A botched sinus operation left Sam Snively blind in one eye. But that setback failed to blur his legacy as the visionary behind Duluth’s spectacular collection of public parkways.

If you’ve ever driven the ridge-hugging Skyline Parkway above Lake Superior, or snaked along Seven Bridges Road as it crisscrosses Amity Creek, you should thank Snively.

Today, Duluth basks in a resurgent glow — ranking highly in Lonely Planet travel guides and Outside magazine. Kudos have rained down from groups as diverse as the International Mountain Bicycling Association and the AARP. (See the recent Star Tribune article, “Duluth enjoying a new image, long in the making,” at tinyurl.com/Duluth-Minn.)

All the hullabaloo winds back to Snively, who was 61 when he won his first of four terms as mayor in the 1920s and ’30s. That’s 20 years older than Duluth’s current boyish and ballyhooed Mayor Don Ness.

A Philadelphia-trained lawyer, land speculator and mining investor, Snively pumped $100,000 of his own cash into Duluth civic projects. Despite his road-building passion, he never learned to drive. He neither smoked nor drank. But his pockets typically bulged with cigars, which he readily passed out around town.

“[He was a] good-sized man. Broad shouldered, with a tenor voice, steel-blue eyes, light brown hair,” his late niece, Zelda Snively Overland, said in a 1991 interview with Twin Cities writer Mark Ryan. “Gregarious, outgoing, but stern. He didn’t fool around; he wasn’t that kind of person.”

Ryan, who has written extensively about Snively, grew up swimming in the deep pools of Amity Creek and the Lester River near the stone-arch spans of Seven Bridges Road. His research led him to Zelda and her son, Doug, who shared scrapbooks filled with newspaper accounts of Snively’s six decades of road building and nature preservation in Duluth.

“He was a tireless promoter who recognized the value of Duluth’s unique natural gifts and saw them as major attractions for drawing tourists to the city,” Ryan said. “I found him to be quite a remarkable individual and Duluth pioneer.”

With $15 in his pocket

Snively’s story reaches back to 1714 when his Swiss ancestors fled religious persecution. They worked for William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, who paid them with large chunks of land in the woodsy Cumberland Valley.

Born in 1859, Samuel Frisby Snively was the second of seven children. Just five days before his fourth birthday, his grandfather took him to a nearby Civil War battlefield, where he heard President Abraham Lincoln deliver the short Gettysburg Address.

His mother, Margaret, instilled in her son her fondness for the natural world. “My mother was a woman of restless energy, a lover of all that was grand and beautiful in nature,” Snively would later write.

Fresh out of law school at 26, he arrived in Duluth in 1886 on an unseasonably warm March day. He had $15 in his pocket and, fearing the city’s frigid reputation, wore two pairs of long underwear on the ferry ride from Superior, Wis.

He quickly began amassing his fortune through legal work, land deals, mining and publishing. All that crashed during the financial panic of 1893, when railroad and bank failures and a run on gold crippled the country’s economy.

“I went to bed a millionaire, my boy, and I woke up and I looked out the window and I didn’t have a goddamn cent,” Snively once told his great-nephew Doug Overland, who lives in New Brighton.

Snively shrugged it off and headed to the Klondike, hoping to regain his fortune at the Yukon gold rush. When that didn’t pan out, he returned to Duluth for Act II.

No. 1 in parklands

Regaining some wealth through farmland deals on Lake Superior’s South Shore, Snively soon purchased a 400-acre farm above Duluth’s Lakeside and Lester Park neighborhoods. He’d throw catered summertime galas with an orchestra playing for guests seated on the porch or flitting amid the creek-side pines.

Times were so good, Snively constructed a parkway along Amity Creek and donated it to the city. It was the precursor to what would be rebuilt and become known as Seven Bridges Road.

When a wicked 1918 forest fire roared up from Cloquet and Moose Lake, his farm was charred, but his stone house remained standing.

In 1921, he won the mayor’s job and became the manager of parks and parkways — sharing his vision for Duluth, a city that “possesses those peculiar physical characteristics out of which can be developed a system of parks and boulevards second to no other in the world.”

As mayor, Snively completed the 25-mile Skyline Parkway rimming Duluth’s hillsides, and the city’s parkland mushroomed from 400 acres to 2,500 acres.

A 1930s federal government survey reported that Duluth ranked No. 1 nationally with an acre of parkland per every 41 residents.

At 77, Snively lost his bid for a fifth term by 900 votes. But he didn’t stop contributing. He served as city boulevards superintendent for the rest of his life.

‘His life was doing things’

His great-nephew recalled bus rides to the zoo, with the aging Snively bringing a satchel of tools along.

“Maybe the rain had come down and washed out a little bit of a path, and he would get his shovel and fix it up,” Doug Overland recalled in an interview with Ryan. “He had no ego whatsoever. His life was doing things.”

Snively died just shy of his 93rd birthday.

In the midst of the Great Depression in 1934, he stood along his Skyline Parkway and spoke with a Duluth News Tribune reporter.

“Sometimes when I become discouraged, I say to myself: I should have gone to another city to seek my fortune. But when I look over these hills and see the great natural beauties of our community, I console myself and wonder where in all this wide world could I find such a view as this?”

 

Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com