Originally published February 2014
Today let’s go as far west in Duluth as we can, for a slice of Fond du Lac history. A narrow slice—not all the way back to the 17th-century arrival of Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut (one of the many spellings of the Zenith City’s namesake).
Let’s recall some much more recent history, when the city’s westernmost neighborhood was the site of one of the largest ski jumps in the Midwest in its time. My report here is largely anecdotal—my own memories of being brought there as a child to the annual ski jumping competitions.
Fond du lac was once home to Duluth’s Winter Sports Center—a massive three-plus story iron structure atop a 70-meter hill, built in 1940 by the Works Progress Administration. The area also included other winter sports amenities.
It was located in the heart of the Fond du Lac neighborhood, a few blocks north of Highway 23 at the end of a residential street that continues to be a regular neighborhood today. Mission Creek runs through the neighborhood at the base of the ski jump hill—frozen in the winter season.
Of course I knew nothing of its history as a child, bundled up and standing among the multitudes of spectators in the 1940s—crowds estimated at upwards of 5,000—to view the Duluth Ski Club’s annual main event held there each February. The annual jumping competition in those days was one of the highlights of the winter in Duluth.
My earliest memory also includes seeing a huge and speedy toboggan slide adjacent to the ski hill that was later taken down because it was said to be too dangerous. But the jumping competition was the main annual attraction. On competition day, scores of cars ringed the outer fringe of the landing area at the base of the hill, with spectators who trekked in on foot spread out in front of the cars. A public address system, located in a press box half way up the landing hill, kept the crowd informed on who was jumping and how long their leaps had been.
In 1941, a Norwegian jumper by the name of Torger Tokle had set the hill’s record by jumping 203 feet. By the time I began attending events, perhaps five years later, Torger Tokle was legendary. He had been killed in World War II.
One year after the war, much was made of the entry of his brother, Arthur Tokle, in the competition with everyone wondering if he could top his late brother’s record jump. I was there for that, but I can’t recall if Arthur Tokle accomplished his goal. But Arthur Tokle was greeted as a hero, not just because he was Torger’s brother but because he was a fine jumper himself. He became an American citizen and jumped for the U.S. in the 1952 Olympics.
It seemed to me that interest in ski jumping began to wane after that period, although the jumping tournaments went on for another 20-plus years. I remember when the name of the ski hill area was changed from Winter Sports Center to Ojibway Bowl, with an attempt to revive interest. Other activities, such as sleigh and hay rides, were available there.
Not long ago, I drove up that street and into where the ski jump and hill had been. Familiar as I was with it in its heyday, today you can hardly tell where the landing was, much less envision exactly where the jump had towered above the steep, now overgrown, hill.
The area was overwhelmed in the June 2012 flood when Mission Creek swelled, and it shows. Another flood, in 1972, contributed to the demise of the entire complex when erosion weakened the base of the jump and ate away at the landing. That marked end for what was once a major outdoor amenity in Duluth.
As an aside, Fond du Lac has always held a special place in the history of my own family. My parents spent the first summer of their marriage in 1932 in a cabin on the hillside overlooking the village, my father commuting to his job downtown by streetcar.
The village within the city on the banks of the St. Louis River was also the western terminus of the fabled excursion vessel Montauk, often recalled by my parents. And the annual Sunday School Picnics of our church, held each June for decades, were held in Chamber’s Grove Park, complete with a replica stockade recalling the area’s earliest history as a fur trading post.
Fond du Lac itself was greatly affected by the June 2012 flood, with many residents losing their homes. But it remains a lovely small residential hamlet, most of its past commercial and recreational aspects having long-since gone.
Discover more about the Fond du Lac Winter Sports Complex here.
Retired Duluth News-Tribune and Herald columnist Jim Heffernan can’t stop writing. Visit his blog here, catch up with all his Zenith City Online stories about growing up in Duluth here, and check out his book Colder Near the Lake here.