Duluth’s Park Board members spent much of their time, energy, and resources between 1889 and 1913 creating the “Parkway”—first referred to as Terrace Parkway, then Rogers Boulevard, and now Skyline Parkway—which originally extended from the Chester Creek corridor (Chester Park) on the east across the hillside to the Miller Creek corridor (Lincoln Park) on the west.
Chester Park and Lincoln Park formed the “bookends” of the Parkway and were the first parks created intentionally by the Park Board. When first established, Chester Park extended along both sides of Chester Creek from East Fourth Street up to Skyline Parkway. The area above Skyline Parkway that we now call “Upper Chester” was not added to the park until 1920.
The land along the lower reaches of Chester Creek was settled very early in Duluth’s history, soon after the 1854 Treaty of LaPointe opened the north shore of Lake Superior to Americans of European descent. According to local tradition, the name of the creek refers to Charles Chester, one of Duluth’s first settlers and owner of a large parcel of land along the creek in the 1850s. Chester apparently left Duluth by 1860, moving on to California to look for gold. We know very little about Charles Chester, but for over 100 years his name has remained firmly attached to the creek and the park.
Perhaps the park should instead have been named “Ray Park” in honor of another early Duluth settler, James. D. Ray, who first came here 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 1856 he helped plat the town of Portland, which extended roughly from Third Avenue East to Twelfth Avenue East. In 1870 Portland became part of the newly organized city of Duluth, and Ray served as one of the city’s first aldermen.
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 the Forest Hill Cemetery and planned to eventually enlarge it to 35 acres and landscape it with trees and shrubs. He built a small receiving vault in 1883 (to hold bodies waiting for burial), but it quickly proved to be too small.
As construction of a new vault got underway in late 1885, a journalist from the Lake Superior Review and Weekly Tribune described the elaborate structure, which was located on a high spot near the center of the cemetery. “The vault will have a frontage of twenty-five feet and a depth of about thirty. It is being built after a handsome architectural design furnished by McMillan & Stebbins, and the material used in its construction will be heavy blocks of Fond du Lac brownstone and Duluth granite…. The entrance will be flanked on each side by pillars of polished granite and surmounted by a stone arch. The doors will be of polished granite, enormously heavy, and an effectual bar to all intrusion. Over the entrance, carved in the stones of the arch, will be the date, 1885, and the words ‘Forest Hill cemetery.’ The roof will be of arched brickwork and covered with iron.”
But the neighborhood surrounding the cemetery rapidly filled up with homes, and by 1887 public sentiment favored William K. Rogers’ plan for establishing a park along both sides of Chester Creek. To create the park system that Rogers envisioned, the Park Board needed to purchase land from individual owners, including James D. Ray.
In order to help make the park a reality, Ray was willing to give up a portion of his cemetery—the land he owned between Fourth and Sixth 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 the new cemetery on Woodland Avenue, opening up the land near the creek to become Chester Park.
By September of 1891 the Park Board had acquired most of the land needed for the park; they controlled about 125 acres from Fifth Street to Skyline Parkway between Thirteenth Avenue East and Fifteenth Avenue East. But negotiations for the land that fronted on Fourth Street dragged on for many years, and squatters frequently took over the area that the Board wanted for the entrance to the park. It wasn’t until 1908 that they finally completed negotiations for purchasing the last of the property required for the main entrance to Chester Park on Fourth Street.
The Park Board gave no explanation of why they officially named the park “Garfield” (instead of Chester) in 1894. This may have been a gesture to honor President James Garfield, who had been assassinated a decade earlier. Or perhaps it was a way to try to keep up with their rival city—Chicago—which already had a Garfield Park.
[The name may also have been to complement Lincoln Park, thereby naming the parkway’s bookend parks after assassinated presidents; Chicago also has a Lincoln Park. — Editor.]
Whatever the reason, the people 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 back to Chester Park, and the Board never again tried to alter it.
The Board chose to leave Chester Park relatively undeveloped, leading the News Tribune to describe it as a “Primeval Forest in the Heart of the City.” In 1902 the Board finally constructed stairways descending into the park from Fifth Street on the east and Sixth Street on the west, connecting to a footpath and two footbridges to provide access to both sides of the valley. A few years later they 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 half way between the upper and lower footbridges (near Ninth Street).
Chester Park could be reached from downtown Duluth in twelve minutes by streetcar, and with the addition of the footpath and pavilion the park became a favorite spot for summer picnics and strolls along the creek. In their annual report, the Park Board claimed “This park is one of the loveliest in the whole system. The giant rocks, the mad, plunging, turbulent stream and stately pines, all conspire to create in you an admiration for nature and for Nature’s God.”
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a three-part series on the history of Chester Park. Part Two appears in March. Nancy Nelson is working on a book about the history of Duluth’s parks. You can read her archived stories here.