[NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on September 9, 2020]
This past July the Duluth News Tribune ran a story about efforts to bolster the sand beach along Minnesota Point south of the Duluth Ship Canal. The headline read “Work begins to heal Park Point’s shoreline.” Similarly, a recent story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune covering the same issue stated that Park Point was “also called Minnesota Point.” Both stories contained solid reporting, but they both included an inaccuracy that even life-long Duluth residents are sometimes guilty of, confusing Park Point with Minnesota Point.
So I pose this question in the name of all those who have asked before me: What’s the difference between Minnesota Point and Park Point?
Park Point and Minnesota Point are not synonymous. Minnesota Point is a sandbar (technically, a bay-mouth bar) that stretches from roughly Michigan Street to the Superior Entry. Park Point is a neighborhood located on Minnesota Point between the ship canal and the Minnesota Point Recreation Area, which begins at 4600 Minnesota Avenue.
So while all of Park Point is on Minnesota Point, not all of Minnesota Point is Park Point.
Adding to the confusion is the city’s Parks Department, which long ago posted a sign at 4300 Minnesota Avenue—three blocks from the entrance to the Minnesota Point Recreation Area—reading “Park Point.” When construction of the park began in 1936, speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives George W. Johnson — Duluth’s mayor from 1945 to 1953 — addressed this very problem. He reminded the community that while the term Park Point was commonly used for the entire sandbar, “it is proper that the location [of the park] be known as Minnesota Point.”
So how did part of Minnesota Point become Park Point? In 1856, a town called Middleton was platted along Minnesota Point south of today’s ship canal to 38th St. S. The next year Middleton joined four other towns centered on the point (and including much of today’s downtown) which together incorporated as the town of Duluth. When the first cut of the canal was completed in 1871, Minnesota Point south of the canal became an island.
From that moment on residents living south of the canal continually lobbied Duluth’s civic leaders to build a permanent bridge over the waterway. But the city was hit hard by the Financial Panic of 1873, and in 1877 Duluth was forced to reorganize as a village to avoid bankruptcy — it did not have the funds to build a bridge.
Fed up, in 1881 those living south of the canal ceded from Duluth and formed their own village, giving it a name already commonly used by locals: Park Point. (Fun Fact: the legislation creating the Village of Park Point included a typo, and the new community was almost called “Bark Point.”)
When Duluth regained its city status in 1887, state legislation allowed the city to annex Park Point, but many of the village’s residents wanted to remain independent. Some, in fact, considered Park Point’s pending annexation an act of aggression. Duluth’s industrialists wanted to develop the bay side of the point as they had the eastern shore of Rice’s Point, building a system of wharves and warehouses. They calculated they could create twenty-two linear miles of dock space to serve factories operating all along Minnesota Point. Most Pointers opposed the idea.
So they took the matter to court, calling the annexation unconstitutional. They argued in part that, once the canal was dug, the mouth of the St. Louis River had shifted from the Superior Entry to the Duluth Ship Canal, moving the state line and thereby making Park Point part of Wisconsin. The Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed, settling the case in Duluth’s favor in January 1890. (Park Point’s southern border was extended to 46th St. S. by 1910)
Historian Walter Van Brunt later suggested that Pointers weren’t satisfied until a deal was struck addressing the central reason the community left Duluth in the first place, writing that “Finally, being promised a bridge, rather informally and not truly officially perhaps, [the Pointers] surrendered.”
It took Duluth another fifteen years to make good on its “promise” of a bridge. That bridge, of course, turned out to be the Duluth Aerial Transfer Bridge, built in 1904-1905 and converted into today’s lift bridge in 1929-1930.
And because the transfer bridge could not carry an entire train over the canal—it could only haul one car at a time, limited to 65 tons of weight—Minnesota Point was not industrialized. So today much of the sandbar remains, as the Duluth News Tribune described it in 1900, “a penciled eyebrow on the face of nature.”