Duluth’s 19th-Century Squares

The pavilion and observatory built in Cascade Park in 1895, photographed ca. 1900. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

When the first settlers in the 1850s platted the townsitess 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.

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 the town of Duluth.

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.” 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 again 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.

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