Northlandia: The Duluth park that honors a historic street surface

15 July 2023

DULUTH This city’s streets are infamous for their potholes.

But in the early 1900s, several streets in the Chester Park neighborhood were ahead of their time in quality and durability as they were the first streets in Minnesota paved with concrete.

Today, Granitoid Memorial Park a small triangular park and garden where 25th Avenue East, Seventh Street, Clover Street and Irving Place meet serves to keep the memory of the unique method of road construction alive.

Patented in 1907 and installed in Duluth in 1909 and 1910, the method was among the first designed for automobiles. But since horses and buggies were still being used, it needed to accommodate both.

The street is marked with rectangles, but those are not faux bricks. Instead, the grooves were scored into the surface before it hardened to provide “footholds for the horses’ shoes,” according to the Granitoid patent on display at the park.

But at about the same time these streets were built, the Ford Model T was taking off, ushering in the era of families being able to afford a car.

“The horse and buggy quickly went away and there really was no need for this type of product that accommodated both horse and buggies and cars,” said Carolyn Sundquist, who lives on Sixth Street and led the effort to preserve the streets when they faced being replaced with asphalt in 2000.

Sundquist and her neighbors spent four years trying to save the streets.

Ultimately, the original Granitoid surface remains on a two-block stretch of Seventh Street, between 26th Avenue East and Wallace Avenue, though it is heavily patched with asphalt today. It’s believed to be the second-oldest concrete street remaining in the U.S., after a 1891 road in Ohio.

And in 2004, the Granitoid surfaces along several blocks of East Seventh Street, Irving Place and Clover Street were replaced with a replicated concrete design based off the old patent.

But East Sixth Street, which was in the worst condition, didn’t survive. It is now paved in asphalt.

“That was a tough summer,” said Sundquist.

Granitoid Memorial Park also underwent a transformation in 2004.

What was once just a couple plaques on a pedestal in the middle of a sea of grass has been turned into a community garden, complete with interpretive signs about historic streets. Old slabs of Granitoid street are now used for stairs and to hold the park’s sign.

Several of those pieces were removed directly in front of Anita Stech’s house on Sixth Street prior to it being paved with asphalt.

Stech, the former president of the Longview Garden Club, led the efforts to revamp the park. She said the park and garden have served as a “peacekeeper” among neighbors who were once deeply divided over whether to keep or replace the street surfaces. Now, neighbors pitch in to help weed and water the garden.

The park also serves as the gathering place for the neighborhood’s annual National Night Out event, which will be held again Aug. 1 from 6-8 p.m.

“Once we got the garden, everybody’s working together. Nobody cared who was on what side of the blacktop versus preservation wars,” Stech said. “It was interesting.”

Neighbors on both sides spoke out at highly contentious public meetings.

“It’s a piece of cement,” one neighbor said in 2000, according to a News Tribune article at the time. “People drive on it to get to work and to school. This is a lovely neighborhood, but whether or not we have etched lines in the cement does not improve our quality of life. We can’t even drive on our own street, our hubcaps fall off.”

Beyond its historical value, Stech said the rough road surface also served another purpose: controlling traffic speed.

Today, driving more than 15 mph on the two-block section of the original Granitoid on Seventh Street feels too fast.

It’s riddled with asphalt patches, but there hasn’t been any recent talk about replacing it.

“Hopefully, that 1910 Granitoid will last many, many, many more years,” Sundquist said. “And frankly, I would like to think that the residents of Seventh Street like it because it provides natural traffic calming. … If for some reason it ever does reach its demise, I would hope that that stretch would be redone using the Granitoid patent like Irving Place and around the park has done.”

“Because this is truly a significant part of Minnesota and frankly national history,” Sundquist said. “Because it’s just such an important story in the history of transportation in the United States.”


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