A bike rack shaped like a Viking ship at the base of a pedestrian bridge, with Lake Superior in the background.

Bike Ride into the Past: A History and Celebration of Duluth’s Lakewalk

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 roadkill due to 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, trash cans, or 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 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 mph increase in my overall speed for 20 to 30 minutes after eating them.

People strolling on the boardwalk section of the Lakewalk, with buildings on the left and the rocky lakeshore on the right.
I found many people enjoying a spring walk on the Lakewalk in Canal Park.

What is it like to start a bike trek about noon from Lake Place Park (Gichi-ode’ Akiing) and bike five miles to East 47th Avenue? Well, I got really hungry from the ride 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, 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.

As a lifelong Duluthian, I have seen what the Lakewalk has become. I also remember what was in Canal Park before the Lakewalk was constructed.

Chapter Two: An imaginary bicycle ride into the past

“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 (Kitchi Gammi Park). Ever since the 1970s, walking and bicycle advocates alike had dreamed about a crosstown bike path. Unfortunately, their dreams went only as far as written proposals and lines wishfully drawn on city maps.

Walkers and bicycle riders made their own “informal footpaths” 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.

Lakewalk, with railroad tracks running parallel. The path is being rebuilt and reinforced after a series of destructive winter storms damaged both the boardwalk and the bike path.
This is the Lakewalk being rebuilt and reinforced after a series of destructive winter storms damaged both the boardwalk and the bike path.

Unfortunately, the walkers and off-road bicyclists who used these informal paths were trespassing on private property. The property was owned by railroads, small scale industry, warehouses and junkyards; some of the land had been created by dumping the debris and rubble from demolished buildings. As a child, I saw that 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 occupied by 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, 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 drinkers, graffiti artists and drug dealers. With the limited public access, far fewer people visited the lakeshore than 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 place people drove through — not to.

Amy Norris, who works for the Duluth Parks and Recreation department, told me that in the 1980s the first phase of the Lakewalk was the stretch along the lakeside shore of Canal Park to East 27th Avenue, constructed concurrently with Interstate 35. Before the construction of the highway, the area was occupied by a railroad yard, warehouses, junkyards and a few houses.

Looking down the paved Lakewalk, with the back of a Super One Foods store to the right and railroad tracks to the left.
This is the Lakewalk behind Super One Foods at 5928 E. Superior St. This is a great store to stop at for some needed supplies during a bike ride.

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 Rose Garden in Leif Erickson Park.

In the end, the city never had enough money to construct the park as proposed in that plan. City planners finally 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, which covers a portion of I-35, won the Federal Highway Administration’s Excellence in Highway Design award.

The federal grant money was used to obtain 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. 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. However, as of 2023, the Lakewalk takes you even farther, past the beautiful Lester Park area, which has the Lester River and many summer and winter trails, then under Congdon Boulevard/Voyageur Highway via a pedestrian tunnel, ending at Brighton Beach on Lake Superior’s shore.

A bright green homemade flyer reading "Clean & Green" attached to a fence, advertising an Earth Day cleanup of the Lakewalk.
There are volunteer events to clean the Lakewalk of thoughtlessly discarded litter.

The technical terms used by architects and city planners to describe the Lakewalk are a greenway or a linear park. These parks are longer than they are wide and are 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, the High Line in New York City, and the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis.

The area south of South Street and between 14th Avenue East and 26th Avenue East was changed dynamically by the construction of I-35. This land was the home of the Duluth & Iron Range Railroad’s Endion passenger depot and attached freight shed, located at 15th Avenue East and 1504 South Street. The stone passenger depot was moved to Canal Park, while the wooden freight shed was demolished. MnDOT purchased the homes and businesses by eminent domain and then demolished them to make room for Interstate 35 and the Lakewalk. The railroad mainline where the trains rolled through was located where the paved Lakewalk trail is now.

The photo is taken behind the roundhouse looking toward the lake, with the car repair tracks and yard in the foreground. The depot was moved to its current location in Canal Park during construction of the freeway. This area is now the paved Lakewalk trail and four lanes of Interstate 35. Photo courtesy of the Missabe Railroad Historical Society collection.

The Canal Park section of the Lakewalk is unique in the world in having three trails constructed along the same corridor. The trail nearest to Lake Superior is a 7-foot-wide boardwalk that is intended for pedestrians, starting at Canal Park and ending at the Fitger’s Inn pedestrian bridge. The second trail is a 10-foot-wide asphalt trail, intended for bicyclists and rollerbladers. The third trail is a 12-foot-wide gravel path for carriage rides that extends from the corner of Lake Park to Morse Street.

The Lakewalk attracts more than one million visitors each year, according to Tom Kasper, a former 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.

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

“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

An extension of the Willard Munger Trail is now being built; it will run from West 75th Avenue (its former northern trailhead) to Canal Park, linking up with the Lakewalk. I suspect that longtime walking and bicycle advocates will be very happy that their vision of a paved, off-road, crosstown trail will finally be complete on the day the two trails are connected.

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 forward into the future. We must remind city planners to 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.

A bike at the Lakewalk junction with 45 Avenue East, Duluth, Minnesota during a warm spring day
Lakewalk junction with 45th Avenue East during a warm spring day

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. After eating, I bicycle uphill to my apartment and carry my bike into the building and my apartment. I park my bike beside my window overlooking Canal Park. I conclude my bike ride by drinking some water or orange juice and then do a little stretching.

While I write these words, I can see 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.

This article was adapted from a paper for a class at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

About James Buchanan

After earning my University of Minnesota communication major and journalism minor, I am currently looking for a full-time position to use my skills in writing, photography, and page design. I am also seeking an environment that offers inspiring and new opportunities that challenge and strengthen my skill set, as well as opportunities to help my future company advance efficiently and productively. I was the top student in my Communications and Creativity class. I’m the professional artist to turn to for your creativity needs.