Fond du Lac Park

The nursery buildings within Fond du Lac Park photographed in 1927. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Fond du Lac’s Winter Sports Center

F. Rodney Paine, soon after he took over as Duluth’s Park Superintendent in 1926, began developing a plan for the forested parkland surrounding the city nursery. He designated the area as a municipal forest and in his 1928 annual report introduced a new vision for the city: “There is no reason why Duluth should not enjoy a reputation as a winter sports city equal to Montreal, Quebec, or other cities where a great many people go for the sole purpose of participating in winter sports activities.” Paine planned to develop winter sports opportunities at Fond du Lac and several other parks. Park department staff went to work establishing picnic sites with tables, fireplaces, and benches; they also cleared dead wood throughout Fond du Lac Park to minimize the risk of fire.

The stock market crash of 1929 brought a temporary halt to all park development. In response to the economic depression, President Herbert Hoover created the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA) in 1932, and Paine promptly took advantage of this government program, bringing in relief workers to resume efforts at Fond du Lac Park. They cleared trees and built a road and log bridge, a toboggan slide, a ski slide, and one mile of trails that could be used for skiing in winter and bridle paths in summer. A log cabin constructed on the west side of Mission Creek served as a warming house. Paine reported that all of the relief work was accomplished using mainly salvaged materials and “the most primitive methods and with practically no equipment.” Paine also expanded the park, adding just under 577 acres acquired by condemnation from various owners in May 1934.

In early 1935, Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) replaced the ERA, and Paine continued to utilize workers provided by the federal relief programs. However, his vision of making Duluth a winter sports city was not yet completed when Mayor Snively lost his re-election bid in early 1937—and Paine lost his job.

Duluth’s newly elected mayor, Rudy Berghult, replaced Paine with Earl Sherman, and in 1939 the new park superintendent began developing an arboretum adjacent to the municipal nursery. Relief workers planted trees and shrubs and constructed gravel walks, foot trails, rest benches, and a parking lot. The arboretum included a variety of habitats: lily pond, swamp, bog, dry meadow, lowland meadow, dense ravine, oak-maple forest, and pine-spruce forest. According to Sherman’s 1940 annual report, “the Arboretum is not large or elaborate, nor has much money been spent in its development, but it contains so much history, beauty and plant and animal life that in our opinion it ranks highly in comparison with other Arboretums.”

Workers later added picnic tables and fireplaces and completed the Onnebita Lodge, a log building that provided rest rooms and served as a retreat from rain storms and mosquitoes. They built a pond by damming up a small cold spring and introduced over one thousand rainbow trout from the French River hatchery. In October the fish were set free in the upper of Twin Ponds, located along the parkway immediately east of Enger Park.

Sherman and his successor, John Hoene, continued to develop winter activities at Fond du Lac Park. In 1940 the park department—with help from the WPA—completed a ski-jumping scaffold and judges’ stand and dedicated the Fond du Lac Winter Sports Center during a tournament in February 1941. Hoene described the project in his 1942 annual report: “For several years we have been developing a giant winter sports center within this park. This winter sports area combines ski jumping, recreational skiing, down mountain skiing, cross-country skiing, ski-joring [with horses, not dogs], tobogganing, skating, and sleigh rides.” In the summer the cross-country ski trails could be used as bridle paths. A map produced by the park department in 1941 calls the ski jump hill “Big Ojibwe Mountain.” By 1949 the ski hill had been nicknamed the Ojibway Bowl.

The Winter Sports Center also became another home for the Duluth Ski Club, which hosted tournaments at the site while continuing to train at Chester Bowl. The ski jump was first used in a tournament in February 1941, when 5,000 spectators turned out for the facility’s dedication and an exhibition by famed Norwegian jumper Torger Tokle, who set the hill’s initial record at 203 feet. A year later, Duluth hosted the 1942 National Ski Tournament on the sixty-meter jumping hill at Fond du Lac; over 12,000 spectators viewed the championship. Hoene wrote:

“Of course, for the conducting of the tournament we cannot praise too highly the work of the Duluth Ski Club, the organization which was responsible for the construction of the hill and responsible for the promotion of this tremendous tournament. All of the worries and all of the planning for such a long period of time was fruitfully realized during the weekend of the tournament when the weather turned out to be absolutely perfect and the crowd taxed our capacity to the very limit.…We were very pleased to have this crowd gather out there and to hear them exclaim with delight over the completeness of the facilities and the beauty of the area.”

During a 1954 competition at Fond du Lac, Duluthian Joe Nowack jumped a record-setting 226 feet. His Ojibway Bowl record was tied in 1960 by Gene Kotlarek, also of Duluth. In 1964 the ski jump was increased to seventy meters.

While the Duluth Ski Club continued to hold annual tournaments at Fond du Lac’s Ojibway Bowl, Mission Creek eventually won the erosion contest. Spring floods in 1972 washed away the land around the ski jump, creating a dangerous situation. The jump was removed in 1975 after the club agreed to abandon it due to continuous soil erosion problems on the landing area. The jump site was filled with soil and seeded with grass to prevent further erosion.

Very few remnants of the winter sports center remain, and the park department considers Fond du Lac an undeveloped park. The Superior Hiking Trail passes through the park, along with the Upper and Lower Cathedral mountain bike trails that are part of the newly developed Duluth Traverse.

Fond du Lac Park, along with Carson Park, Napolean B. Merritt Memorial Park, 391 acres of state-owned property, and 1,191 acres of forfeited tax property together make up the 2,246-acre Fond du Lac Forest Park. In 2012 Duluth’s city council designated the land within Fond du Lac Forest Park as the F. Rodney Paine Forest Preserve, in honor of Paine’s vision and leadership during his eleven years as park superintendent.

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