By Ben Johnson
Sam Snively stood at the top of a scenic ridge overlooking Lake Superior and gazed down through the maze of white pines dotting the banks of a rushing creek. It was some of the finest terrain he had ever laid eyes on. Snively would later write, “I was then impressed with the beauty of this stream, its winding course, its dells and falls...where in all this wide world could I find such a view as this?” He decided that this creek needed to be showcased, to be shared with residents of Duluth and its surrounding communities. A plan was hatched to build a road, criss-crossing the river 10 times on its leisurely descent down to Lake Superior.
There was much work to do. There was money to raise, other landowners to convince, trees to clear and bridges to build. A long, arduous task lay ahead, but Mr. Snively had the resources, connections, and gumption to make it happen. It was the spring of 1897.
Thousands of people streamed into Lester Park for a day of recreation and relaxation; it was another sunny Fourth of July in Duluth. Automobiles weaved along nine stone bridges on the newly-christened Amity Parkway. Snively's road was six miles long now and served as a gateway to the gurgling stream, towering pines and scurrying critters that populated Lester Park.
Children splashed in swimming holes underneath the bridges. Further down, anglers tried their best to snag a hungry trout just up from the fish hatchery at the mouth of Lester River. It had been 15 years since Snively's vision and the fruits of his, and other like-minded workers', labor had borne impressive results.
In the distance a steam-powered merry-go-round could be heard, along with music from Harmony Hall, a large dance hall situated next to a pavilion full of picnickers. Families soaked in the endless blue of Lake Superior on the top of a double-decker wooden bridge. On the lower level people strolled by, stopping to admire the rapids or dine on picnic tables.
The two-story, picturesque bridge was constructed of unpeeled cedar logs and sat directly above raging river rapids. It was the handiwork of Lester Park policeman and Civil War veteran John Busha, built in the spring of 1898 with help from his sons Abraham and George. It served as both the centerpiece of the park and one of the most iconic structures in Duluth; postcards bearing its image were bestsellers for years.
Through his binoculars a man watched, transfixed as the hawk calmly coasted high above the swaths of fierce oranges and deep crimsons that painted the hillside. The Hawk Ridge banding research station had opened a few years ago in 1972 and it attracted birdwatchers, ornithologists and nature lovers from across America.
Much further down, near the first bridge over Amity Creek, neighborhood kids laid out in the sun, soaking in the last scraps of summer. Later they would go to Bob Gunderson's food stand for burgers and a coke. The spot was known as The Deeps to people living in the area. Another pool, aptly named The Shallows, could be found on the eastern branch of the river.
Busha's bridge had been dismantled in 1931. The elegant wooden structure had seen too many of Duluth's harsh winters. The fish hatchery was out of commission as well, done in by 1946. It had been the first hatchery in Minnesota. Seven of Snively's bridges were still in use, although crumbling. The road was now most commonly known as Seven Bridges Road. Snively had gone on to become the longest-tenured mayor of Duluth, serving for 16 years in the 1920s and 1930s.
A parade of SUVs slid along the restored, snow-capped bridges, navigating in and out of the narrow parking lot. It was Wednesday night, and that meant hockey practice. The Lester Park Hockey Rink was chaos. Children in bulky padding and helmets zig-zagged around the rink as their coach, sparsely dressed in only jeans and a fleece, barked orders.
A few bridges down, a family of four set out on skis. Throughout the woods the familiar scrape-scrape, scrape-scrape, rhythm of skis sliding on the smooth snow could be heard. The Lester-Amity Ski Trail has 29 miles of trails and offers some of the best cross-country skiing in Duluth.
On the other side of the park the distant hum of a snowmobile's engine reverberated above the hardpack snow and around the sagging pines. There were several dirty trailers attached to several dirty trucks in the parking lot on the corner of Lester River Road and Superior Street. Nearby a playground stood, its slide and rocking horse buried under the weight of winter. Spring will come again soon.
For additional information regarding the history of Seven Bridges Road and Lester Park please visit: