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Bushwhacking through Glensheen's History

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UMD's Glensheen Gardens


“There is to be no substitution without orders from this office.

If you are unable to supply any of this stock, please let me know at once.”
Charles Leavitt, Glensheen’s landscape architect


Glensheen's Dan Hartman  
Dan Hartman, interim director of Glensheen

There were more than 100 plants in Leavitt's list, given with crackling precision more than a century ago. Today you can experience the realization of those specific instructions in Glensheen’s brand new Grand Gardens and Trails Tour.

It’s designed to fulfill the curiosities of gardeners and history buffs alike. For $10, a guided tour of the seven-acre estate unveils Chester Congdon’s concept of sustainability and experimentation.

Glensheen’s description of this tour warns of some uneven terrain, and that’s the enticing part. It invites exploration of a rarely traveled west trail system that stretches 38-acres up from Lake Superior through Congdon Park. This part of the tour reveals the mindset at the turn-of-the-last century when Theodore Roosevelt was establishing the first national parks. “What was happening at Glensheen was reflective of a national movement to celebrate the outdoors,” explains Dan Hartman, interim director of Glensheen.

You may want to make sure you have a few minutes to spare if you ask Hartman about Glensheen’s grounds. He’s a passionate expert on the subject. As a UMD student, he competed an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) project researching the grounds and was instrumental in implementing this tour soon after becoming interim director.

While Hartman is equally enthusiastic about Glensheen’s iconic mansion, he’s quick to distinguish the importance of Glensheen’s ground's in the world of historic preservation, “The grounds are historically significant on a national level because of the players involved in its creation.” Charles Wellford Leavitt Jr., a civil and landscape engineer with offices in New York City, led the charge in transforming the rugged shoreline into what visitors see today. Leavitt hired Minnesota’s best for the implementation of the plan, design team Morrell and Nichols, who also worked on Duluth’s Seven Bridges Road, Skyline Drive, and Morgan Park.

Hartman explains that Glensheen’s grounds capture several layers of history. “The first layer is Chester Congdon’s era, the self-sustaining ruggedness of the grounds, then, after he passed away in 1916, Clara Congdon took over. She liked a more manicured look and added flowers to the formal gardens. Today we’re balancing Chester and Clara’s visions with the help of UMD’s facilities management team.”

The Grand Gardens and Trails Tour centers around four things that Congdon insisted upon: access to Lake Superior, a supply of water, a design that’s non-intrusive to the natural environment, and a design that allows for experimentation with plant materials.

Chester Congdon  
Chester Congdon, 1853 - 1916  

Access to Lake Superior
At the turn of the last century Duluthians weren’t pining to live by the lake like they do today. Most of Zenith City mansions were built just east of downtown. But the Congdons changed this way of thinking by building not just one but three mansions on the shores of Lake Superior (generously building neighboring homes for daughter Marjorie and son Robert in later years.)

This doesn’t mean that they chose their home for the view. With more shipping traffic during the Congdon era, privacy was a priority. Trees that prevented possible prying eyes on sea-going vessels blocked the mansion until 1942 when Clara Congdon had them removed, opening up the stunning view that visitors enjoy today.
A Supply of Water
Flowing into Lake Superior along the west side of the mansion is Tischer Creek. “How the Congdons utilized this creek is an incredible testament to the ingenuity of Glensheen’s creation,” says Hartman. Engineers were able to harness the power of Tischer Creek in a 60,000-gallon reservoir system that completely supplied the estate. Before flowing into Glensheen, it was filtered through several layers of natural materials and carried through a 10-inch main that crosses the creek, following along the west bank. How powerful was it? “Used for the fountain, this water reservoir system could shoot water 75-feet in the air!” illustrates Hartman.

Non-intrusive to the Natural Environment
“Conquering the land” was not on the agenda when Glensheen’s grounds were crafted. On the contrary, Congdon and Leavitt wanted to make sure that Glensheen blended with the landscape instead of completely changing it. Sometimes English estates are illustrations of symmetry. Overall Glensheen, while inspired by an English manor house, isn’t manicured.

The estate truly does merge natural and manmade seamlessly, with obvious priority given to the natural beauty. All the utilities come into the estate underground so that the landscape isn’t marred. The water, gas, and power lines were run through a tunnel under London Road.  

  Glensheen on London Road
Glensheen estate originally included 22 acres and was one of the first homes on Duluth's now bustling London Road

Experiment with Plant Materials
Chester Congdon is famous for his tycoonish success in iron ore and copper mining, but, at his heart, he was almost like a botanist. Hartman compares Congdon’s methodology to that of the University’s experiment stations, fulfilling a curiosity about what would grow just feet away from Lake Superior. “Chester would personally examine the materials and make comments. We can see notes in his journals about what performed well.” A good example of this is the Concolor Fir, a tree brought to Glensheen from Colorado. It thrived and still grows on the estate along Tischer Creek.

Glensheen Today

When the Congdon family moved to Glensheen in 1908, electricity was so new that a gas backup system was installed and travel to the Twin Cities took three days by carriage. Today, the estate has wireless technology and we can zip to the Minneapolis in just over two hours. But, through it all, the legacy of the grounds remains.

Grand Garden and Trails tourists walk the same path enjoyed by the Congdon family 105 years ago. The Congdon's standard of generosity continues, too. "Glensheen donates an incredible 2,500 pounds of produce to local food shelves each year. “It’s not just potatoes,” says Hartman. “We’re talking about fresh, nutrient-rich vegetables.” Vegetables from a garden carefully planned a century ago.

More information:

Glensheen's Grand Garden and Trails Tour

Blog post: "24 Reasons to Take Glensheen's New Tour"

Glensheen's Rugged Stairs
Glensheen's management hopes to fully restore the west trail system in 2014  











Story written by Lori C. Melton,

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