Skyline Parkway & Seven Bridges Road

Snow covers Stewart Creek Bridge along Bardon’s Peak Boulevard, now West Skyline Parkway, in 1927. (Photo by F. R. Paine.) [Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections]

Mission Creek Boulevard

Snively also purchased several hundred acres of forested land along Mission Creek near Fond du Lac, where he planned to construct the final leg of the linking road to the state park. City engineers built the road along Mission Creek in the summer of 1926. The Mission Creek Boulevard included five stone bridges, similar in design to those on Snively Boulevard at the eastern end of the city, and two railroad bridges built by the Northern Pacific and the Duluth, Missabe & Northern railroads. Snively also raised the funds and personally helped to build a branch road into Fond du Lac he had promised the neighborhood’s residents, who complained that the parkway bypassed their community. Thanks to his efforts, the Mission Creek Boulevard, including the branch road, was completed by the fall of 1927. On November 5 residents of Fond du Lac hosted an opening ceremony at the city nursery; Judge Magney gave a short speech to celebrate the occasion, which was attended by several hundred people.

At the same time, laborers working for Duluth contractor C. R. McLean were building the state road along the St. Louis River that led to Jay Cooke State Park. When their work was finished in January 1928, the link was complete. Automobiles could travel on Duluth’s scenic parkway from the St. Louis River to the North Shore of Lake Superior.

At this time, each segment of the parkway was known by a different name—Rogers Boulevard for the oldest segment, Amity Creek or Snively Boulevard for the eastern segment, and the very awkward Bardon’s Peak–Mission Creek–Fond du Lac–Jay Cooke State Park Boulevard for the newest segment.

Once the state road to Jay Cooke Park opened, Mayor Snively declared the parkway complete, and in July 1929, he and the News Tribune sponsored a contest to christen the entire length of the scenic drive with one new name. The mayor received over 3,500 entries, and six people suggested the winning name of “Skyline Parkway.” The judges voted unanimously to split the prize of $25 among the six winners: Jennie Kesty of Cloquet; H. A. Sanders of Two Harbors; and Frances George, Ella Hatch, M. E. Thorpe, and George Baxter of Duluth. They each received an award of $5, donated by the News Tribune. Road signs designed by Duluth artist N. A. Long, featuring a pine tree silhouetted against the full moon, were installed along the entire length of the parkway.

At last, on August 3, 1929, “beneath the towering pines of Jay Cooke park, where only 15 years ago a wood-trodden trail existed, a gathering of state, county, and municipal officials and civic leaders…dedicated the driveway leading from the boulevard system of Duluth to the park.” The News Tribune reported that Otto Swanstrom, president of the Minnesota Good Roads Association and founder of Duluth’s Diamond Tools, headed the auto caravan that left city hall at eleven in the morning to drive over the new road for the formal ceremony at Jay Cooke State Park. Judge Magney, one of the pioneers in the movement to create the state park, was the principal speaker. Other speakers included Lieutenant Governor Charles E. Adams and Mayor Snively. Minneapolis Mayor W. F. Kunze and members of the Minneapolis Park Board also attended the ceremony that officially opened Skyline Parkway.

“Complete”—But Not Finished

Although Mayor Snively declared the parkway to be “complete” in 1929, he continued to build roads as part of his grand vision for a combined park and boulevard system. Residents of the western part of the city wanted a connection to Skyline Parkway, and in 1929 Snively began assembling land for a road that would run west from Fairmount Park (home of the municipal zoo), then uphill along the Knowlton Creek valley to join the main parkway. Built during the Depression, the road project served partly as an unemployment relief measure.

According to the park department annual report, Snively personally raised money for the construction, aided by an appropriation from the council. The mayor also personally supervised the work and “deserves a great deal of credit for his energy in putting this project through.” Snively opened the Knowlton Creek Boulevard in 1931, creating an important link between Fairmount Park and the western section of the parkway near what later became the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area. A News Tribune article from December 1932 called it “a new scenic entrance to Duluth.” Motorists coming into town over Bardon’s Peak could now follow the new road downhill to Grand Avenue and West Duluth.

Despite his love of road building, Snively never satisfactorily filled the eastern gap between Chester Park and Snively Boulevard. Park superintendent Rodney Paine wrote in his 1928 annual report, “At the east, the boulevard has no well defined beginning or end. There is no fitting approach and there is no boulevard at all between Fifteenth Avenue East and the Snively Boulevard… Owing to the fact that the district just east of Fifteenth Avenue has been platted and built up with no provision for any boulevard connection the problem is a difficult one.”

Over the years, the city designated various connecting routes to guide motorists through this gap. During the 1920s, the favored route was from the east side of Chester Creek, down Kent Road to Eighth Street, then along Vermilion Road to Tischer Creek (at the north end of Congdon Park), then on Lakeview Drive to Snively Road. In fact, a map produced by the city in 1929 shows this route as the path of Skyline Parkway. Later signs were installed that led those cruising Skyline to take Kent Road to Woodland Avenue, then Woodland north to Snively Road. (Traffic in 2016 is routed from Kent Road, up Nineteenth Avenue East, around the University of Minnesota Duluth campus on St. Marie Street, and then along Woodland Avenue to Snively Road.)

In 1934, Snively Boulevard on the eastern end of the city followed Amity Creek from Lester Park to Jean Duluth Road. Because a high ridge hid the road from Lake Superior, it lacked the scenic views that made Skyline Parkway famous. Near the end of that year, Mayor Snively announced his plan to construct a new road that would follow the highest part of the ridge from Amity Creek to Morley Heights, providing spectacular views of Lake Superior and the neighborhoods of Lakeside and Lester Park. According to the News Tribune, “Mayor Snively has had this parkway in mind for a great many years and it is through his efforts that the donations of necessary right-of-ways were obtained, surveys completed and the work on the road started. …The development of the natural beauties of this easterly section of the city has been the life work of Mayor Snively.”

Once again, Snively personally supervised construction. WPA crews completed rough grading on about half of the road in 1936, but their work was suspended in June 1937 when they were called away to work on the Civic Center in downtown Duluth. They resumed work on the Parkway in November, but according to historian Mark Ryan, “finishing touches were delayed until the summer of 1939.” By that time Sam Snively was no longer mayor of Duluth, but his days of working on the parkway were not over. Four years after his final term as mayor ended, the Duluth City Council created a Department of Public Boulevards and appointed Snively as Superintendent of Boulevards.

Snively’s final road segment later became known as Hawk Ridge, because the area had always been a place where large numbers of hawks could be observed as they migrated south each fall. Local hunters had often used the birds for target practice. To protect the migrating birds, in 1950 members of the Duluth Bird Club (now the Duluth Audubon Society) successfully petitioned the city to enforce the prohibition against shooting within the city limits.

The Bird Club organized the first “hawk watch” in 1951, and twenty years later, in 1972, the Duluth Audubon Society, with a loan from the Minnesota Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, donated funds to the City of Duluth to purchase the highest part of the ridge and create a nature reserve. The city acquired approximately 250 adjacent acres in 1973 to serve as a buffer area. Under a trust agreement with the city, the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory now manages the 365-acre reserve, which is open to the public for study and enjoyment. Each fall thousands of people gather on Skyline Parkway at Hawk Ridge to see this amazing migration and learn more about the lives of raptors.

Skyline Parkway in the Twenty-first Century

Following the Snively era, maintenance of Skyline Parkway was inconsistent, depending on the priorities of whoever held the mayor’s office. Mission Creek Boulevard was permanently closed in 1958 because of serious erosion following a major rainstorm, cutting off that all-important link to Fond du Lac and Jay Cooke State Park. When the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area was constructed in the 1970s, a section of the parkway immediately south of Interstate 35 was moved higher on the hillside to accommodate the ski hill. The city abandoned the Knowlton Creek Boulevard at the same time, turning the old roadbed into a hiking trail.

These changes triggered a renewal of public interest in the historic roadway, and in 1988 the Stewart Creek bridge on the western hillside was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1995, the Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission, using funds made available by the National Park Service through the Minnesota Historical Society, hired consultants to conduct a study of the historical significance of the parkway system. Historian Patrick Nunnally completed his report, “A Historic Landscape Evaluation Study,” in 1997, and this detailed study provided the necessary information for Jill Fisher of the city planning department to nominate Skyline Parkway as a State Scenic  Byway. In 1998 the byway designation was approved, making the road eligible for funding from various state and federal sources.

The West Skyline Planning and Preservation Alliance, a grassroots citizen advocacy group, formed in 1999 to bring attention to the need for cleanup and maintenance on the western section of the parkway. A few years later the group expanded their mission to include the entire length of the road and changed their name to the Skyline Planning and Preservation Alliance (SPPA). For the next decade, members of the SPPA sponsored annual cleanup days at Bardon’s Peak, led hikes through parks located along the corridor, participated in planning sessions, lobbied for increased maintenance, and supported the city’s efforts to obtain grant funding for improvements to the parkway.

The bridges on Seven Bridges Road were rebuilt over a period of eleven years, from 1996 to 2007. With the assistance of a Citizens’ Task Force, URS Corporation cooperated with the city to prepare a Corridor Management Plan, which was completed in 2003 and updated in 2015. New wayfinding signs were installed along the entire route in 2011, and much of the roadway was resurfaced. The Snively Memorial and the Stewart Creek Bridge were rehabilitated by the City of Duluth in 2012 to 2013.

One of the most consistent complaints over the years has been the lack of vegetation maintenance along the parkway, as trees continue to grow tall on the lower side of the road, blocking the once-spectacular views. The 2003 Skyline Parkway Corridor Management Plan called for the creation and implementation of a vegetation management plan. Following continued lobbying by citizens and SPPA members, along with support from city councilors Sharla Gardner and Joel Sipress, in 2015 the city administration formed a task force to address this issue. As a result, in early 2016 the administration hired SAS + Associates Landscape Architects and Levy Tree Care to prepare a plan to manage vegetation along the parkway. Work was scheduled to begin in summer 2016.

One hundred and twenty-five years after the original section of Rogers Boulevard was built, Skyline Parkway—the backbone of Duluth’s park system, is once again recognized as one of Duluth’s most unique and valuable resources.

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