn ourselves around” to face opportunities on “the most magnificent system of lakes and rivers in the world.” Reviving Duluth relied on reconnecting with Lake Superior and the St. Louis River.

Kimball oversaw the 1985–92 Downtown Waterfront Project that worked in conjunction with the continued expansion of I-35 to further develop Canal Park. First Avenue South was renamed Canal Park Drive, Lake Avenue was reconstructed, and the entire district underwent a $9.4 million “streetscape” project. The scrap yard became a parking lot, and the abandoned cars and appliances were replaced by the first segment of the Lakewalk. At the lake’s northeast corner workers built Lake Place, a park which disguises a highway tunnel; below it the Lake Place image wall, a 580-foot-long mosaic, celebrates the city’s maritime history.

Meanwhile former industrial facilities became home to restaurants and retail shops. Hotels rose along the shore where Finn Town once stood. The Marshall-Wells office building became a multiplex containing restaurants, a hotel, condominiums, and offices. Duluth built the Minnesota Slip Bridge for pedestrians to access the DECC from Canal Park, and the slip itself became home to the William A. Irvin, a 600-foot retired ore boat that serves as a floating museum.

Canal Park’s renaissance continued well beyond the 1980s. The last of the old industrial buildings that could not be repurposed, Zenith Spring, came down in 2006. Despite hopes that highway expansion would lead to its removal, the Club Saratoga relocated on Canal Park Drive, where it became known for its Saturday-afternoon jazz sessions, which ended in 2019. Today Canal Park is home to four hotels, a dozen restaurants, two craft breweries, a craft distillery, several art galleries, and eighteen retail shops. And one strip club.