Exploring Duluth’s History: Cascade Park
By Kyle Chisholm
History Tour Program Coordinator
You might consider Duluth’s Cascade Park as having a split personality. It’s certainly a park with an interesting character arc: the substantial investments in its development and subsequent redevelopments – a park forgotten and abused – a premier city park with a beautiful view – a wasteland worth ignoring or (worse) disposing refuse in.
In the 1880s the park was nothing more than a dumping ground for rock and fill. In 1891, however, work began to transform the land into something beautiful. By 1895, Cascade Park was born: elegant flower beds, beautiful rain gardens, meandering walkways, castle-like stone structures, impressive views, and an iconic stone waterway that directed the flow of Clark House Creek. It was a beautiful place to escape the smoke and industry of Duluth’s harbor. Google the park and you’ll find all kinds of old photographs and post cards depicting the park’s grandeur.
During the floods that ravaged Duluth in June of 2012, Clark House Creek exploded from underneath the park stairs. Sadly, this has been a reoccurring event throughout the park’s history. Heavy rains have damaged the park since the late 1890s. At first, the city was obliged to repair the park whenever it was damaged. The park was quite popular then. Over time, however, Cascade Park dropped down the priority list. I spoke with Nancy Nelson a scholar of Duluth park history for Zenith City Press at a recent history talk at the Glensheen Mansion. Nancy believes the decline was threefold: the expense of park maintenance, the development of more city parks, and the increased availability of automobiles that made expanded city travel more accessible. She feels that the park was on the decline as early as the 1920s. By the 1950s it was a complete mess and mostly abandoned, as reported in September 1953 by the Duluth Herald. Approximately half of the park’s real estate was sacrificed for the Mesaba Avenue expansion in the 1970s. Many of its iconic stone structures and retaining walls were demolished or buried. It was a true loss. Clark House Creek was also entombed underground, only to emerge during the 2012 flooding.
Thankfully, new life was breathed into the park with the addition of picnicking spots, repaired walkways, and the return of a pavilion roof in the 1970s. However, it’s been 40+ plus years since those improvements and the park has returned to a state of decay. Once again, the park is considered by many as a dumping ground for garbage. Volunteers (usually residents near the park) work hard to keep the park from getting out of hand, as reported in 2014 by the Duluth News Tribune.
Even with the valiant efforts of local caretakers there are structural issues that need to be addressed: rusted, broken and non-functional lights, disappearance of picnic tables and grills, the historic 1895 park plaque is all but weathered away and, most worrisome, continuous water flow down the hill on the eastern side of the park. It’s reducing the hillside to a swamp while walkways crack and buckle from constant standing water – seepage and deposition of organic debris is constant.
Cascade Park is a park that deserves attention once again. Despite the wear and tear, the park still offers a great view, displays some lovely old trees, and provides what could be a beautiful and safe green space for the residents of the hillside community. There’s even a Geocache nearby, if you’re into that sort of thing. Most of all, though, it’s Duluth history and that is reason enough.