Local historian Tony Dierckins doesn't expect people to read his latest book from cover to cover.

Co-written with Nancy S. Nelson, "Duluth's Historic Parks: Their First 160 Years" is a comprehensive detailing of how the city's extensive park system developed. It's jam-packed with information, related side stories and historical photos, lithographs and postcard images. To say it is the definitive book on Duluth's parks is no exaggeration.

"It exceeds significantly anything else that's been produced," noted former Duluth city gardener Tom Kasper.

Because the book contains so much detail, Nelson and Dierckins suggest people read the book's introduction, an overview of the parks' history, then read about the parks they're interested in. But chances are, readers will soon return for more, whether it be to learn about the heyday of Lincoln Park, the popular St. Louis River excursion steamers of the late-1800s, or Chester Park's giant ski jumps.

The softcover book, published by Dierckins’ Zenith City Press and set for release Thursday, covers the beginnings and growth of the park system that, counting parkways and open spaces, now covers roughly one-fourth of the city, according to Dierckins.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The book tells of the civic leaders who envisioned a scenic boulevard extending across the hills of Duluth and connected to major parks. It tells the stories of the city's many smaller parks, its recreation areas, playgrounds and undeveloped green spaces. And, it introduces readers to the people who made it happen.

"People donated land and donated money. People maintained skating rinks,” Nelson said. “They were always running out of money. It was always driven by people."

Behind the story of Congdon Park, for example, was Chester A. Congdon. In 1904, he donated land along Tischer Creek for a linear park and paid for its landscaping to prevent the creek, which ran through his nearby London Road estate, from being used as a sewer.

Then there was future Mayor Samuel F. Snively who built his own scenic road in Duluth's eastern end when the city didn't extend Rogers Boulevard (later renamed Skyline Parkway) east of Chester Park.

In 1899, Snively started building his road, as well as bridges, along Amity Creek from Superior Street 2½ miles to his dairy farm near Jean Duluth Road. The road, which became known as Seven Bridges Road, opened in 1901. Snively didn't stop there, he extended the road west to Vermilion Road.

Nelson herself solved a mystery about the Forest Hill Cemetery that was located in the Lower Chester area from the 1880s to 1910 when it was moved to the new Forest Hill Cemetery along Woodland Avenue. The cemetery's brownstone receiving vault built in 1885 reportedly had also been moved to the new cemetery. But Nelson couldn't find it there. She later discovered it farther up Woodland, at the Temple Emanuel cemetery, where it had been relocated around 1910.

The book is the latest in a series published by Zenith City Press on local history. They include others written or co-written by Dierckins, including "Lost Duluth," “Crossing the Canal: An Illustrated History of Duluth's Aerial Bridge" and "Glensheen: The Official Guide to Duluth's Historic Congdon Estate." Zenith also provides daily history posts on Zenith City Online.

But "Duluth’s Historic Parks" was especially challenging for its authors. Twelve years in the making, it was a big, sprawling subject that at times seemed overwhelming. The city owns about 170 park properties, some established as early as the 1850s and some as recently as last year. The more Dierckins and Nelson learned, the more research they felt they needed to do.

"There's always more digging to do," Dierckins explained. "You could write a book about each park."

The idea for the book was Kasper's, who began researching park history about 15 years ago when he worked for the city. Spending many hours at the Duluth Public Library, he pored through old newspapers on microfiche.

"It's such a rich history, " Kasper said. "As I pieced together things, it became more and more fascinating."

But after five years of research, Kasper handed over his materials to Dierckins to move forward on a book with Nelson, a geologist and educator who had helped establish the Skyline Planning and Preservation Alliance.

Said Kasper: "I didn't have the time to put into it to make sure it was done right. And I'm certainly not a writer."

All told, about 70 people contributed in some way, from finding a picture to researching a topic to the extensive work done by Kasper. Because little had been previously written about the history of the park system, Dierckins and Nelson gleaned information from numerous sources, including park board and commission meeting minutes, annual reports, the library's history collection, public records as well as newspaper archives.

The story begins in 1856 before Duluth became a city. The first parks were one- or two-block platted squares reserved by township founders to be public green spaces. Among those first public squares were Cascade Park perched on a bluff above downtown, Central Park on the hillside west of downtown, Portland Square in East Hillside, and Lafayette and Franklin squares on Park Point.

Cascade Park near Sixth Street and First Avenue West was the grandest. In the late 1890s, it boasted a castle-like, tiered brownstone pavilion and bell tower with Clark House Creek flowing through it. With landscaping featuring gardens, trees and walkways, it was a popular place for picnickers. But heavy storms would wreak havoc on the park, causing flooding and damage, and the park fell into disrepair. Years later, the widening of adjacent Mesaba Avenue in the 1950s and 1970s took half the park, and the remaining structures were removed. The creek was sent underground. A concrete tower that stands today on the original structure’s foundation was built in the 1970s.

But the true beginnings of Duluth's park system was the work of the city's Board of Park Commissioners which existed from 1889 to 1913. Citizens serving on the five-member board were among the community's Who's Who. Its first president, William K. Rogers, proposed a park system for Duluth that would include a scenic drive across the city's hillside connected to major parks along streams that emptied into Lake Superior.

The park board, which had been given broad powers by the state, wasted little time acquiring the land needed for what would become Skyline Parkway between Miller Creek to the west and Chester Creek to the east. Construction of the parkway, on an ancient glacial beach high along the hillside, began in 1889. With funding garnered through taxes, assessments and loans, the park board made impressive progress during its 15 years.

"Over and over, they would buy the land while they could, saying they could develop it later," Nelson said.

The first leg of the future Skyline Parkway between Lincoln Park and Garfield Park (later renamed Chester Park) was completed two years later. But work continued to extend the parkway farther west. In 1912, it reached Fairmount Park in West Duluth.

Throughout the park board's existence, the whole park system grew. The expansion of the Skyline Parkway led to more parks. The city's first playgrounds were established and ice rinks were created around the city, maintained by citizens. It reflected the start of a focus shift to recreation

In 1913, a city re-organization shifted responsibility for the parks to the mayor and eliminated the park board and other citizen boards. From 1913 to 1956, the state of the city's parks depended a lot on who was mayor and their priorities, according to Dierckins.

Fortunately, the city's park system soon had champions in the mayor's office with Clarence Magney, serving from 1917 to 1920, and Snively who served from 1921 to 1937. Snively, a lover of nature, finished work Magney had begun and went on to leave an unparalleled legacy. With Snively at the helm and aided by his park superintendent, the scenic parkway was extended west to Jay Cooke State Park and east along Hawk Ridge toward Lester Park.

At 25 miles, it was declared complete and renamed Skyline Parkway. Hundreds of acres of undeveloped land in western Duluth were bought for additional parkland, including Bardon's Peak and forested land along Mission Creek. Picturesque stone bridges and connecting roads were built. Lester Park and Enger golf courses were built. The municipal zoo opened at Fairmount Park. Tourist camps were set up at Chester Bowl, Indian Point and Brighton Beach. Park improvements were made and field houses and athletic fields built.

Like the history of the city itself, the story of the city's park system was also affected by economic downturns.

"When the city has hard times, so do the parks," Dierckins said.

The exception, he noted, was during the Great Depression, when the Works Progress Administration (WPA) accomplished nearly all of the city's park improvements, including construction of new zoo buildings, playground field houses and a major restoration of Skyline Parkway.

Much changed after World War II - in a bad way, Dierckins said.

In 1956, the city changed to a strong mayor, nine-member council form of government. Budgets were cut. Parks were no longer a priority. Neglected, park facilities fell into disrepair into the 1980s, compounded by the region's economic hard times. Matters improved with the renaissance of the lakefront and construction of the Lakewalk that began under Mayor John Fedo in the 1980s. And in the past 25 years, people have shown a renewed interest in the city's parks, in restoring their historic features as well as creating new public spaces for activities and to relax.

Book spurs Duluth Parks Day

"Duluth's Historic Parks: Their First 160 Years" by Nancy S. Nelson and Tony Dierckins (Zenith City Press, 2017). Cost: $24.95.

The 256-page softcover book to be released Thursday is Illustrated with more than 300 historic sketches, lithographs and photographs. The book covers the creation and development of Skyline Parkway and the city's major historic parks - including Lincoln Park, Chester Park and Lester Park - as well as smaller parks, playgrounds and public sports venues, parkways and undeveloped parks. The appendix provides information about all 170 park properties.

The book's release will be celebrated from 7-8 p.m. Thursday at the Lake Superior Zoo Pavilion with a reception, book signing and presentation by the authors and proclamation read by Mayor Emily Larson. The event is free and open to the public. The authors will have another book signing from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Bookstore at Fitger's.

ln conjunction with the book's release, Thursday will be the first annual Duluth Parks Day, a day to celebrate the city's extensive park system.

"Duluthians love their parks," Parks Volunteer Coordinator Cheryl Skafte said in a statement. "Duluth Parks Day is an opportunity for people to show that love by visiting a park, hiking a trail or signing up to volunteer to clean up a park."

Future Duluth Parks Day celebrations will be held on the second Saturday in May.

Those who want to help clean up Duluth's parks this year are encouraged to help with the Riverfront Communities Clean-Up Day from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday. To sign up, contact Skafte at (218) 730-4334 or email cskafte@duluthmn.gov.

If you go

  • What: "Duluth's Historic Parks: Their First 160 Years" book release and signing
  • When: 7-8 p.m. Thursday
  • Where: Lake Superior Zoo Pavilion, 7210 Fremont St.

 

  • What: Book signing
  • When: 2 p.m. Saturday
  • Where: Bookstore at Fitger's, 600 E. Superior St.

 

  • What: Riverfront Communities Clean-Up Day
  • When: 9 a.m. to noon Saturday
  • Sign up: Call (218) 730-4334 or email cskafte@duluthmn.gov