Duluth rebuilds Lakewalk to — hopefully — withstand future storms

An aerial view of Duluth Lakewalk
Construction continues Thursday along a stretch of the Lakewalk, from near the Aerial Lift Bridge past Endion Station, in Duluth, Minn. The stretch has been under construction for much of the past couple years as the city, along with state and federal partners, strengthens the shoreline to combat rising Lake Superior water levels and protect Canal Park.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Duluth's Lakewalk hugs several miles of the city's Lake Superior shore, from the Canal Park tourist district all the way to Brighton Beach.

With its sweeping view of the lake and the city, the trail is a destination for locals and the more than 6 million people who visit the city every year. 

But for the past few years, it’s also been an active construction site, as the city slowly rebuilds the Lakewalk after sections of it were ripped to pieces by a series of intense storms a few years ago — first in October 2017, then April 2018 and again in October that same year. 

That third storm hit the city’s shore hard.

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"It was kind of a moonscape,” said Mike LeBeau, Duluth’s construction project supervisor. “It looked like a big bomb had gone off through here.”

The storm deposited a thick layer of rock and debris on the shoreline. The earth under the Lakewalk was washed away. So were big rocks that had protected the trail for 30 years. 

All told, those storms caused roughly $30 million in damage. They were declared state and federal disasters. 

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson remembers them vividly. She used to love the legendary gales that roll across Lake Superior, with their driving winds and waves. 

Not any more. When “one of those awesome, beautiful storms” rolls in — the kind that draws people to the lakefront to take pictures — “all I think about in the middle of the night is, you know, ka-ching ka-ching, ka-ching," Larson said.

After the first of those mega storms, Larson said city officials talked about making piecemeal, shorter-term repairs.

Michael LeBeau is construction project supervisor for the city of Duluth.
Mike LeBeau, construction project supervisor for the city of Duluth, talks about the reconstruction of the shoreline while standing in the midst of thousands of boulders that were trucked in to help build up the shoreline and make it more resilient to the whims of Lake Superior.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But then the second storm hit. And the third one.

“And you start realizing, not only is that exhausting and unsustainable, it's frustrating, it's expensive,” she said. “And it's not going to work. This lake is letting us know who is in charge. And it’s not us."

So now the city is rebuilding the Lakewalk, but bigger and stronger, officials hope. The ultimate goal is to protect it — and the real estate behind it — against rising lake waters, and the more intense, more frequent storms, fueled by climate change.

The first line of defense is an engineered wall of giant boulders that slopes into the water just behind a few of Canal Park's hotels.

The top layer of rocks, called the “armor stones,” each weigh 8 to 9 tons, LeBeau said.

An aerial view of Duluth Lakewalk
With Lake Superior and a rebuilt shoreline of large rocks to the right, construction workers continue to build out the Lakewalk last Thursday near Duluth's Canal Park.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Those are held in place by even bigger boulders, up to 12 tons each, buried in the lake. 

"Some of the stones are so big, a big semi could only hold three of them at a time,” LeBeau said. “So the scale is enormous." 

Behind the rocks, a thick, concrete wall anchored deep in the ground offers a second layer of protection for the new, wider Lakewalk. There's also a new system to drain away water from the waves that do crash over the wall. 

The price tag for rebuilding just this half-mile stretch of Lakewalk in Canal Park will run about $17 million. State and federal emergency funds are expected to cover more than two-thirds of that cost. 

That’s on top of another $5 million spent last year to reconstruct another segment of the Lakewalk, a bit farther up the shore, beneath the Fitgers complex.

For visitors, the biggest change now is that, near the shipping canal, where lake freighters pass under the city's famous lift bridge, the Lakewalk is several feet higher than it used to be. 

The new structure has partly obscured the view of the lake and impeded access to the water. When work on the project began, that was a cause of concern for business owners in the area, said Matt Baumgartner, president of the Canal Park Business Association.

Construction workers continue to build out the Lakewalk in Duluth.
Construction workers continue to build out the Lakewalk Thursday in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But as the project has taken shape, “that concern has been replaced,” he said. “And the word that gets used most right now is it seems to be creating an opportunity for the Lakewalk and for Canal Park to envision what that space can be used for." 

That’s because the project has also created new sidewalk and plaza space that Baumgartner and others expect to be a big draw for tourists.

Baumgartner works for Grandma's Restaurants, a Duluth institution that has its flagship restaurant in Canal Park. For most of the company's 40 years, he said, they never had to worry about big storms in April and October. 

"Now that has become more of the norm and the storms that we're having are more frequent and much more damaging in nature. And that creates another anxiety for business owners that have so much to balance already," he said.

Across the Great Lakes, cities and landowners are contending with similar anxiety from big storms and high water. 

In many places experts recommend retreating from the shoreline. But Larson says that's not an option for Duluth. 

Construction cones frame the Duluth North Pier Light.
Construction cones on the Lakewalk construction site frame the Duluth North Pier Light in early December.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"This is our front door of the community,” she said. “Everybody knows it. It's something that's an asset, whether you're a tourist or a resident, or somebody who just takes great pride in the lake." 

Work on the new stretch of Lakewalk will be completed in the spring. But Duluth’s work is not done. More construction is planned over the next several years to build a more climate-resilient Lakewalk all along Lake Superior. 

When Mike LeBeau gets asked how long the new construction is expected to last, he said 50 to 75 years is the expected lifespan. But he likes to add a caveat to his response.

“I tend to answer that question by saying, we may not have seen the worst the lake can throw our way,” he said.