Editor's note: Article updated March 7, 2012 to include who found the Duluth News Tribune article from Jan. 27, 1901. As Mark Atkinson leafs through the file of old newspaper clippings about Lakeside at the Duluth Public Library, he pauses when he sees a photo of the Lester River. He sets aside a 1896 photo showing the mouth of the river and sighs.
“I can tell you who every creek and river in Lakeside is named after except that one.”
For over 10 years, Atkinson, 49, has been trying to find out who inspired the name of both the Lester Park community and river.
Born and raised in Lester Park, he’s riffled through microfilm newspapers at the public library, studied historic documents, and talked with Lester Park residents.
Atkinson even created a map depicting the Lester Park sites that were encountered by U.S. government surveyors in 1856. He looked at the titles for the homes built by the Lakeside Land Company that still exist today to see if the name Lester appears on any of them.
All roads have led him back to that same stifling question – who was Lester? LakeVoice decided to follow along with the search.
“It became more of a nagging sort of thing,” said Atkinson. “I was tracking down all of these names at the library, but I could never pinpoint who Lester was. Everything that I would read would refer to him as an original settler.”
Many resources Atkinson has found say Lester was probably a French fur trapper who immigrated to the area, which he says may be true. Even so, Atkinson wants to know whether Lester was a first, middle, or last name, and what motivated the settler to come to Duluth.
During his search, Atkinson found an important tidbit of information. At the St. Louis County Surveyors Office, he uncovered the original handwritten notes of a U.S. government surveyor from 1856. In the notes, the surveyor refers to crossing the Lester River. That’s the oldest reference Atkinson has found.
“Somehow that name got conveyed to those surveyors,” Atkinson said. “For all I know, Lester could have been there a decade or more beforehand, but no one really knows who he is and where he came from. People don’t just drop here out of thin air.”
A LakeVoice reporter embarked on a search to help Atkinson uncover the answer. The first call was to Maryanne Norton, a volunteer historian at the Duluth Public Library, who said she knows nothing more than that Lester was a native settler of the area.
“I’ve looked up first names and last names from the history of that time but haven’t found anything,” Norton said. “It was supposedly someone who camped along the river there. It’s a mystery we’d like to solve, but we’re just at a standstill.”
Another call was made to Andrew Krueger, who operates the Duluth News Tribune Attic, a Duluth history blog. Though the information he had about the Lester River only dated back to the 1970s and 1980s, he directed the search elsewhere.
A stop at the Minnesota Historical Society’s “Minnesota Place Names” website confirmed what other sources said. Lester River was, in fact, named ‘in honor of a pioneer.’ This was confirmed time and time again by Duluthians on the Perfect Duluth Day website.
Yet, a Duluth News Tribune article from Jan. 27, 1901, that was uncovered by Mags David, of the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center, may give insight into who this mysterious settler was. The article says that the Duluth Historical Society was expecting a letter from a man named George Leicester, pronounced Lester, who claimed he lived in a cabin at the mouth of the Lester River.
According to the article, Leicester told the Duluth Improvement Association that the proper name of Lester River is Leicester River. He claimed that he was the first person to settle along the river and told the association how surprised he was that 100,000 people had come to reside in the area.
But Atkinson isn’t so quick to believe it. He’s heard similar stories that eventually get coined as myths, like the tale of a streetcar, told to Atkinson by a woman who said she knew for certain who Lester was.
The story says that the mayor of Duluth and city council members were looking for places to designate as parks and recreation areas. According to the story, they walked along the shore of the river and one of them said they needed to name it.
“The streetcar was a prevalent part of the story because the streetcar driver said, ‘How about Lester. It’s the name of my son. He was born yesterday,’” Atkinson said.
Yet, Atkinson said the first streetcar ran to Lakeside on Jan. 1, 1893, and that the river was referred to as the Lester River back in 1856 by the U.S. government surveyor.
A call to the Duluth City Clerk’s office confirmed that the Lester Park community was annexed into the city of Duluth in 1892. This means that the name Lester had to have been established before that time.
After a long-winded journey that began over old newspaper clippings at the public library, it seems no one has the definitive answer to who Lester was. The only concrete evidence is that he was an original settler of what is now Lester Park.
Atkinson continues to look for leads that may direct him to the answer. Talking with a storeowner in downtown Duluth one afternoon, he was approached by a man who said there was a notebook of his great-great-grandfather’s that refers to Lester in it.
As he waits for this piece of evidence to become available from the University of Wisconsin Superior, Atkinson can only wonder who this mysterious man was and hope that one day he will find out.
“He was definitely around sometime,” Atkinson said. “I just wish I could go back in time and find out.”
If you have any information that may help the community discover who Lester is, please share it with us.