Chester Park

A doubles match underway in 1929 at Chester park’s tennis courts, installed the previous year. The courts have not been used for their original purpose in decades and are essentially a ruin today. Photo by F. R. Paine. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Post-Depression Chester Park

Big Chester was modified in the 1940s after a sixty-meter jump was built at Fond du Lac Park; its rear tower was removed and a new jumping platform was installed at its base; while this reduced the steel structure’s height, it actually increased the slide to a fifty-five-meter jump. In 1971 Little Chester was converted to a thirty-five-meter steel slide. The new jump completed a project begun in 1969 that included the addition of an alpine ski hill and a tow rope. A natural practice slope was also modified into a twenty-meter jump called Rabbit Ears. By the mid 1970s, Chester Bowl boasted five ski jumps: Big Chester (fifty-five meters), Little Chester (thirty-five meters), and training jumps Rabbit Ears (twenty-meters), Bunny Ears (ten meters), and Copper Peak-a-Boo (five meters).

In 1977 Chester Park’s playing field hosted Duluth’s first high school soccer tournament. In winter the athletic field has often been flooded to create a speed-skating practice rink. The fence surrounding the tennis courts still stands, though the courts have not been maintained for decades.

The 1927 field house was replaced in 1974 with a ski chalet. Two years later the city hired Thom Storm to manage the Chester Bowl Ski Program; he and his family lived in the chalet’s caretaker’s apartment for seventeen years. A ski lift that had served the beginner’s hill at the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area was moved to Chester Bowl in 1985 to replace the tow rope. In 2008 the city announced it was unable to continue funding the program through the Parks and Recreation Department. Storm retired at that time, then became the executive director of the Chester Bowl Improvement Club, a group of volunteers who now operate the ski hill. In 2015 he retired for good, handing the reins to David Schaeffer. The chalet that Storm and his family lived in was renamed the Thom Storm Chalet in 2015, and in February 2016 Schaeffer announced plans to add a third floor to the facility.

In 1979 the park was increased when George Hovland dedicated seven acres of his own property west of the ski jumps as an extension of the park. The land became part of the park’s cross-country trail system, which was appropriate: Hovland has been a long-time promotor of cross-country skiing in Duluth (he represented the United States in the 1952 Winter Olympics) and the proprietor of the city’s Snowflake Nordic Ski Center.

The 1980s saw the advent of two events that still take place in Chester Park today. In the summer a stage in Upper Chester hosts Music in the Park, a free Tuesday-evening concert series. Autumn finds thousands of Duluthians flocking to the park for the Chester Bowl Fall Festival, featuring live music, food, crafts, locally grown fresh produce, vendors, and information booths. The event raises money for the Chester Bowl Improvement Club.

In 1992 Hovland tried to take back the property he donated in 1979, which he planned to turn into a housing development. Hovland’s neighbors—including legendary Duluth Ski Club member Jim A. Denney and his son and Olympic ski jumper Jim J. Denney—and the Chester Park Improvement Club fought for twenty years to stop the development. A state district court judge ruled against Hovland. The portion of land Hovland retained west of the park has indeed become a housing development, although as of 2016 only a few homes had been built at the location.

The flood of 2012 ravaged the land along the banks of Chester Creek, and portions of the clay banks in Lower Chester Park collapsed. A stone retaining wall just east of the creek below Chester Parkway near Kent Street collapsed; most of its boulders rolled into the creek bed. The flood also destroyed a bridge over the creek in Chester Bowl and one of the 1928 dams, which allowed the pond to drain. Because Chester Creek is a designated trout stream, there are no plans to reconstruct the pond. Within days after the flood, hundreds of Duluthians young and old descended on the park, armed with shovels, hatchets, bow saws, and chain saws. They worked with city crews to remove debris from the stream and put the park back together.

Among those gathered was Dan Proctor, who lives adjacent to the park near Skyline Parkway. For more than two decades, Proctor has walked the trails along Chester Creek with his dogs (including, over the years, Zoot and Otis and Honey and Waldo), a shovel, a saw, and other hand tools. Particularly after heavy rains, Proctor maintains the trails, digging draining trenches and moving dirt to keep the paths dry and safe while his pets greet passersby. Proctor—a baker by trade, an environmentalist by practice—was once employed by the park department to work in Chester Park, but after his job was eliminated in 1991 he continued to improve his beloved park. In 2012 Duluth’s city council passed a resolution recognizing Proctor’s years of volunteer service, thanking him, and naming the main trail that loops around the creek below Skyline Parkway the Dan Proctor Trail in his honor.

Chester Park’s Ski Jumps Come Down

Enthusiasm for ski jumping had declined dramatically by the 1990s with the advent of many other forms of extreme sports that attracted the same thrill seekers that ski jumping once did. Efforts have been made to revitalize the ski jumping program, but plans proved too expensive. Chester Bowl hosted its last ski jumping competition in 2005 on Little Chester. The Duluth Ski Club has been inactive since then.

In 2007 the Duluth Parks and Recreation Department announced it was considering removing the historic Chester Park ski jumps and surrounding facilities—the city had long viewed the jumps as a potential liability. Many fans of the ski jumps showed up to a meeting of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission. Jim A. and Jim J. Denney proposed a plan allowing the former Duluth Ski Club members and others to try to save the jumps. The commission passed it unanimously, but no plan ever materialized.

In the fall of 2011, citing vandalism and safety issues, Duluth’s Facilities Management Division removed the lower portions of Big Chester and Little Chester along with adjacent scoring booths and what was left of the Rabbit Ears, Bunny Ears, and Copper Peak-a-Boo training jumps. Duluth Parks and Recreation manager Kathy Bergen explained to Zenith City Online that facilities management personnel did not contact the parks commission in reference to its decision before the demolition took place.

On August 18, 2014, Little Chester was torn down. Workers pulled down what remained of the 1926 Big Chester ski jump two days later. While the landmarks symbolized Duluth’s epic contributions to American ski jumping, for many years they had become a popular and dangerous spot for underage drinking among high school and college students who often climbed the sides of the jump.

In 2012 the city has formed a committee to create a memorial to ski jumping at Chester Park, part of the park commission’s “mini master plan” for the park. Finalized in November 2014, the six-phase plan—projected to cost between $3.4 and $5.1 million—is designed to improve the park’s trails, buildings, bridges, and other amenities, including a $1 million expansion and renovation of the Thom Storm Chalet.

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