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Park plans reveal new misstep to burial disturbance in Fond du Lac neighborhood

Historical Park in Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood could increase in size as St. Louis County commissioners consider transferring tax-forfeited parcels to the city. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Visible upstream from Historical Park is Biauswah Bridge, named after an Ojibwe chief who gave his life around 1710 to save his son. The bridge's name honors all Native American veterans who fought and sacrificed for their people. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 3
A 97-year-old plaque at Historical Park recounts some of Fond du Lac’s historic highlights, including being the site of an Ojibwe village, a fur-trading post, and a treaty signing site, and a 1679 visit by the French explorer for whom Duluth is named. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Looking out onto the water from Duluth's little known Historical Park, one can see islands on the St. Louis River once used as an encampment by indigenous people. There are remnants of dock pilings near the riverbank formerly used by a riverboat touring company nearly a century ago.

During the early settlement of Duluth, the park located in the Fond du Lac neighborhood was a bustling trading post.

Today, the park is used for shoreline fishing and launching personal watercraft in the warmer months, but it's mostly desolate in winter.

On Tuesday, the St. Louis County Board will transfer seven parcels of land surrounding the park to the city of Duluth, which plans upgrades to the park as part of its mini-master plan for parks along the river.

The transfer is part of the County Board's consent agenda, meaning there are no hang-ups and the conveyance of little more than half an acre of tax-forfeited land amounts to a slam dunk. For the city, the transaction marks the start of the park's upgrade.

"It's step one," said interim assistant parks and recreation manager Lisa Luokkala, who described the city's intentions as modest. Preliminary plans are to make the shoreline more resilient to erosion and provide greater historical interpretation at the site. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is partnering with the city on that and other projects along the river.

"We're participating in the parks system down there in Duluth because that was an original homeland for us," tribal environmental director Wayne Dupuis said. "The St. Louis River estuary was like a mecca for the Ojibwe. You had everything you wanted there — fish, rice and so forth."

The park is one of 26 parks which have been upgraded or are scheduled to be improved using $18 million set aside in 2015. At the time, Historical Park, located 14 miles from downtown Duluth, might have been viewed as the most obscure project on the list as the city worked to leverage its tourism tax dollars into $50 million in improvements throughout western Duluth.

But a failed highway project altered that viewpoint.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation had intended to replace the state Highway 23 bridge over Mission Creek in 2017. When excavators encountered a Native American burial site in June 2017, the $3.1 million project was immediately put on hold.

The incident has changed how some people look at the neighborhood and its rich history, Luokkala said.

"There's a greater desire for the neighborhood to interpret this history of the community that maybe wasn't as prevalent in 2015 when we initiated the master plan," Luokkala said. "There is a sense of urgency. The need to explain and interpret the cultural significance of the neighborhood has increased since the MnDOT burial ground disturbance."

The city, in 2015, commissioned an archaeological survey of Historical Park in preparation for park improvements. The resulting report is a rich blend of literature related to the neighborhood and simple shovel tests conducted on the parcels being given to the city which surround the half-acre park. The survey also radiates with knowledge of the neighborhood as a whole.

The first page of the study, conducted by the Duluth Archaeology Center, reveals that in addition to historical features and structures in the park, "the unknown possibility of burials is also strong."

The work being proposed on the park would not use the sort of heavy equipment which could disturb gravesites, Luokalla said. Additionally, the survey notes that shovel tests of the land turned up stoneware, wire nails and even remnants of structures, including residences and an ice house. But there was nothing identifiable as Native American artifacts and "no evidence indicative of an Ojibwa village ... it is more likely to be present west of the project area," said the survey.

But there was a telling notation on page 13.

"When Minnesota State Highway 23 was constructed through Fond du Lac," the survey read, "several shallow graves were exposed."

It was not news to Dupuis, who noted multiple cemetery disturbances throughout the history of the Fond du Lac neighborhood — some even before construction began in the 1920s on the 344-mile Highway 23.

"In 1870, carrying out Manifest Destiny, they began construction of a railroad going from there to the West Coast," Dupuis said. "They unearthed hundreds of graves from that spot. In 1939, they probably uncovered 30 (more) burials. I don't know what they did with those bodies."

But the survey commissioned by the city in 2015 — one outlining much of the sensitive and historic nature of the Fond du Lac neighborhood — never made it into MnDOT hands prior to the start of its project in May 2017, the agency confirmed.

The projects are within a few hundred feet of one another. The park is at the end of the block-long 133rd Avenue West, which terminates at the river on one end and intersects with Highway 23 at the other.

When the News Tribune asked about the study on Monday, MnDOT spokesperson Stephanie Christensen, who has been assigned to ongoing burial recovery work at the site, addressed the issue.

"MnDOT had an impact process in place that we followed for the original project on the Mission Creek Bridge," she said. "However, there were gaps in that process that changed the way we will handle projects going forward."

It's nothing new, in the silos of government, for one hand to not know what the other hand is doing. But how two projects so closely hewed to a historic neighborhood missed one another seems confounding.

"MnDOT has taken full responsibility that they did not do that work initially," Christensen said. "There's a lot of regret on MnDOT's part that we didn't delve further into that. It's been a good learning opportunity, because going forward we don't ever want to do that again."

Dupuis addressed MnDOT's continued responsibility for the latest incident.

"They've done what they can to accommodate the recovery," Dupuis said. "Everybody we're working with from MnDOT has been very sad that it happened."

For the city's part, work on Historical Park is far enough into the future as to not yet be scheduled. There are matching grant funds which need to be pursued, as well as a final plan for what park improvements will ultimately look like, Luokkala said.

"We're very much aware that this area is culturally significant," she said.

As far as MnDOT is concerned, the appearance of an archaeological survey which could have helped it avoid a dark chapter serves as another stinging reminder.

"The original project has been canceled," Christensen said. "It's no longer feasible that we can complete that project. We will have to begin again, but not until we complete burial recovery efforts."

There is no timeline for recovery efforts, but Christensen called progress good and a summer finish within the realm of possibility. After that sensitive work concludes, she said the slope in the cemetery area will be stabilized and boundaries of the cemetery will need to be delineated. Only then will project planning and the construction process begin anew.

"The project will remain on hold indefinitely so cemetery recovery and restoration efforts can be completed," Christensen said. "Once recovery and restoration efforts have been completed we will restart the project development process to address the Mission Creek Bridge."