The Parks of Minnesota Point

Lithographic postcard ca. 1935, of bathers enjoying the surf and beach on the lake side of Minnesota Point. (Image: Zenith City Press)

In 1900 the Duluth News Tribune poetically described Minnesota Point as “a penciled eyebrow on the face of nature.” Since the establishment of Superior, Wisconsin, and the townsites that make up modern Duluth, residents of both cities, along with thousands of visitors, have taken advantage of this narrow sandbar as a delightful summer resort—a place to picnic, camp, swim, and play on the Lake Superior shore.

Minnesota Point is the northern portion of the world’s longest natural sandbar, which formed over the last several thousand years at the place where Minnesota’s St. Louis River and Wisconsin’s Nemadji River meet the waters of Lake Superior. As the sand and silt carried by the flowing water was deposited, it built up a narrow barrier that shelters the bay behind it from the wind and waves of Lake Superior. The same natural processes that formed the sandbar also cut it into two sections: Minnesota Point makes up the northern seven miles, Wisconsin Point the southern three miles. When European explorers first came to the area in the 1600s, there was only one opening through the sandbar—the natural gap between the two points, now the location of the Superior entry.

Prior to the increasing westward expansion of the United States, both Minnesota Point and Wisconsin Point served as summer gathering spots for generations of native peoples, a tradition that continued with the Ojibwe in the 1850s. After the 1854 Treaty of LaPointe opened land north and west of Lake Superior to settlement, pioneers moved in quickly. Between 1856 and 1859, they established eleven towns on the Minnesota side of the lake, including several along Minnesota Point. Near the northern end of the point, early settlers platted the town of Duluth. Further down the point, Robert Reed and T. A. Markland platted a town that extended from a point south of today’s ship canal to the beginning of Oatka Beach at Thirty-eighth Street South. They called the fledgling community Middleton and set aside a parcel of land for an open public space called Lafayette Square. Another open space, Franklin Square, was platted Thirteenth Street South. The federal government owned the remaining land on Minnesota Point south of Oatka; known as the Barrens, this long stretch of sand and pine forest extended to the Superior entry. In 1857 Middleton and several other 1856 townsites centered on Minnesota Point incorporated as the town of Duluth.

Although Minnesota Point had two public squares, most of the summer activity during Duluth’s first fifty years centered around Oatka Beach, four blocks of sand on the bay side of the point beginning roughly at today’s Fortieth Street South. Oatka is Ojibwe for “an opening”—in this case probably referring to an opening in the forest that covered much of the sandbar. As early as the 1860s, day-trippers from Superior and surrounding Minnesota townsites came to the point by rowboat, sailboat, or canoe to spend the day at the public picnic grounds, referred to in the Duluth Minnesotian as the “Centennial Picnic Grounds” and likely located at Oatka Beach. Reminiscences shared with the Minnesotian by an unnamed “lady friend” in September 1869 called the point “a resort for the citizens of Superior” and described the grounds and activities held there:

A platform for dancing, over which a broad canvas spread its protecting wings, was erected nearly opposite the town [Superior], and swings were suspended from the overhanging trees. At evening parties of ladies and gentlemen visited this shore, crossing the placid waters in boats and canoes, to the music of flutes, violins, and guitars, mingled with the voice of song.

She forgot to mention promotional speeches. It was at an Independence Day picnic on Minnesota Point in 1868 that Minnesotian publisher Dr. Thomas Foster first called Duluth the “Zenith City of the unsalted seas.”

In March 1870 Duluth became a city. The next spring the city completed the first cut of a ship canal through Minnesota Point along Portage Street; the following spring the canal was complete, but it had turned the point south of the canal into an island. The citizens living below the canal lobbied hard for a bridge over the new waterway. A temporary bridge was built for use during the winter when shipping traffic was halted. But life for those living south of the canal became complicated.

The Financial Panic of 1873 caused great economic hardships in Duluth, and in 1877 the city reorganized as a village. In 1881, with no bridge in sight, citizens living south of the canal—the area now collectively called Park Point—had had enough. That March state legislation turned the community  into the independent Village of Park Point. When Duluth returned to city status in 1887, Park Point refused to rejoin until they had a more convenient way to cross the canal. Duluth promised a bridge, and in 1890 Park Point rejoined Duluth. The bridge, however, wouldn’t arrive until 1905.

A Summertime Campground

Picnics at Oatka Beach remained popular through Duluth’s tough financial times and the boom period that followed. According to Minnesota streetcar historian Aaron Isaacs, the Minnesota Point Street Railway (MPSR) Company started operating a horse-drawn trolley on the Point in 1889 or 1890. Described by the News Tribune in 1894 as “old fashioned and slow,” the trolley carried passengers three miles from the canal to Oatka Beach. There visitors took advantage of the picnic grounds and swimming beach and enjoyed band concerts and dancing in the Oatka Beach Pavilion.

Newspaper ads announced other special events, such as Signor Levenso, who in July 1890 gave two daily performances of his “startling and wonderful acts, the aerial flight or the slide for life, and tight rope performing 100 feet in mid-air.” On Sundays, the clairvoyant Madame Johnson was available to read the past, present, and future.

Picnickers began to prolong their visits by setting up tent camps all along the point, from the canal to the Barrens. Duluthians and Superiorites alike used the point as a place to relax or recreate for an afternoon or camp for an extended period of time; the more affluent stayed for the entire summer. Near the southern end along the Barrens an enclave of cabins first built in the 1850s for wealthy Superiorites clustered around what later became known as Peabody’s Landing.

Few regulations governed the camps, and property ownership was often unclear, as the News Tribune reported in June 1898:

In the great majority of cases no inquiry is made as to the owners of the lots on which the camp is pitched, and the owner makes no inquiry as to who camps on his lot… Some campers own lots, and others have permission to occupy the lots on which they are located… Others occupy several lots.

Most folks located their camps on the bay side of the point, where the land was lower and sand dunes and pine groves offered protection from strong lake winds. In 1894 the News Tribune described the facilities as ranging “from neat little cottages occupied by a dozen or more people down to a 7×7 tent tenanted by two small boys.” Campers christened their sites with creative names such as Cold Water Camp, Koo-Koo Camp, Old Point Comfort, Cozy Cottage, Frogville, Camp Featherbed, and Sleepy Eye Camp. Judge Ozora P. Stearns, president of the Lakeside Land Company, owned the Lazy Lodge; William Sargent, founder of Lakeside and Lester Park, kept a cabin on the point that had been built by his parents in the early 1870s. A 1903 News Tribune story reported that the Sargent cabin was haunted, as “queer sights and sounds of unearthly seeming have distinguished the old Sargent cottage for this long time.”

Once the trolley began providing easier conveyance along the point, entrepreneurs established enclaves called Hay Fever Havens—clusters of cabins inhabited by those who could afford to summer in Duluth to avoid allergens in their own towns (antihistamines were a long way off). Similar facilities sprang up along Lake Superior’s North Shore and on Isle Royale, but Duluth was the most accessible of these pollen-free locations. In 1900 Duluth became home to the Hay Fever Club of America.

The MPSR changed hands in 1896 and in 1898, under new owners, became the Interstate Traction Company (ITC), which electrified the car line. The streetcar line was extended four blocks in 1902 after Charles F. Hartman—one of the principle owners of the ITC—purchased the Oatka Beach property and platted the Oatka Beach Addition, which was intended as a new residential section between today’s Thirty-ninth Street South and Forty-fourth Street South. The 1.5-acre block between Forty-third and Forty-fourth Streets South was dedicated as Hartman Park.

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