Exploring Duluth’s History: Incline Pavilion

By Kyle Chisholm

History Tour Program Coordinator

Beacon Hill Pavilion

Beacon Hill Pavilion (right), with the top station of the incline (center) and one of the incline cars (left) – Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

This past weekend, I went looking for one of Duluth’s lost historical places – the Incline Hilltop Pavilion (also known as Beacon Hill Pavilion) – a place that, upon its grand opening celebration in 1893, drew 16,000 people. The Pavilion offered impressive views, picnicking, a restaurant and a 2,000 seat theater for vaudeville shows and other performances and was built as a way to promote the newly developed Duluth Heights neighborhood. Duluthians could now live on top of the hill and have convenient transportation to their jobs downtown via the 7th Avenue West Incline – a pair of counterbalanced 41 x 15 foot cars large enough to carry horses and passengers that rode along a track from Superior Street to the Pavilion. The steam-powered “Incline” was built in 1891.

I knew roughly where it was already, as anyone can find Hilltop Park with Google Maps. But I’d read about another route to the site – traversing the remains of a stairway that once followed the Incline to the top of the hill. What I really wanted to find were structural remains that had survived since the building’s demise.

It’s hard to say for sure, but I believe I found the foundation to an entryway for the Pavilion, just below where the main tower would have stood. It was a square-shaped foundation with multiple footings for the insertion of structural posts.

Stairs Pavilion

Stairs at the likely entrance to the Incline Pavilion

Pavilion Entrance Foundation

Squared structure – possibly the entrance to the Pavilion

Pavilion Footings

Footings for structural posts

Most importantly, this foundation had stairs, suggesting it was an area people once used (like an entryway).

This was definitely not part of the incline or the powerhouse, as those structures were to the west of this location, as the old stairway still marks today. Here’s a photo of the original structure (I’ve labeled the Incline, powerhouse and Pavilion tower for reference).

Incline Pavilion Layout

Incline Pavilion Layout – Photo: Funimag Photoblog

I found some other interesting artifacts while poking around this archeological find. Further to the east, there is a outcropping of rock that was once part of the overall park. Within a section of it, I found stairs carved from the rock.

Pavilion Rock Stairs

Stairs carved in stone

I also stumbled across a Geocache! I didn’t take anything from the cache, but I did leave a log entry. It appears that I’m the first one to have found it since September of 2013. No, I won’t tell you where it’s hidden… you’re gonna have to find it for yourself!

Pavilion Geocache

Pavilion geocache

So what happened to this place?

On May 28, 1901, a fire broke out in the incline powerhouse. One of the cars detached, plummeting all the way down to the lower side of Superior St. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Unfortunately, the Pavilion had a different fate. The fire quickly spread from the powerhouse to the pavilion, which was mostly constructed of wood, and consumed it. Repairs were later made to the Incline, but not the Pavilion.

Post-fire photograph of the Pavilion - Photo: Funimag Photoblog

Post-fire photograph of the Pavilion – Photo: Funimag Photoblog

It’s been almost 114 years since that fire so it’s amazing anything of the site remains. It’s there and you should consider a visit. You’ll need to make your way through an overgrown mess of fallen trees, thorn bushes, and garbage piles. But if you do, you’ll find some amazing historical remnants of a unique piece of Duluth’s historical legacy. Hilltop Park is a neat place to explore – just make sure you bring good shoes, rugged clothing, and a camera.

If you’re interested in learning more about Duluth’s rich history, check out our two History Bus Tours or our Zenith City Walking Tour!

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1 Comment

Laurie S Mattson July 2, 2018

Hi! I just came across your story ..I love searching up there, too! I’ve found many artifacts, such as shards of plates, bottle pieces, nails, door hinge… Even a small bullet. I’ve dug there in the fall for a few years now.. Just below the berm where the Pavilion must’ve been. The concrete step area could’ve been the entrance. I also wonder if it was the platform where the balloon rides took place?

Thank-you for bringing this historic place back to life, if only for a moment! If you’d like to see my pics, let me know, David.