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'Jewel' turning 125

They didn't seem like much at the time, those 40½ acres. The land, given to the city of Fargo 125 years ago, was just a jumble of trees and undergrowth frequently flooded by the nearby Red River. But Island Park -- now 50 acres on the southe...

They didn't seem like much at the time, those 40½ acres.

The land, given to the city of Fargo 125 years ago, was just a jumble of trees and undergrowth frequently flooded by the nearby Red River.

But Island Park -- now 50 acres on the southern edge of downtown Fargo -- has become one of the community's best-loved spots, a place where tens of thousands play and relax.

The list of things to do at Island Park includes tennis, basketball, swimming, softball, sledding and, soon, skate boarding.

Two measures of how much Island Park gets used:


About 4,500 people swam in its pool during the week of June 16.

This August, thousands of people will attend the Island Park Show (once known as the Christmas Bazaar), which features arts and crafts booths, free entertainment and more.

You also can get married in the park's gazebo or attend a performance of the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre, which has its home there.

And Island Park's stately, century-old oak trees provide pleasure and inspiration to many.

"The park is special in so many ways," said Steve Hubbard, who has lived near Island Park for 30 years.

He frequently walks and bikes through the park, and often has played tennis there.

Island Park is one of the jewels of Fargo's park system, said Roger Gress, director of the Fargo Parks and Recreation Department.

"There are just so many thing going on there," he said. "And people have such strong feelings about it."


The strength of those feelings were demonstrated this spring. Many local residents were angered when a house mover pruned several mature trees in Island Park that provide a canopy over Fourth Street South.

Long history

The histories of Island Park and Fargo are intertwined.

The Northern Pacific railroad originally platted the 40½ acres as part of the city of Fargo in 1877.

The following year, several city leaders persuaded the railroad to deed the land to the city as a park.

Early on, the site apparently was known as "Lincoln Park." But Fargo residents soon came up with a new moniker. When the Red River flooded, a small section of high ground in the center of the park remained above water. So the park was dubbed "Island Park," and the name stuck.

Few improvements were made to the site in the 1880s and 1890s. However, the city apparently considered an ordinance to stop teams of horses from being hitched to, and damaging trees in the park.

Around 1900 the city began sprucing up Island Park by removing underbrush and fallen trees. In 1910 the city created a Park Board, which took over Island Park the following year.


By 1923 the park had a teeter-totter, swings, wading pool, fountain, tennis courts, sand pile, flower beds and bandstand.

In the 1930s a swimming pool was built. Through the years a gazebo, theater, parking lots, basketball courts and softball fields were added.

The park's name is something of a misnomer today.

The park hasn't flooded since the massive dike on its eastern edge was completed in 1960.

Today, the dike is a popular spot for winter sledding.

The flood control project included moving the Red River channel slightly to the east. To accommodate the move, 12.5 acres of Minnesota became part of North Dakota by an act of Congress.

The move provided space for the basketball courts, which aren't on the park's original 40½ acres. The park now has about 50 acres.

Proper use?


The railroad stipulated 125 years ago that Fargo keep the land as a park.

For some Fargo residents, such as Mary Ann Floyd, who has lived near Island Park most of her life, the city has failed to meet that obligation.

"A park is a park. It's not meant to be encroached on," she said. "A park is a place to see trees and flowers, not tennis courts and parking lots and all the rest."

The dictionary gives a number of definitions for "park," including:

- "A piece of ground in or near a city or town kept for ornament and recreation."

- "An area maintained in its natural state as a public property."

Island Park clearly meets the first definition. Floyd and others say the park falls well short of the second.

Recent history shows many Fargo residents are determined to preserve Island Park's remaining trees and open areas.


In 1995 the park district planned to add parking spaces near some of Island Park's historic oak trees.

The trees are at least a century old and could live another 100 to 200 years, city officials say.

The district's plan outraged some city residents, who feared the trees would be damaged badly. Twelve hundred people signed a petition against the lot.

In the end, the park district backed off the plan.

Gress said the episode taught him and other park district officials how strongly many people feel about the undeveloped portion of Island Park.

The park district has no new plans for major changes at Island Park, he said.

The district is finishing up the skate park near Island Park's basketball courts.

The skate park, expected to open in August, will cater to both beginning and experienced skaters.


The idea of a skate park probably wouldn't have occurred to Fargo and railroad officials 125 years ago.

But they understood the need for a place to play and relax. And Island Park still fills the bill, Hubbard said.

"It's a little green oasis in what's becoming a pretty metropolitan area," he said.

"That's a precious thing."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530

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