Lester Park

Lester Park Pavilion, ca. 1900. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

The Forest House pavilion, located on the island and operated by Fred Pinkham, sold lemonade and ice cream and also served as a dance hall. In September 1896 a fire destroyed the Forest House, and the loss was estimated at $1,000, which included a new piano. Pinkham promptly rebuilt the pavilion, and dances continued. But he soon became the focus of the neighbors’ wrath as rumors spread that he was selling beer. Citizens of Lakeside strongly favored temperance—its 1893 annexation agreement with Duluth prohibited the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquor within Lakeside and Lester Park. In 1898 Pinkham was arrested and charged with selling liquor without a license. The charges were later dismissed on lack of evidence, but that was the end of the Forest House.

The privately owned Lester Park Pavilion/Harmonie Hall (also spelled Harmony Hall) was located just outside the park, on the east side of what is now the Lester River Road. Newspapers regularly carried brief advertisements for public dances: “A social dance will be given this evening at Lester Park Pavilion. LaBrosse’s orchestra. You are invited.” Individuals also rented the hall for private dance parties, with full reports in the society page, as in August 1897, when “an informal hop was given on Friday night at Harmonie Hall…by Frank Williamson and to the favored ones proved charming beyond words.”

The dance hall was lost (at least temporarily) when in March 1904 “with a deafening crash that could be heard for blocks, that portion of the Lester Park Pavilion devoted to a dancing hall caved in…as a result of the enormous weight of snow upon the roof.” This was the same year that the dance hall adjacent to Lincoln Park burned down and neighbors begged the park board to purchase the land so the hall would not be rebuilt. Throughout the country, crusades were underway to vilify dance halls as evil places where innocent young people were exposed to unsavory adults who served them intoxicating drinks. As a result of the problems in Lincoln Park, in February 1905 the city council passed an ordinance prohibiting dance halls within five hundred feet of any city park. But the Lester Park Pavilion must have had a good reputation, because in March 1905 the council gave permission for Mr. L. A. Gunderson to build a new pavilion at Lester Park for “dances and entertainment” as long as it did not violate any ordinances.

Gunderson leased the facility to J. F. Condon until February 1913 when a fire in the early morning hours, probably started by a discarded cigarette, completely destroyed the Lester Park Pavilion. In response to repeated requests from the public, Mr. Gunderson rebuilt the pavilion, and Harmonie Hall reopened in July 1914. Advertisements once again announced, “Dance tonight. LaBrosse’s orchestra will play. You are invited.”

In December 1915 the Duluth Elks Club announced they had received approval from city officials to create a municipal zoo in one of the city’s parks. Club members had been negotiating with city officials for many weeks, pressing especially hard in November. On December 6 the city commissioners adopted resolutions to establish the zoo and heard the first reading of an ordinance that would appropriate the necessary money. A donation of wire fencing by the Pittsburgh Steel Company and fence posts from the Alger-Smith Lumber company helped convince officials the zoo wouldn’t be too much of a burden on city coffers.

Newspapers reported the likely spot would be Fairmount Park, but after Mayor William Prince and Commissioner J. A. Farrell accompanied a committee of Elks members on an inspection tour of possible locations, they chose Lester Park. The first two tenants of the zoo were to be, of course, elks—two of them, donated by the game warden of the state of Washington. Unfortunately, the warden gave them to Sioux City, Iowa, before Duluth officials agreed to allow the zoo. With no animals, the zoo didn’t open until the following year, and its first residents consisted of “a couple of deer and two red foxes” donated by a trapper. By mid-May 1916 a goose and a porcupine were added. In June the Lester Park Improvement Club objected to the zoo, saying the animals might cause a nuisance. The zoo did not reopen in 1917. When Duluth finally did get a zoo, it was at Fairmount Park in 1923; its first resident was a deer, penned within the fencing intended for the zoo at Lester Park.

Pushing Boundaries

The Lester River area outside the boundaries of the park continued to be as popular as the park itself. Public access to the upper reaches of Amity Creek expanded after 1900 when real estate investor/dairy farmer Samuel Snively financed the construction of a scenic road that started at the junction of Oriental and Occidental Boulevards and followed the creek up the hill for about two and a half miles to his farm. He opened his road for public use, but the numerous wooden bridges deteriorated quickly, leaving the road unsafe for traffic. The park board took over responsibility for the road in 1909 and, with the help of Snively, rebuilt the road including beautiful and substantial stone arch bridges. The new road—today called Seven Bridges Road—reopened in July 1912, linking Lester Park to the parkway that already spanned the length of the city. (See Skyline Parkway & Seven Bridges Road.)

The park board members also recognized they needed to acquire additional land to expand Lester Park. In 1907 they began negotiations with Thomas Cole, president of the Oliver Mining Company, who owned four hundred acres surrounding the East Branch of the Lester River. Cole planned to build a summer home for his family on a ten-acre parcel near the mouth of the river, and he generously offered to sell to the park board any other portion of the land that they wanted. He agreed to accept city bonds in payment and was willing to hold the land without interest until the board had the necessary funds. Unfortunately, when Cole attempted to get a clear title to the property he discovered that he would have to bring twenty-eight separate actions against young men who had built hunting shacks on the land. He apparently decided the legal complications were too burdensome, and by 1910 he sold the land to “outside parties” for $200,000.

The park board continued negotiations with the new owners and eventually purchased twenty-three acres from the Edgewater Land Company and seven acres from a private individual, all situated between the east and west branches of the river, thus expanding the triangle of land that formed the core of Lester Park.

In 1915 the Duluth Real Estate Board acquired the portion of Cole’s holdings located north of the city park along the East Branch of the Lester River. They named the area “Pinehurst on the Lester” and divided the land into thirty-eight large tracts ranging from 100- to 150-feet frontage and 150 to 300 feet deep. The realtors planned to sell the lots and use the money to construct a real estate exchange building in downtown Duluth. They built a concrete bridge that connected their property to the Lester River Road and constructed a boulevard through the forest, which they intended to donate to the city as part of the parkway system.

A number of summer homes were built at Pinehurst on the Lester, but the historic forest fire in October 1918 swept through the area, burning trees in the park and destroying the Pinehurst cabins. According to the News Tribune “Lester Park, save for its southwest corner and the fringe along Superior Street, is ashes, stumps, and half-burned standing timber. Sites of cabins are indistinguishable from the general ruin.” Pinehurst on the Lester never recovered. Two lots that abutted the north boundary of the park were purchased by the city in 1921 and added to Lester Park. The other abandoned lots, along with the boulevard and concrete bridge, became unofficial park land. Ten years later the park boundaries expanded once more. The City Land Company financed construction of a golf course on land east of the park and turned the completed course over to the city in October 1931. Sam Snively, who by this time had been Duluth’s mayor for a decade, hit the drive that started play in the first match on the new Lester Park Golf Course. That same year the famous rustic bridge met its end. The upper deck had been removed in 1916 due to safety concerns; the rest of the bridge was removed in 1931 for the same reason.

Post-Depression Lester Park

Since that time, Lester Park has remained one of Duluth’s most popular parks. As they have for decades, young people gather at the Deeps, a large pool formed by erosion just upstream from where Amity Creek joins the Lester River. Here they take part in a very dangerous activity—cliff diving into the pool, thought to be forty feet deep in some spots. Accidents are frequent and occasionally tragic. In August 2011 a thirteen-year-old boy drowned when he was swept downstream by the strong current after diving into the Deeps. One hundred people participated in a five-day search for his body, which was found in Lake Superior.

On a much happier note, since 1998 Lester Park has hosted the Lester River Rendezvous, which celebrates Duluth’s connection to the historic fur trade. In the winter the park is a mecca for cross-country skiers, and in the summer it is a hiker’s and cyclist’s paradise. Since 2009 the Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores (COGGS) has built and maintained bike trails within the park; the organization has done similar work in other parks as it develops the Duluth Traverse, a multiuse, single-track trail intended to stretch the entire length of the city, from Fond du Lac to Lester Park.

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