When Chris Lewandowski returned to Minneapolis after a quick trip to Duluth early this year to make arrangements to pop the question to the woman he loved, the first thing he did was buy a Sharpie permanent marker and a padlock.
The 25-year-old Michigan native had been exploring Canal Park on that bitterly cold January day with wedding photographer Bryan Koop when both noticed something neither recalled seeing before.
Clusters of padlocks were attached to three weathered pillars on the lake side of the Lakewalk, a short distance from the Crabby Ol’ Bill’s food stand.
Both were aware of the tradition of couples attaching a padlock to a structure as a symbol of their locked-in love for each other, they said in separate interviews. Koop, who works under the business name Bryan Jonathan Weddings, had placed a lock with his wife at perhaps the most famous site: the Pont des Arts in Paris. Those locks, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, later were removed because authorities determined they collectively had become too heavy for the historic bridge’s ironwork.
The number on Duluth’s “lock tree” is only in the hundreds, and there were fewer when Lewandowski and Koop came across it on that subzero January day.
No one seems to know — or admits to knowing — how the lock tradition first came to Duluth. But there’s little doubt about what the locks mean.
It’s “almost like you’re putting a stamp, a symbol of the relationship, kind of locking and saying, ‘This is real,'” Lewandowski said.
As soon as he saw it, Lewandowski knew he wanted it to be part of the scene when he made a surprise proposal to Shayna Derby on Jan. 19 during a trip to Duluth that he pretended would be a celebration of his 25th birthday.
Duluth’s version of “love locks” isn’t to everyone’s taste, judging by responses to a News Tribune query via social media last week. “Cheap and indolent” was one description. “One front end loader, pull it up and haul it to the landfill,” another wrote.
The Duluth Parks and Recreation Department, which is responsible for the Lakewalk, is aware of the locks, said city spokeswoman Pakou Ly. It was unexpected, she said, but as long as the locks don’t somehow threaten the infrastructure of the nearby boardwalk, there’s no plan to dismantle them.
“We’re not really sure when it started,” Ly said, but it’s clear the number of locks is growing.
Jessica Stauber, director of marketing and business planning at St. Luke’s hospital, had noticed the padlocks on timber earlier and was reminded of it last month during her daughter’s Canal Park birthday party, she said. She was curious about its genesis, but not offended by it.
“To me it symbolizes love; it symbolizes a special place,” Stauber said. “It puts a smile on my face.”
Koop, who grew up in Duluth, agreed.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “If it’s not harming anybody, why not?”
For Lewandowski and Derby, 24, the padlock in Canal Park signifies not only a special relationship but a special place in their lives.
Both grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and met as business students at Central Michigan University. They interned at Procter & Gamble’s Minneapolis office and stayed on there after graduating.
They were still interns when, having heard Duluth was a fun place, they impulsively drove up on a Friday afternoon. Her roommate told her that it was Grandma’s Marathon weekend, Derby said, but she had no idea what that meant.
“I was like, ‘What the heck? They have a bunch of grandmas run a marathon?'” Derby recalled.
Although they found all the motels and hotels were booked, they had fun, the couple said, and Duluth became a favorite getaway place.
“Everything about Canal Park, I think, is so vibrant,” Lewandowski said. “When you’re walking along that path, you’re looking at the water, you’re looking at all these people enjoying the weather and enjoying the city of Duluth.”
Lewandowski admitted that after setting up the proposal scenario with Koop, he hoped it wouldn’t be quite so cold on Jan. 19. As it turned out, the temperature was in the 40s that day. It was pleasant enough that a small crowd of strangers was on hand to applaud when Derby said “yes.”
“It was really nice out,” Derby said. “We were really lucky.”
The couple, who will be married in Detroit in September 2018, say they figure their lives in business will bring them to several destinations. For now, though, they have so much good to say about Duluth and Minnesota that they could be the spokescouple for Visit Duluth or Explore Minnesota.
“We just absolutely love the lives that we have here in Minnesota,” Derby said. “I always tell friends that I have not been bored for a day since we moved here.”
Not surprisingly, they’re totally on board with Duluth’s lock tree. She knew such things could be found in major destinations such as Paris and Cologne, Germany, Derby said, but she thinks it’s cool to find it in “our little Duluth.”
To Lewandowski, it adds to what he calls the “mystique” of Canal Park and Duluth.
“For me seeing that padlock signifies that this place means so much to so many different people,” he said.