Parks & Recreation

Fairmount Park History


From Zenith: A Postcard Perspective of Historic Duluth, copyright © 2005, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota

The Municipal Zoo at Fairmount Park—also known as the Duluth Zoo—began its life as simply Fairmount Park, another of Duluth’s parks built along a Lake Superior tributary, in this case Kingsbury Creek (named for Wallace Kingsbury, an Endion pioneer and delegate to the Territorial Congress). In 1923 West Duluth printer Bert Onsgrad outlined a plan for a game farm menagerie, and city leaders liked the idea. The zoo’s first resident was Onsgard’s pet deer, Billy. His pen was built with fencing donated by the Pittsburgh Steel Company. Three years later a cassowary and a pair of lions were purchased with funds raised by school children. Bears were acquired by trapping them when they wandered into town. One of the early zoo’s stranger policies called for not feeding carnivorous animals on Sundays, as they “should fast on Sundays.” By 1928 the zoo held about two hundred animals and birds.

The zoo grew considerably over the following twenty years. Regional animals like bear, wolf, moose, and elk were joined by exotics including hyenas, monkeys, and elephants. Buildings went up, many constructed by the Works Project Administration during the Great Depression. An American bomber unit serving in the Pacific in World War II adopted a Himalayan black bear as a mascot and even took the bruin on several bombing runs. A year after the war ended, that bear was donated to the zoo.

For years the zoo had been administrated by the city, with policies changing each time the town elected a new mayor. That ended in 1959 with the organization of the Arrowhead Zoological Society, which operated the zoo for the next twenty-eight years. During that time the zoo’s population grew, adding a giant tortoise, chimpanzees, kangaroos, and large cats, including a jaguar and a cougar. That period also saw the zoo playing host to its most popular tenant, an Indian mongoose named Mr. Magoo. A merchant seaman had smuggled the exotic weasel into the U.S. in 1963, but a federal ban on mongooses threatened Magoo’s very existence. Duluthians were outraged, and their anger spread across the country and up the government. During his last months in office, President John F. Kennedy signed a presidential pardon, sparing Mr. Magoo’s life. The mongoose spent the rest of his life at the zoo; he died in 1968.

In 1987, life at the zoo changed in a big way. With $4 million from the state and $3 million from the city, zoo officials began initiating a three-part plan that included more naturalistic facilities for its residents. The municipal zoo’s name changed to the Lake Superior Zoo. The plan’s second stage went forth in the 1990s and included renovating the zoo’s old main building from animal cages to offices, a restaurant, and a gift shop. The third stage is in limbo, having had its budget cut by a gubernatorial veto in 1996. Besides enjoying the animals, children visiting Duluth’s Municipal Zoo at Fairmount Park could at one time ride a miniature train, as seen in the above linen postcard, printed some time between 1930 and 1945.


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