When first established in 1889, Chester Park, created along with Lincoln Park to form the bookends of the boulevard, extended along both sides of Chester Creek between East Fourth Street and today’s Skyline Parkway. The area above the parkway, called Upper Chester, was added to the park in 1920. Together these parcels of land tell a greater story of Duluth’s history. One was the site of an early Duluth cemetery while the other was once home to the highest ski jump in the world.
The land along the lower reaches of Chester Creek was settled very early in Duluth’s history by Charles Chester, who, in September 1857, purchased a large parcel of land along the creek that bears his name. Little is known of Chester during his time in Duluth outside of one or two brief references, including one from pioneer Sidney Luce, whose memoir of those days mentions “Charles Chester and reputed wife.” It is thought that Chester left Duluth by 1860 in the wake of the Financial Panic of 1857 and moved to California to look for gold. The census data from 1870 and 1900 show him living in Oakland. If this is the same Charles Chester that Luce wrote of, he was born in Illinois in 1829 and had an actual wife (presumably his second), Carrie, who he married in 1896. According to census records Chester was a widower by 1910 and died in Oakland on December 29, 1913. While we know very little about Charles Chester, for over one hundred years his name has remained firmly attached to the park and creek.
Perhaps the park should instead have been named “Ray Park” in honor of another early Duluth settler, James D. Ray. He first came to the Head of the Lakes in 1855 and stayed to become a highly respected Duluth businessman willing to invest his money and energy in the successful development of the city. In response to a community need, in 1879 Ray laid out a cemetery on land he owned on the west side of Chester Creek above East Fourth Street. He named it Forest Hill Cemetery and planned to eventually enlarge it to thirty-five acres and landscape it with trees and shrubs. He built a small receiving vault in 1883, but it quickly proved to be too small. A larger vault was built in 1885, but by then the neighborhood surrounding the cemetery was growing rapidly. Duluth was booming, and by 1887 public sentiment favored William K. Rogers’s plan for establishing a park along both sides of Chester Creek. To create the park system Rogers envisioned, the park board needed to purchase land from individual owners.
Ray was willing to give up a portion of his cemetery—the land he owned between Fourth and Seventh Streets from Fourteenth Avenue westward—which included one of the most scenic waterfalls on Chester Creek. This meant moving the cemetery, and in 1890 Ray began the process of disinterring bodies and relocating them to a new Forest Hill Cemetery on Woodland Avenue.
By September 1891, the park board had acquired most of the land needed for the park; it controlled about 125 acres from Fifth Street to the parkway between Thirteenth Avenue East and Fifteenth Avenue East. Negotiations for the land that fronted on Fourth Street dragged on for many years, and squatters frequently took over the area that the park board wanted for the entrance to the park. It wasn’t until 1908 that negotiations were finally completed for purchasing the last of the property required for the main entrance to Chester Park.
The board gave no explanation of why it officially named this public greenspace “Garfield Park” in 1894, but, as explained in the Lincoln Park page, it was likely in honor of President James Garfield, who had been assassinated in 1881. Whatever the reason, Duluthians who lived near the park did not like the name. In 1902, a group of local residents successfully petitioned the park board to change the name to Chester Park, and the board never again tried to alter it.
Chester Park could be reached from downtown Duluth in twelve minutes by streetcar. The board chose to leave the area relatively undeveloped, leading the Duluth News Tribune to describe it as a “Primeval Forest in the Heart of the City.” In 1902, park employees finally constructed stairways into the park from Fifth Street on the east and Sixth Street on the west, connecting to a footpath along the creek and two footbridges to provide access to both sides of the gorge. A few years later, the board provided funding for the construction of a pavilion (with drinking water), which was located on the east side of the creek, deep within the park about halfway between the upper and lower footbridges, near today’s Ninth Street Bridge. With the addition of the footpath and pavilion, the park became a favorite spot for summer picnics and strolls along the creek.
When the playground movement gained momentum in Duluth around 1911, the park board installed some simple equipment in Chester Park at the corner of Fifth Street and Fifteenth Avenue East. In 1915 this playground was one of three locations selected for a summer experiment that provided supervised daily recreational activities for children. The experiment was overwhelmingly successful, and the city promptly hired organizer John Batchelor as a public recreation director. Today the site is known as the Lower Chester Park recreational area and includes several ice rinks and a clubhouse.
In a foreshadowing of future problems, a torrential rainstorm on July 21, 1909, resulted in damage to many city parks, including Chester, where a disastrous landslide covered the parkway on the west side of the Chester Creek Bridge. According to the News Tribune,
a surface an acre in extent moved bodily and was carried a distance of 400 feet. Thousands of tons of earth were in the moving mass. … The slide filled the creek and started up the opposite hill with such force that even there it snapped and carried before it trees a foot in diameter. It swept away over half of the roadway of the boulevard for a distance of 100 feet just west of the Chester Creek bridge and left a perpendicular declivity there, 40 feet high. …Where great trees stood, the hillside is swept clean.
It took the park board several years to repair the storm damage.