How Duluth’s creeks got their names

NOTE: This was originally published as a “Northlandia’ column in the Duluth News Tribune on August 5, 2020 and was updated in January, 2021. Original posting here. Special thanks to Heidi Bakk-Hansen, who previous work for Zenith City Online tracing local place names (linked to below) has greatly informed this article.]


Cathy P. of Duluth asks, “I know who Chester Park is named for, but what about Lester Park?

The short answer is simple: Lester Park is named for the Lester River. But that raises another question: Who is the Lester River named for? Like most of Duluth’s waterways, it likely honors someone who established a homestead along its banks in the 1850s.

The Lewis & Hepzibah Merritt Family. (Image: Grant Merritt)

Chester Creek (and Chester Park), as Cathy’s knows, is named for Illinois native Charles Chester (nope, not for Chester Congdon). Chester came to Duluth in 1857 but by 1860 had left to search for gold in California. Pennsylvanian William Wallace Kingsbury, namesake of Kingsbury Creek, also left by 1860 — after he helped Minnesota achieve statehood as a congressman.

Merritt Creek is so-called for Ohio’s Lewis and Hepzibah Merritt family, cofounders of Oneota and developers of the Mesabi Iron Range. Swiss immigrants Urs and Elizabeth Tischer lent their name to the creek that ran past their farm, which stood where Chester and Clara Congdon’s Glensheen stands today. The Congdons dubbed a smaller stream that flows through the property Bent Brook. (There is no Congdon Creek; Congdon Park is centered on Tischer Creek.)

Several streams take their names from early residents who left to join the Union Army during the Civil War: Miller Creek for Pennsylvanian Robert Miller, Buckingham Creek for Frederick A. Buckingham of Illinois, Coffey Creek for Kentuckian Levi Coffey, Knowlton Creek for Maine’s Frederick Knowlton, and Keene Creek for another Mainer, Freeman Keen, whose name was later misspelled. Miller didn’t survive the war; several others returned to Duluth, but only Keen stayed.

The African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., which includes the name of Robert P. Miller, who was promoted to Full Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Colored Troops, 50th Infantry after serving with the Minnesota 4th. (Image: Trip Advisor)

Alfred Merritt’s 1917 recollection of the region in the 1850s provides a clue to Sargent Creek’s namesake: “The next place [west of Spirit Lake] was Sargent’s house, on what we called Sargent Lake, just west of Sargent’s creek.” The 1857 census shows two young men named Sargent living in St. Louis County, but not which town site. The 1860 census does not include their names, but it does include John Sargent, b. 1805 in Vermont, living in Fond du Lac. This is most likely the Sargent for whom the creek was named.

In 1870 another Sargent — George, who worked for Jay Cooke — built the Clarkhouse Hotel in downtown Duluth, and thereafter the stream flowing past it was called Clarkhouse Creek. Several other creeks also take their names from adjacent landmarks: Mission Creek for the Protestant mission built by Edmund Ely in 1833, Brewery Creek for the beer-making operation established in 1859, and US Steel Creek for the 1915 Minnesota Steel Plant. Two creeks, 43rd Ave. E. Creek and Oregon Creek, were named for nearby streets — until the 1890s, 21st Ave. E. was known as Oregon Ave.

This grainy photo of Freeman Keen appeared in the Duluth News Tribune in 1902. (Image: Zenith City Press)

So the Lester is likely named for an early settler, but who? The name was in use by 1860, but census data includes no listings for Lesters. Early resident William Epler later wrote, “I remember Lester River, but cannot recall to mind anyone by the name of Lester.”

Reverend John Barnett, an early Superior resident, later recalled that “The portion of [Duluth] now called Lester Park had been homesteaded by a man after whom the park was called.” But the neighborhood was named for the river in 1887, and the park was called Stearns Park until 1895 — and Barnett doesn’t provide a first name.

Baltimore resident George V. Leicester, a piano builder, laid claim as the river’s namesake in 1901. Leicester wrote to the Duluth Historical Society (1898 to 1902) that he was preparing a paper explaining that the river’s correct name is “Leicester.” Records indicate Leicester (pronounced “Lester” by the British) was born in Massachusetts in either 1830 or 1835

Leicester wrote that the river was named for him after he lived for one winter in a cabin on its banks prior to the 1854 Treaty of Lapointe. He built his shelter along “a small stream of water having quite a fall with a gravel or sand bar at its mouth.” The Lester River today is hardly a small stream near its mouth, but the description otherwise fits. Leicester also claimed to have built “the first frame dwelling in Superior” for trader and Duluth founder George Nettleton, and his letter mentioned known landmarks and other traders who arrived prior to Duluth’s establishment in 1856, lending more validity to his claim.

The problem is, no one who lived at the Head of the Lakes in the 1850s remembered Leicester, and no known records verify his claim. Leicester died in 1902, as did the Duluth Historical Society; consequently, his paper was never published. This doesn’t mean Leicester was lying, just that we can’t validate his claim.

So we may never truly know who the Lester River is named for. We also have no records of how Amity Creek got its name. Perhaps it is so-called for its “friendly relationship” with the Lester, with which it converges within Lester Park.

Addendum: Historian Warren Upham recorded the Ojibwe name for the Lester River as Busabikazibi, “river where water flows through a worn place in the rocks,” but I have not been able to verify this with an Ojibwe speaker/language expert. I would love to have a glossary of Ojibwe names for all of our local natural landmarks so we can use them more often. — TD