Chester Park’s Ski Jumps

Ski jumping in Duluth can trace its way back to January 1, 1905, when the Duluth News Tribune called on Duluthians to organize a ski club to participate in the “Norwegian sport” of skiing. That year the National Ski Association was organized by the Ishpeming Ski Club of Ishpeming, Michigan, for competition in ski jumping and “ski running,” what we would today call Nordic or cross-country skiing.

Nordic skiing and ski jumping as sports was a fairly new concept, and the newspaper felt compelled to describe a ski: “The ski is the Norseman’s shoe,” the newspaper explained, “differing from the American Indian’s footgear [snowshoes] in having its bearing surface of solid wood and not a webbed frame.”

Forty-two Duluthians answered the call at the St. Louis Hotel in downtown Duluth on November 21, 1905, organizing as the Duluth Ski Club. Club founders—including noted Duluth architect John J. Wangenstein—consisted of almost exclusively of Norwegian immigrants, most notably legendary jumpers Ole Feiring and John Mangseth. Mangseth would be named the club’s first captain; I. A. Iverson served as its first president.

According to reports at the time, the Duluth Ski Club’s bylaws stated that “any white man or woman of good standing over twelve years of age may become a member of the club” and that “no liquor can be served or sold at any of the functions of the club.” An early proposal to limit membership to those of Scandinavian descent was dropped “as a policy which could work to no good end.”

The club’s first order of business was to acquire a ski hill. Iverson and company chose a spot in Woodland behind the newly built Washburn School on St. Andrews Street. The site promised an approach of 300 feet with a minimum jump of 100 feet. The jump would become known simply as Duluth Hill.

John Mangseth and four others tested the hill on December 18, 1905, with the team captain jumping 75 feet. The Ski Club held its first event there January 7, 1906, and a crowd of 300 onlookers saw at least one jumper soar 96 feet, just four feet shy of that promised by organizers.

Later that month the Duluth Ski Club captured several awards at the first annual ski tournament on Ashland, Wisconsin’s White River Hill, with assistant captain Olaf Larson tying for first place and Mangseth coming in third. Two other Duluthians finished in the top ten. Mangseth tied with two others for the longest jump of the weekend, just 54 feet. “Soft weather” was blamed for poor jumping conditions.

Duluth Ski Club members continued to dominate that year. At the National Ski Tournament on Brasswire Hill in Ishpeming that February, Duluth’s Ole Feiring took the $100 first prize and Mangseth came in second, with Mangseth out-jumping all others with a 94-foot leap. Later that winter on the Aurora Club’s hill in Red Wing, Minnesota, Duluth’s Gustave Bye jumped 106 feet, a new American record.

In December of 1906 the Ski Club made a change, abandoning Duluth Hill for a new site adjacent to the west side of Chester Park above Boulevard Drive, today’s Skyline Parkway. The new site was considered ideal because it faced north, which protected it from the sun thus lengthening the ski season. It was also surrounded by hills and trees, sheltering jumpers from the wind.

A “corps of men” descended on the site to clear brush and stumps, and the new hill was unofficially opened on Christmas Day, 1906. Besides the jump, smaller jumps and toboggan runs were built as well (pictured). Local dealers announced record sales of ski equipment, and Iverson looked forward to the club’s membership doubling, perhaps even tripling. Duluth had caught ski jump fever.

On New year’s day, 1907, the News Tribune reported that more than 500 Duluthians enjoyed the new facilities at Chester Park. A small tournament was held, but only two members of the club used a temporary jump. Novice jumpers, the newspaper said, furnished “plenty of amusement for the spectators.” The permanent jump was finished January 6. Almost immediately more scaffolding was added to make the jump higher in order to break distance records—the Duluth News Tribune claimed the Duluth jump was the largest in the world.

It worked. During the Chester Hill’s first tournament on January 20 that year, Duluth’s Ole Feiring jumped 112 feet, shattering Bye’s record by six feet before a crowd first reported as roughly 3,500 (a report just a month later claimed 10,000 spectators). Bye was said to have made the longest jump of the day at 113 feet, but he could not hold the landing. A feat for Feiring, but the American record was still 27 feet shorter than the Norway’s best.

On their new home hill, the Duluth men took first through fourth place. Feiring’s record was short lived. Four days later on the ski hill in Red Wing, Aurora Club member Ole Mangseth—John Mangseth’s brother—jumped 114 feet. Despite having his record so quickly broken, Feiring went on to dominate tournaments for the rest of the season, with several first-place finishes, including beating Ole Mangseth in Red Wing by taking first place in a tournament whose top five finishers all shared the same first name: Ole.

A February tournament at Chester Hill drew in an estimated crowd of 5,000. Advertisements for a March tournament in Duluth boasted appearances by Feiring and the Mangseth brothers to help draw in spectators. Recognizing the potential for a financially successful event, the club next tried to get the 1908 national tournament to come to Chester Hill. Their efforts included building a warming house for spectators and a club house for members.

The club prevailed, and Duluth hosted the national tournament in 1908. By nine a.m. on the first day more than 9,000 spectators had surrounded the Chester Hill jump. Feiring, who was greeted by “deafening applause,” fell twice, putting him out of the running. The Mangseth brothers also failed to impress. But Duluth’s John Evanson came through for the Zenith City, setting a new national record at 116 feet.

Four days later, during a special extension of the tournament, John Mangseth broke Evanson’s feat when he jumped 117 feet. Later that same month in a tournament in Ishpeming, Evanston leaped 132 feet, blowing Manseth’s record clear out of sight and closing in on the world record. Duluth, Chester Hill in particular, had become the center of ski jumping in the U.S.

During this time the club at Chester Park had no monopoly on ski jumping in Duluth. Made up of boys, the West End Ski Club organized in 1907 with members of the Mork Athletic Club and Hill Toppers Club coming together to host tournaments from a hill adjacent to Piedmont Avenue. That same year the West Duluth Ski Club organized at Peter S. Johnson’s Central Avenue store, jumping from a hill located along today’s Skyline Parkway between Fifty-ninth and Sixtieth Avenues West. Northland Country Club built a 600 foot alpine ski hill on land owned by club president Guilford Hartley, with plans to install a jump upon one of the putting greens. Across the bay, the Superior Ski Club jumped from a facility at the foot of Twenty-eighth Street in Billings Park. Later the Zenith Ski Club would build a hill alongside Miller’s Creek at Fourteenth Street.

Still, national focus remained on the Chester Hill and the Duluth Ski Club. In April 1908, just months after Chester Hill saw national records shattered, the slide and its scaffolding came tumbling to the ground after a wind storm. Ole Feiring saw the destruction as an opportunity, asking rhetorically “If we can make 130 feet on the old hill why not build the new one so we can go 150 feet?” Indeed, at 81 feet tall the new jump stood 25 feet higher than its predecessor. The Club boasted it was going after the world record.

Duluth Ski Jumping Declines

That achievement was never met. The Duluth Ski Club continued to play a large role in the National Ski Association for the next nine years. It hosted the national tournament again in 1915. That same year the Zenith City was considered for the new home of the national organization, but Duluth skiers had ceased to dominate the winner’s platform. When the club raised the jump to 90 feet before the tournament, it appealed in local newspapers for new members: their dues were needed to finance the construction.

In the fall of 1915 the club was in desperate need of money. The scaffolding and jump needed extensive repairs, and members feared they would blow down with the next big wind. That wind came the following May The entire jump came down, the slide “was tossed a hundred feet into the woods and shattered to bits,” the News-Tribune reported. The grandstand tipped over; the slide approach was blown halfway down the hill.

At the same time the region was becoming apathetic about ski jumping. The Itasca Ski Club in Coleraine tried to sell its steel ski jump. The National Ski Association nearly folded in 1915 and said it could not continue without Duluth’s membership. Still the Duluth Ski Club chose to not rebuild the jump at Chester Hill, folding some time after the jump fell to the ground. Ansel Holter, secretary of the national club, wrote to the News Tribune lamenting Duluth’s departure from the national scene. Shortly after the club folded, the city purchased the ski hill and adjacent land, expanding Chester Park.

The West Duluth Ski Club managed to hang on, jumping from Old Maple Hill at Fifty-fifth Avenue West off the Boulevard. In 1922 tournaments in West Duluth regularly attracted 2,000 to 3,000 spectators. The West End hill at Miller’s Creek remained active as well.

That year skiing at Chester Park started its way back as well with a club the News Tribune referred to as the Chester Park Ski Club, which included veteran leaper Ole Feiring and hosted a tournament that March. According to the Duluth Ski Club’s records, the club reorganized in 1922 and its skiers donned the club’s green-and-white uniforms for the first time, sending eight skiers to the national tournament in Minneapolis. The next year they decided to rebuild at Chester Park.

In 1924 the club built the 115-foot tall Big Chester ski jump. In January that year Coleraine’s Barney Riley jumped 137 feet off Big Chester. The first Winter Olympics also took place in 1924, with Norway’s Jacob Tullin Thams taking home the gold with a jump of 160 feet. Two years later a steel slide, reportedly the “largest steel slide in the world” was built at Chester, and that same year the national tournament returned to the Zenith City.

(The jump that stands today in Chester Park known as Big Chester has steel scaffolding, while the original Big Chester was built entirely of wood. It could be that the original Big Chester was removed, after which the 1926 steel slide was referred to as Big Chester. We will update this story once we learn more.)

Off to Fond du Lac

In 1940 the Works Project Administration helped Duluth build a new ski jumping facility near the former Krause Brownstone Quarry on Mission Creek. The Fond du Lac Winter Sports Center included a skating rink, cross country ski trails, an 800-foot toboggan slide, an alpine ski hill, and a 196-foot (60-meter) ski jump (pictured). In the summer, the cross country trails were used as bridle paths. The Winter Sports Center was accessed by an entrance at the convergence of East and West Mission Creek Parkway. It became a popular recreation site, and winter activities included sleigh rides.

A judges’ stand was built, as was a chalet that boasted a kitchen, a long wooden bar, hardwood floors, and two fireplaces, one at each end of the structure. Besides serving the entire community, the Winter Sports Center 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 five thousand spectators turned out for the facility’s dedication and an exhibition by national and Olympic skiers, including famed Norwegian-born jumper Torger Tokle, who set the hill’s initial record at 203 feet. The following year the national ski-jumping championships were held at Fond du Lac (the photos shown here were taken during that event).

By 1949 the ski hill had been nicknamed the Ojibway Bowl. During a 1954 competition at Fond du Lac, the Duluth Ski Club’s Joe Nowack jumped a record-setting 226 feet. Later club president, Nowak went on to set eleven ski jumping records in the U.S., Canada, and Europe and later coached skiing at Cloquet High School. In 1975 his team was ranked first in the nation. His Ojibway Bowl record was tied in 1960 by Gene Kotlarek, also of Duluth.

In 1964 the ski jump at Fond du Lac was increased to 70 meters, but nature doomed the slide’s future. The spring floods of 1972 eroded the land around the ski jump, making it dangerous to leave the jumps standing. The ski jump was removed and the erosion damage to the hill was filled; it was reseeded and planted to prevent further erosion.

Back to Chester

More slides were added to the Chester Park over the years, including two training hills. In 1969 a 55-meter jump was added, and two years later a 35-meter hill that would be called Little Chester joined the cluster of slides. In the early 1970s Chester Bowl boasted five ski jumps.

Over the years, several Olympic ski jumpers trained at Chester Park as members of the Duluth Ski Club, including Adrian Watt, Greg Swor, and Jim J. Denney.

As a member of the U.S. team in 1967, Adrian Watt won the Pine Mountain ski jumping tournament and represented the U.S. at the German-Austrian Springertournee. During trials for the 1968 Olympics, Watt landed a jump of 337 feet, setting a record at Pine Mountain in Iron Mountain, Michigan. He competed in the 1968 olympics and the following year won the U.S. Championship.

A member of the U.S. Ski Team from 1970 to 1975, Greg Swor was U.S. junior champion in 1970 and later that year took third in the U.S. Seniors. He won the U.S. Championship in 1972.

Like many members of the Duluth Ski Club, Jim J. Denney caught ski jumping fever when his father, Jim A., took him to watch jumping events at Chester Park, just as the elder Denney’s father had done for him when he was young. Jim J. captured the U.S. ski jumping championship in 1976 and 1980. In the late 1970s he was considered the nation’s best ski jumper and finished fourteenth overall in 1978’s World Championships. Later that year he won a World Cup event in Lahti, Finland. In 2008 Denny was inducted into the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame. His own son, Jim R., skied for the U.S. Olympic team in 2006.

There are many stories like the Denney family’s, though few end with such accomplishments. Despite all the hoopla over achievements, for the most part Duluth’s history of ski jumping wasn’t so much about the national competition and Olympic hopefuls as much as it was about a community activity that families participated in from generation to generation. That’s what many Duluthians see when they look up at what remains of Big Chester.

Duluth’s and the rest of the world’s 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 did. Efforts have been made to revitalize the ski jumping program, but plans have proved too expensive.

In 2007 Duluth’s parks department announced it was considering removing the historic Chester Park ski jumps and surrounding facilities. The News Tribune ran guest editorials and letters to the editor in favor of retaining the jumps. Many fans of the ski jumps showed up to a meeting of the parks board. Jim A. Denney, along with his son Jim J., proposed a plan to save the jumps. The parks board passed it unanimously.

In 2008 the city, which had been operating Chester Bowl’s alpine ski hill, was unable to continue funding the program through Parks and Recreation Department. The hill is now run by the volunteers of the Chester Park Improvement Club.

The top portion of Big Chester was removed years ago, and in the fall of 2011—despite the 2007 parks board decision—the lower portions of Big Chester and Little Chester were removed by Duluth’s Facilities Management Department along with adjacent scoring booths and what was left of the 20-meter Rabbit Ears and the 10-meter Bunny Ears training jumps. Safety issues were cited as the reason the structures were removed.

As of this writing the parks board is working on a master plan for all of Duluth’s parks, and what remains of Duluth’s ski jumping history at Chester Park is once again threatened with demolition.

Update: The last of Duluth’s historic ski jumps were torn down August 20, 2014. You can read about it here.

Black and white photos courtesy Tom Kasper. Color photo by Dennis O’Hara. Postcards from the Zenith City Press. Story by Tony Dierckins; originally posted on Zenith City Online June, 2012.