Duluth’s 19th-Century Squares

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

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.

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 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. (Read more about that early cemetery here.)

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, 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 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.

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.

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.”

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 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.

By 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 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.

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