Duluth’s former Western Waterfront Trail got a new name last year, Waabizheshikana (pronounced "wah-ba-zhay-she-kuh-nuh") — Ojibwe for the Marten Trail, in honor of the Indigenous Marten Clan that first carved trails through the landscape.
While many locals are still getting used to the unfamiliar new name, Parks Department Manager Jess Peterson noted that it’s really not any longer than its original moniker, which is also a mouthful.
Get used to hearing "Waabizheshikana," though, because there’s been lots of talk of late about ambitious plans to more than triple the trail’s length and to install a host of interpretive elements that tell the history of the area.
When completed, what is now a 3.3-mile multi-use path will stretch 7 miles farther, clear from Irving to Fond du Lac.
In her State of the City address Monday night, Mayor Emily Larson praised plans for Waabizheshikana and pledged the interpretive trail “will share the stories of the diverse people of the region and lessons the river can teach us.”
“This trail embodies the type of equitable development and storytelling narrative that will become our standard — a model for other city projects combining recreation, community building, economic development and an honest telling of history,” Larson said.
Duluth City Council President Renee Van Nett, who is the first Indigenous woman to occupy that leadership position, said the recent Anishinaabe recognition comes after years of neglect.
She said many people of her heritage are all too used to feeling left out and overlooked by society, so just being recognized and acknowledged by the city means something.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Van Nett said.
“I definitely appreciate them giving people some history with this trail, because we’re not teaching all that stuff in schools. That’s not happening. But if we can do that through our public spaces, that’s helpful,” Van Nett said.
The trail’s story poles, placards, pause points, artwork and overlooks will trace the evolution of the area and its people, from precolonial times, through the fur-trading days, to the industrialization of the riverscape, and the ensuing efforts to clean up and reclaim a degraded natural resource.
It delves into Indigenous history, as well as the waves immigrants drawn to the area — people who struggled but also contributed to the economic growth and revitalization of the area.
Peterson said the interpretive trail won’t shy away from some of the riverway’s difficult chapters.
“This interpretive plan carefully balances the stories of ‘success’ and positivity surrounding the river, the estuary and the people who have inhabited this space for centuries," Peterson said. "And it does acknowledge that some of that history was not positive, that we are recognizing that, and that we are not hiding it or turning away from it, but instead wanting to learn from it."
A plan for the interpretive trail said it will be “designed from a material palette drawn from the natural estuary and from products of the industries that made the city of Duluth.
The document goes on to say: “When people see Ojibwe plant and animal names engraved into steel, for example, they are seeing different cultures juxtaposed and joining together at the same time.”
A portion of the trail will share its right of way with the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, the first rail line to serve the city of Duluth. It’s now operated as a volunteer tour line, but will be forced to pause service to allow for a massive Superfund cleanup of contamination at the former U.S. Steel Duluth Works to be completed.
Senior Parks Planner Cliff Knettel said the interpretive trail will be developed in seven separate sections. The finished, 8-foot-wide, crushed-stone path will be wheelchair accessible and is expected to cost about $4.9 million to construct, plus another $575,000 for the interpretive elements.
Knettel said the timeline for the project will depend on available funding. The city is completing work on a grant application due in April. If that funding comes through, he said work could begin as soon as 2023.
The total project could take five to 10 years to complete, and Peterson said it likely won’t be built in a sequential fashion, continuous fashion.
“Each segment that’s called out in the mini-master plan is unique in its geography, terrain and property ownership, making some segments more construction-ready than other segments," she said. "So, depending on the funding packages that we’re able to put together, and the timelines associated with those funding packages, it is likely that we will not build each segment side-by-side-by-side. But we will take those that are most construction-ready and best-matched with the funding sources available to us to piece the trail together over a number of years.
Knettel said the city already owns most of the property needed to accommodate the path but must still work to acquire some pieces right of way, including passage through tax-forfeited property.
Peterson said the interpretive trail plan dovetails with a water trail plan for the area.
“So you have the opportunity to combine land-based recreation with water-based recreation with really deep and rich storytelling through the interpretive elements, that we believe will make this a very attractive packaged project for future funders,” she said.