Bike ride into the past: Duluth’s Lakewalk


By James Patrick Buchanan

Chapter One:  One citizen's viewpoint

"When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race." - H.G. Wells

Nearly every day from March until November, I make an honest effort to bicycle or walk on the Duluth Lakewalk. I prefer off-road, paved trails. Here, there is little chance of becoming road kill by an inattentive motorist. The Lakewalk has no steep hills to bike up or ride my brakes down. Unlike city streets, there are no recycling boxes or trash cans to avoid, no bike-eating potholes to avoid, and no possibility of running into someone's mailbox. I don’t have to dodge parked cars, or get my eardrums blasted by someone's thunderous car stereo.

Before each bike ride, I check the weather, inspect my Trek 800 Antelope bicycle, and fill up my bike's water bottle. I double-check to make sure that I have some money just in case I get a flat tire and need to take the city bus back home, and lastly do some warm-up stretching. Sometimes, I eat two containers of Dole-mandarins or orange gel. These tasty treats are rich in vitamin C and appear to give me about a 2 or 3 mile-per-hour increase in my overall speed for 20 to 30 minutes after I eat these.

What is it like to start a bike trek about noon from Lake Place Park and bike five miles to East 47th Avenue? I got really hungry and decided to eat lunch at Sammy's Pizza. You might say that my lunch was one of the best pizzas I have ever eaten.

Over the years, I've encountered many friendly people on the Lakewalk. Once, my bicycle chain slipped while I was shifting gears. While I was attempting to get the chain back on the gears, another bicyclist stopped and offered to help me. This man stayed with me until I had gotten my chain back on the gears and was able to pedal away.

Being a lifelong Duluthian, I have seen what the Lakewalk has become. I also knew what was before the Lakewalk was constructed.

Chapter Two:  Let's take an imaginary bicycle ride into the past, before the Lakewalk was real world asphalt, concrete, and wood.

"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self--reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel . . . the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood." - Susan B. Anthony

Before the construction of the Lakewalk, there were few public access points for people to enjoy Duluth's lakeshore. The shore could be accessed from four points: the Ship Canal, Leif Erikson Park, Lester River, and Brighton Beach. Ever since the 1970s, walking and bicycle advocates alike dreamt about a cross-town bike path. Unfortunately, their dreams only went as far as written proposals and lines wishfully drawn on city maps.

Walkers and bicycle riders made their own "informal foot paths" along the railroad tracks between Canal Park and Brighton Beach. The term "informal foot path" was coined by my father, a professional outdoor writer, to describe footpaths created by walkers and bicyclists where no official footpaths or bike paths exist.

However, the walkers or off-road bicyclists who used these informal paths were trespassing on private property. The private property was owned by railroads, small scale industry, warehouses, junkyards, and filled-in areas created by dumping the debris and rubble from demolished buildings. As a child, I saw this section of the lakeshore was littered with bits of carved stone, piles of broken bricks, and iron plumbing pipes. Where Lake Place Park now stands was a flat stretch of land, for a railroad yard and abandoned warehouses.

These informal paths were narrow and uneven. They were often muddy, and you had to pass through thick underbrush. Residents and tourists often walked along the active railroad tracks — which was dangerous and not to mention illegal. Only the brave and the bold chose to trespass across private property in order to reach the lakeshore for daytime fishing, swimming, and rock collecting. At night, these areas would transform into dark stretches of land that attracted lovers, underage drinking, graffiti artists, and drug dealers.  With the limited public access far fewer people visited the lakeshore than they do today.

During the 1970s, Canal Park was a declining industrial area and Grandma's Restaurant was the only popular destination in Canal Park for local citizens. The block-long parking lot between Canal Park Drive and South Lake Avenue used to be a major junkyard surrounded by an ugly fence and connected by a railroad spur. Canal Park was only a destination people drove through — not drove to.

Amy Norris, employed by the Duluth Parks and Recreation Department, told me that in the 1980s the first phase of the Lakewalk was the stretch on the lakeside shore of Canal Park to East 27th Avenue. It was constructed along with Interstate 35. Before the construction of the highway, the area was occupied by a railroad yard, warehouses, junkyards, and a few low-income homes.

In the 1980s, communities of all sizes and all over the world were rediscovering their waterfronts. Abandoned or underused industrial land was transformed into parks, restaurants, retail shops, and hotels. Following this worldwide trend, Duluth city planners revised a 100-year-old plan to create a world class park on Canal Park's lakeshore side. This park plan appears similar to today's Leif Erickson Park's Rose Garden.

In the end, the city never had enough money to construct the park as this plan proposed. City planners applied for and obtained federal grant money to build this project as a part of the 1986 Downtown Duluth Waterfront Plan. This plan proposed the Lakewalk, along with a number of other enhancements, to improve the quality of life for Duluth citizens. In 1992 and again in 1994, Lake Place Park won the Federal Highway Administration’s "Excellence in Highway Design" award.

The federal grant money was used to get waste rock to greatly extend the lakeshore and create the first phase of the Lakewalk. Without the waste rock, the city couldn’t have afforded to extend the lakeshore and build the Lakewalk on the expanded shoreline.

The Lakewalk’s official southern end is at Bayfront Festival Park, according to the Duluth Parks and Recreation webpage. The trail from Bayfront Festival Park to Canal Park is on existing concrete sidewalks. However, some city park maps show the southern end as the intersection of Morse Street and Canal Park Drive.The first section of the Lakewalk was constructed from Canal Park to East 21st Avenue. Later the trail extended to East 27th Avenue. The Lakewalk now actually ends 20 blocks. However, interesting to note, many websites have not been updated and still show the trail's northern end at 27th Ave. East.

The technical terms used by architects and city planners to describe the Lakewalk is a greenway or a linear park. These are parks are longer than they are wide, They were designed for recreational use and non-motorized transit. Such long and narrow parks are common throughout the world — the most famous being the Promenade Plantée in Paris, France; the High Line in New York City, and the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis.

However, the Canal Park section of the Lakewalk is unique in the world in having three trails constructed along the same corridor. The first trail is a 7-foot wide boardwalk that is intended for pedestrians, which starts at Canal Park and ends the Fitger’s Inn pedestrian bridge. The second trail is a 10-foot-wide asphalt trail, intended for bicyclists and roller-bladers. The third trail is a 12-foot wide gravel path for carriage rides that extend from the corner of the Lake Park to Morse Street.

The Lakewalk attracts more than one million visitors each year, according to Tom Kasper,  the Duluth city gardener. The Lakewalk has become a world class showcase, a world away from what was not so long ago underused industrial property. It has become a signature for the city of Duluth. It plays an important role in keeping Duluth citizens healthy, while giving them a safe path to bicycle or walk to downtown employment. Currently, this section of the trail is now 6.2 miles long.

Think of the Lakewalk as part city sidewalk, part scenic drive. For people walking along some parts of London Road, the Lakewalk is the only direct way to go from one avenue to another. On East Superior Street, it provides a much needed second sidewalk. Compared to city sidewalks, the Lakewalk offers a shorter and safer route connecting major Duluth parks, hotels, restaurants, and shops.

Chapter Three: Bicycle into the future

"For instance, the bicycle is the most efficient machine ever created: Converting calories into gas, a bicycle gets the equivalent of three thousand miles per gallon." - Bill Strickland

This year, city planners hope to extend the Lakewalk to East 60th Avenue. In 2011, the city has plans for an extension of the Willard-Munger Trail. The trail will run from West 75th Avenue to Canal Park, linking up with the Lakewalk.  In 2012, the fourth Lakewalk phase will connect East 60th Avenue to Highway 61. I suspect that longtime walking and bicycle advocates will be very happy that their vision of a paved, off-road, cross-town trail will finally be complete on the day the fourth and last section of Duluth's Lakewalk officially opens.

Albert Einstein once wrote, "Life is like riding a bicycle in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving."

Duluth must keep on moving forwards into the future and keep building bicycle pathways to connect all Duluth neighborhoods into one bicycle network.

Within a few years, I can imagine that Duluth will become a cycling utopia.

Chapter Four:  Dairy Queen delight

"Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride." - John F. Kennedy

After I get back to Canal Park, I usually reward myself with a large ice cream cone at Dairy Queen. I bicycle uphill to my apartment, and carry my bike into the building and into my apartment. I park my bike besides my window overlooking the Canal Park. I drink some water or orange juice and do a little stretching.

While I write these words, I can see both my bike in the foreground and the Lakewalk in the background. Unlike some bicyclists, I do not have a pet name for my bicycle. Yet, when I'm maintaining my bike, sometimes I talk to it about our next bike ride.

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