Remembering Chester Congdon
By Kyle Chisholm
Even 100 years after his death, Chester Congdon’s legacy in Duluth is as strong as ever. Have you hiked along Duluth’s Tischer Creek or enjoyed the scenic beauty of Highway 61? Have you visited the Glensheen Mansion on one of our Duluth History & Sightseeing Bus Tours? With the growth of Duluth’s tourism industry, more and more people are enjoying these popular destinations and experiencing a piece of the Congdon Family legacy.
Related: Exploring Duluth’s Tischer Creek
Each of these locations – Tischer Creek, Scenic Highway 61, and the Glensheen Mansion – is tied back to one of Duluth’s most successful, famous, and well remembered persons: Chester A. Congdon. As the centennial of his passing arrives on November 21st, his story and the story of his family is still told through the various ways that his work continues to impact Duluth. We wanted to honor Mr. Congdon by remembering his last days and celebrating his long-lasting achievements.
An Immeasurable Loss
On November 21, 1916, Chester Congdon succumbed to pleurisy and complications of the heart, at the age of 63. Quite possibly first to report the news of his passing to the general population was that evening’s edition of The Duluth Herald.
Congdon had been in St. Paul on official business in his role as national committeeman of the Minnesota Republican Party and his support for the Hughes presidential campaign against President Woodrow Wilson. His plan was to proceed to the southwest after the election and hopeful victory of Republican candidate, Supreme Court Justice Charles Hughes. According to a Duluth News Tribune story the day after Congdon’s passing, he was so concerned about the election that he had stopped into their offices minutes before leaving for St. Paul on November 7th – eager to update himself on the count in California and convinced that votes in the southern part of the state would bring Hughes to victory.
Chester’s wife Clara presumptuously celebrated the assumed Hughes victory on the evening of November 8th over dinner with their son Walter and daughter-in-law Jessie (of the Hartley family). A victory she noted as “pretty sure of” in her journal but fate had different plans. Wilson would win the California vote and ultimately win re-election. Chester would fall ill on the 9th, checking himself into the St. Paul Hotel as a result of an illness that the Duluth News Tribune felt was brought on by his rigorous work during the campaign.
In her journal that day, Clara wrote about being telegraphed by Chester to come to St. Paul, as he was sick again. What specific ailment he’d suffered prior to this is hard discern from her journal but she noted that Chester’s illness seemed different than before. A “different pain, accompanied with fever.” At first, it didn’t seem like Chester’s current malady was life threatening. His condition from the 11th through 13th appeared fairly stable and improving. So much so that the doctor attending him (a Dr. Davis per Clara’s journal), allowed Chester to have more visitors (all of the Congdon children besides Marjorie and Robert).
November 14th, however, was “a bad day for Chester.” She noted the onset of heart troubles and that the doctor was no longer allowing visitors. Over the next few days his condition remained about the same, apparently monitored by two doctors at the time (Drs. Davis and Greene). Clara also complained about his room being very cold. On the 19th, Chester’s condition began to deteriorate significantly. She wrote that Chester was experiencing confusion and that his mind wandered. She sent for Marjorie, the eldest of the Congdon daughters, who was not yet present. On the 20th, Chester suffered what Clara described as a “collapse” and was even “without pulse” for a time. The next morning, her journal entry read:
“Tuesday. Cloudy. Chester’s heart ceased to be beat soon after 7 this morning & he looked so peaceful.”
And, just like that, Chester Congdon was gone.
A Most Philanthropic and Influential Citizen
Upon hearing of his death, Duluth Mayor William Prince submitted a glowing tribute to Chester. In it he mentioned the countless and various ways that Chester had helped the city of Duluth – counseling the city on various topics (all the time donated doing so), assistance with financial matters, and of course the public projects that Chester helped oversee such as Congdon Park and Congdon Boulevard (e.g., Highway 61).
“Duluth will miss Mr. Congdon,” stated Prince, “for his passing takes away one of its most philanthropic and influential citizens.”
Chester’s body was taken back to Duluth that evening aboard the private car of John H. McLean, general superintendent of the Oliver Mining Company. Once back in Duluth, Chester was laid to rest in the Congdon family plot in Forest Hill Cemetery, joining his son John who had passed away in the early 1890’s from scarlet fever.
I visited that plot just a few days ago. It was a cold, windy, overcast day that seemed fitting for walking through a historic cemetery. It took me a little longer than expected to find the Congdon Family resting place because some of the driving paths are closed, presumably still from the blow down damage from this past July’s storms. Once I did, though, I found myself as close to the Congdon family as I have ever been. And not just physically, but emotionally. Sure, I’ve read about Chester and the Congdons, guided tours for Glensheen and The Duluth Experience that highlights their legacy, and explored their gifts to Duluth. But, I had never visited their place of rest before and standing next to Chester was an impressive Celtic cross memorial. I felt sense of sadness come over me. I wonder what other projects he could have achieved in Duluth if he’d lived just a little while longer.
This November, though, let’s not be sad. Let’s be thankful to Chester and his family. Take a hike along the Congdon Park trails and Tischer Creek, take a drive up Congdon Boulevard to take pictures and skip stones. Join one of our History & Sightseeing Tours to learn more about his contributions to Duluth and visit the historic home that he and Clara built.
“Mr. Congdon’s desires for the people were, as everybody knows, almost utopian, so high were they. A few more Chester Congdons and hundreds less grafters in Minnesota political life, and this commonwealth would be the most splendid in the American Union.”
-The Duluth News Tribune, November 22 , 1916.