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Attorney Samuel H. Morgan was the organizing force behind some of Minnesota’s most popular state and regional parks

In the 1950s, Minnesota communities — like others across the United States — began to expand beyond the boundaries of city centers into newly formed suburbs. Suburban sprawl led to a widespread interest in preserving open spaces.

photo of beach at afton state park
The beach at Afton State Park

Samuel Huntington Morgan was a long-time attorney regarded as a champion of Minnesota’s outdoors. His advocacy efforts helped create, preserve, or expand many of the state’s most popular open spaces, including Fort Snelling State Park, Lilydale Regional Park, Afton State Park, and the Gateway State Trail.

Morgan was born February 21, 1911, in Duluth. He and his family relocated to St. Paul when he was seven. In the 1950s, Minnesota communities — like others across the United States — began to expand beyond the boundaries of city centers into newly formed suburbs. Suburban sprawl led to a widespread interest in preserving open spaces. Later in life, Morgan recalled the joy he had felt as a child in the natural landscapes of Duluth, as well as summers spent swimming in the St. Croix River. Affected by these experiences, he became part of a call to action to preserve the environment.

On January 19, 1961, Morgan’s friend Thomas Savage asked him and his wife, Natalie, to attend a meeting held by the Fort Snelling State Park Association. He went with them and watched the speakers outline the opportunity for a citizen-led effort to establish a park below the fort. Morgan offered to help and attended weekly meetings at the St. Paul Athletic Club to discuss strategy. The group’s work led to the passage of an act to establish Fort Snelling State Historical Park on April 20, 1961.

In 1967, Morgan was named the president of the nascent Minnesota Parks Foundation. Its purpose was to raise money to preserve, protect, and support natural landscapes through land acquisition. At a July 8, 1967, meeting, the foundation decided to use a permanent revolving fund to meet its goals. It planned to purchase desired land with its own raised monies and then sell it to the state to replenish the fund.

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The foundation’s first project, which laid the groundwork for Afton State Park, presented significant challenges. Legislative constraints delayed enacting a park until 1969. At the same time, the group worried that their inability to assure donors that their contributions would result in a state park would hurt their fundraising efforts. In the end, through charitable gifts and secured loans, a purchase agreement was completed on July 12, 1968.

With the purchase agreement settled, the group began meeting with nearby property owners to discuss buying their land. Although a sketch of the proposed property layout was drawn, no one could be sure of actual park boundaries until the 1969 State Legislature convened to enact the park and designate the land. There was strong opposition, but supporters prevailed. After assurances that the foundation wasn’t profiting from the purchase, Governor Harold LeVander signed the legislation. This success set the foundation on a path of acquisitions that continued throughout the 1970s.

In the 1980s, Morgan’s efforts on behalf of the Minnesota Parks Foundation expanded to include acquiring abandoned railways for public trails. At the time, existing parks could not accommodate newly popular linear sports like cross-country skiing, cycling, inline skating, and snowmobiling. The Soo Line Trail, later part of the Gateway Trail, was the foundation’s first purchase, followed by the Cannon Valley Trail.

In 1987, Morgan’s presidency ended when the Minnesota Parks Foundation and the Minnesota Council of State Parks merged to become the Minnesota Parks and Trails Council. In 2000 it was renamed the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota. Between 1967 and 2018 it acquired more than 10,000 acres of land worth over 30 million dollars. The revolving fund became known as the Samuel H. Morgan Land Fund.

After leaving the Minnesota Parks Foundation, Morgan continued his advocacy work. In 1985, the Samuel H. Morgan Trail and Interpretive Center opened in William O’Brien State Park. Governor Arne Carlson named August 11, 1992, “Samuel H. Morgan Day” in his honor. And on May 21, 2000, he received the Met Council’s “Metropolitan Regional Leadership Award” for his leadership in advancement of his environmental vision.

Morgan passed away on October 17, 2000, at the age of eighty-nine. On September 20, 2002, a bicycle and pedestrian path along the Mississippi River in St. Paul was named in his honor. The Samuel H. Morgan Regional Trail is a crucial cycling route in the city and the southern leg of St. Paul’s Grand Rounds Scenic Byway.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.