If you're riding or driving up the shore, past Brighton Beach, Bristol Beach, the water plant, McQuade Harbor and Stony Point, clear to Knife River, you might not realize you're traveling over land owned by the city of Duluth the whole way. The city's ownership of Congdon Boulevard, aka old Scenic Highway 61 — and a right of way that extends down to the lakeshore for much of the route — doesn't quit at the city limits. It runs clear to the Lake County line.

Danielle Erjavec, a property services specialist for the city of Duluth, said the extended ownership is a product of the early 1900s.

"It was Chester Congdon, who really had a vision for an international highway all the way from Duluth up the North Shore to Canada," she said.

"So, he helped acquire the land. And when he was in the Legislature he helped pass a special law that the city could own property outside of city limits. So, once that passed., the city was allowed to acquire all that real estate," Erjavec said.

A bill Congdon ushered through the Minnesota Legislature gave "cities of the first class" — Minneapolis, Duluth and St. Paul, at the time — the ability to annex land outside of city limits for transportation projects, according to "Duluth's Historic Parks" by Nancy Nelson and Tony Dierckins. Congdon used the legislation to assemble the land he needed to build a new road, which he dubbed the Lake Superior International Highway.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

For a while, the Minnesota Department of Transportation oversaw the road as a state highway, before the construction of the four-lane Highway 61 Expressway to Two Harbors. After the bypass was built, however, MnDOT handed control of scenic old Highway 61 back to Duluth.

Over time, the road has required extensive and expensive upkeep that would have strained Duluth's resources. That's where St. Louis County has come to the rescue.

Under an informal agreement that has been in place for years, Duluth has retained responsibility for maintaining Congdon Boulevard from Brighton Beach to McQuade Harbor, and St. Louis County has borne responsibility for plowing and keeping up the road from McQuade to the Lake County line.

Steve Krasaway, an engineer for St. Louis County, said the city's ownership stake creates an extra level of complexity when it comes to maintaining the highway, however.

Erjavec explained that in order for St. Louis County to obtain federal funding for road improvements, it needs to show that it has the necessary real estate interests in the land. "Hence, since the real estate is in the city's name, the county needs an easement in its favor to spend those funds," she said.

A motorist drives on Scenic Highway 61 near the French River. St. Louis County replaced the French River bridge this year, paying for the project in part with sales tax revenues. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
A motorist drives on Scenic Highway 61 near the French River. St. Louis County replaced the French River bridge this year, paying for the project in part with sales tax revenues. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The county is currently wrapping up about $5 million in improvements to Congdon Boulevard, replacing the French River bridge and upgrading the wayside stop there.

Next year, the county aims to invest another $1 million to $1.5 million at the Greenwood Road turnoff just north of McQuade. Krasaway said the project will include the installation of a concrete wall pinned into the bedrock to halt erosion that is encroaching on the road. and a set of stairs down to Greenwood Beach.

St. Louis County plans to spend about $1.5 million next year to deal with erosion issues along Scenic Highway 61near the Greenwood Road. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
St. Louis County plans to spend about $1.5 million next year to deal with erosion issues along Scenic Highway 61near the Greenwood Road. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

In order to facilitate the improvements at the French River crossing, as well as at Greenwood Beach, the city has granted the county permanent easements for the involved road and right of way.

So, why doesn't the city of Duluth just relinquish ownership of the Congdon Boulevard corridor to the county? Erjavec explained that would involve extensive legal work, in terms of updating land records and surveying the property involved.

She also noted that along portions of the route, the right of way under the city's control extends to the waterside.

"The city has a big interest in preserving and maintaining parks. And the Scenic Highway is treated a lot like a parkway, more than just a highway. So, I think there would be value the city would see in still owning that property to make sure that those areas outside of the highway itself are there and preserved for the public," Erjavec said.

In 1933, Duluth Park Superintendent F. Rodney Paine lauded the Congdon Boulevard project for preserving 230 acres of land, including 8.8 miles of lake frontage, according to a speech referenced in "Duluth's Historic Parks."

Krasaway said that if the city ever acquires full control of the road and right of way, he believes it, too, will prove a good steward of the property.

"I think the county and the city are exactly aligned on the thought of preserving that whole right of way and for maintaining access," he said. "Frankly, the city of Duluth is just glad they don't need to pay to maintain the road and that infrastructure. So, they're happy the county is doing it, because it's an old road and things are falling apart and facing damage from the waves."