Chambers Grove & Historical Park

Picnickers at the Chambers House ruins photographed some time between 1892 and 1915. (Image courtesy Herb Dillon)

Chambers Grove

Fond du Lac became a townsite in 1856. Decades after the fur post and mission closed, Fond du Lac once again bustled with activity. “Tomorrow a party of young people will go up to Fond du Lac for a picnic,” the Duluth Weekly Tribune announced in 1884. “It is a good place to go.” Those picnickers were likely headed to Chambers Grove, where tall maple and elm trees created a delightful shady spot on the banks of the St. Louis River several hundred yards west of the Astor fur post site.

Michael and Emily Chambers purchased the land that bears their name in 1869, when Fond du Lac was a small but lively community. Chambers was an auctioneer, originally from County Cork, Ireland. He lived in St. Paul before he and his wife, Emily, a French-speaking Canadian, moved to Fond du Lac.

Their property in Fond du Lac, previously a farm owned by Rueben Carlton, namesake of Minnesota’s Carlton County, included extensive outcrops of sandstone along the St. Louis River. Chambers leased that portion of the land to various brownstone quarrymen intermittently from 1870 until his death in 1895. The stone from Chambers Quarry was used to construct many buildings in Duluth, few of which remain.

Michael and Emily Chambers began building a new home near the river in 1870 and finished it in 1872. The two-story mansion, faced with chocolate-brown sandstone from their own quarry, included more than twenty rooms with deep stone walls and tall, narrow arched windows. The house stood on high ground overlooking the St. Louis River and attracted sightseers who traveled to Fond du Lac for a view of the mansion. The Chamberses often entertained in the house’s large second-floor drawing room, which featured a grand piano (Emily was an accomplished pianist). They covered the floors with Brussels carpeting, which they protected with burlap for dances. Newspaper reports indicate the house may have operated as a hotel in the mid-1870s.

In addition to the brownstone quarry and mansion, Michael and Emily Chambers’s property included a plum orchard and, as the Duluth News Tribune described, “a grove of old maples, between which is no underbrush, but whose interlacing foliage casts its dark shadows on a smooth carpet of short, thick grass; a high hill on one side, and the broad, still river on the other.”

Local newspapers noted the popularity of picnic outings to Fond du Lac as early as 1871, when the Duluth Minnesotian reported that Duluth’s Germania Society planned to travel up the river on the steamer Kasota for a Fourth of July picnic. By 1882 Michael Chambers had opened his maple grove along the river as a public picnic ground; he even provided a platform for dancing and swings for youngsters. Chambers Grove became a favorite site for clan gatherings, church and school groups, labor unions, and service organizations.

While Emily Chambers was quite refined—she was educated in a Quebec convent—Michael Chambers could be difficult to deal with. Historian William Coventry describes Chambers’s career as “punctuated by friction with partners, unstable financial situations, and scuffles with the law.” Over the years he accused a fellow pioneer of a “murderous assault,” attempted to sue another for defamation of character, and was himself accused of selling liquor to an Ojibwe; each case was dismissed. In October 1882 the News Tribune reported that quarryman Martin Boyle confronted Chambers on a train. Boyle grabbed him “by the beard and…drew a revolver and threatened to shoot him.” Other passengers intervened “before much harm was done.”

In May 1891 it was Alphonse Guerard’s turn to assault Chambers, this time over a property dispute. That July an arson fire gutted the Chamberses’ mansion; Guerard was the prime suspect. Months later Guerard’s home was also destroyed by an arson fire. No legal action was taken in either case. The mansion was never rebuilt. Michael Chambers died in 1895, but the remains of the house were not removed. Promoters made colored postcards of the ruins of the Chamberses’ house, claiming it was the “Old Fond du Lac Indian Trading Post on the St. Louis River, Duluth, Minn.” The picnickers kept coming, and exploring the ruins became part of the grove’s allure until they were cleared away in 1912.

Some picnickers arrived by the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, but most took the river route. As early as the 1880s, steamships that already made daily runs to Fond du Lac began to offer “pic-nic cruises.” Following Michael Chambers’s death in 1895, Emily leased (and later sold) the eastern portion of the picnic grove to the Clow & Nicholson Transportation Company, which operated a number of the excursion boats. Newspaper advertisements announced that Chambers Grove at Fond du Lac was not a public park, but was under lease to Clow & Nicholson, and was free only to the patrons of their boat line. Other visitors had to pay to use the picnic grounds. The area became so popular that a hotel operated on Nekuk Island, also called Peterson Island, from 1895 to about 1915.

In 1907 Duluth Alderman William E. McEwen, who owned a summer cottage at Fond du Lac, proposed the idea of purchasing the Chamberses’ property for a city park. He described the land as “containing 120 acres of rolling ground, dotted with handsome shade trees, lying along the windings of the St. Louis river, removed from the chill of the lake breezes, and away from the hum…of the city, it would make the most ideal park in the northern part of the state.” But the park board had little money and decided to focus instead on maintenance of existing parks.

Judge William A. Cant also encouraged the city to create a public park in Fond du Lac. In August 1913, Judge Cant told the News Tribune that “Duluth has an opportunity at this time to acquire a public playground that she sorely needs. Watch the people who come on every excursion boat, with no place to go, picnicking on private property in many instances, and then one sees what a need there is for the city to own a place for the people at the end of this boat trip—the most popular of the sightseeing trips out from Duluth.” However, just a few months earlier, the new 1913 city charter had eliminated Duluth’s park board and handed responsibility for the park system to the mayor. Although Mayor William Prince appreciated parks, he had more pressing problems to resolve.

An ad in the Duluth Herald in June 1915 announced that Clow & Nicholson had purchased enough water frontage at Fond du Lac west of the fur post site to establish its own dock and terminal. The company built the Fond du Lac Inn, a large pavilion with “plenty of floor space for dancing, big roomy porches for lounging, big cheery fireplace…, outdoor tables, seats, swings,…row boats, bathing beach, etc.” The outside of the building was painted a cheerful yellow and white. In 1919 construction was begun on a bridge over the St. Louis River, which separated the Clow & Nicholson property from Chambers Grove.

Duluthians also journeyed to Chambers Grove via trains running along the original LS&M line between Fond du Lac and West Duluth at Seventy-first Avenue West, which in 1905 became known as the Northern Pacific Railway’s Fond du Lac Branch. In order to turn around and return to Duluth, engines—including gasoline-powered models from 1909 to 1910 and 1923 to 1925—used a turntable adjacent to passenger and freight depots built at 133rd Avenue West in 1895, the same year Fond du Lac was annexed by Duluth. (Fond du Lac’s first depot, built in 1870 at 122nd Avenue West, was moved to 13308 West Third Street in 1896 and operated as the Olde Depot Inn restaurant from 1929 to 1985; it is a private residence today.) Streetcar service to New Duluth and the increased availability of automobiles ended train service to Fond du Lac in 1925.

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