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See Canal Park the old-fashioned way

See Canal Park the old-fashioned way. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Agar

Like times gone by, the horses know the routes.

Whether strolling through Canal Park Drive in twilight, clipping down Superior Street with a group of birthday revelers, bringing anniversary couples into the summer bloom of the Duluth Rose Garden or transporting guests to a wedding in Leif Erikson Park, the four horses of Top Hat Carriages, owned by Ken Lindberg, have carried locals and visitors to their memorable moments in the Twin Ports for 11 years now.

The four Belgian and Percheron horses carry passengers in carriages around four similar routes. Belgians, which are named for their country of origin, and Percherons, which are named for a French province, are the top two draft horses in the United States.

"One might think Clydesdales are No. 1, given the publicity Budweiser has given them, but they're a distant third in numbers," Lindberg said.

What's on the tour

The rides begin in the parking lot near the Aerial Lift Bridge at the intersection of Canal Park Drive and Morse Street. The shortest ride lasts just 20 minutes, and it takes passengers by the Canal Park Inn, through a couple of right turns and back along the Lakewalk, offering a glimpse of Canal Park activity for about a mile total. An added stretch makes a pass by the William A. Irvin, adding 10 minutes to the 20-minute ride.

The 45-minute ride includes a pass by the Great Lakes Aquarium. On the full one-hour ride, visitors get a jaunt down Superior Street past the Radisson hotel, then down in front of the Duluth Depot and back past the Aquarium. Each route covers the same area as the previous one, which means that the one-hour route includes everything that would be seen on the 20-, 30- and 45-minute offerings, so no sightseeing opportunities are left out.

Like many other Duluth endeavors, weather dictates the schedule.

"Some rainy days, we wished we'd stayed home," said Lindberg, who first became interested in horses as a boy growing up in southwest Minnesota, where his father farmed with draft horses. Back then, he was impressed when he saw horses pull cars out of ditches in winter.

"They have such good traction," Lindberg said.

Lindberg gets up early each day, whether the horses work or not, for feeding.

"I rattle my oats bucket, blow my whistle, and they come running," Lindberg grinned.

If it's time to go to work, Lindberg and the horses drive across the bridge and park under the Lake Avenue off-ramp. This location offers the horses a place to relax when they aren't on the go. The horses tend to cock one leg when they're at rest.

"Some people think they're crippled, but all horses do that routinely," Lindberg said.

When tours are available

The horses work 50 days a year, starting at noon and going until after dark if business is good. Saturdays after dinner are the busiest.

The season begins during Memorial Day weekend, June is slow, July brings in more business, and August is the busiest month. The horses work only the weekends through September and October. In November, the horses go back to Superior for a restful winter.

Lindberg said that a horse weighs about 1,800 pounds.

"It's the equivalent of a man pulling small children in a wagon" he said, adding, "Horses that work and exercise for a living tend to live longer and have fewer ailments, just like humans."

The horses do not work at all during the winter months.

Over the years, crowds have varied with economic conditions. Lindberg recalls the years just before the dotcom bubble burst, when more people from foreign countries were traveling through Duluth and wanted a carriage ride, along with many visitors from faraway American cities.

There aren't many cities the size of Duluth that even offer carriage rides. The cities of Minneapolis, Kansas City and Omaha would be Duluth's competition.

"The secret is getting the American public to step out of their cars and walk away from them. That's hard to do unless you have attractions like Canal Park. So, Duluth is very unique in that way," Lindberg said.

But, given the current economic situation, more tourists these days are from nearby states, and fewer come from far away. People still ask the same questions, though, about the bridge, statues, Canal Park Drive artwork and, of course, the horses.

For more information

Phone numbers of carriage ride providers are on the blue sign at the intersection of Canal Park Drive and Morse Street -- near Grandma's Restaurant and the Comfort Suites hotel. Lindberg's company is Top Hat Carriages. No reservations are needed: just show up. For further information, phone Top Hat Carriage Rides at (218) 269-3251.

Other carriage ride services include River's Bend Carriage Service, (218) 729-5873, and Bayfront Carriages, (218) 428-9563.