Chambers Grove & Historical Park

A Clow & Nicholson postcard made between 1900 and 1915 showing the steamer Newsboy docked at Fond du Lac. (Image courtesy Herb Dillon)

City commissioners finally took steps to acquire Chambers Grove in 1920 by initiating condemnation proceedings. However, Mayor Clarence Magney delayed the action because Emily Chambers still lived on the site, and he feared that taking away her home would shorten her life. Condemnation proceedings were started again in 1922 when Mayor Sam Snively and Park Superintendent F. Rodney Paine recognized the importance of the area for connecting Duluth’s parkway system to Jay Cooke State Park. The city finally purchased 577 acres from Emily Chambers in 1923. She died three years later at the home of her niece in Morgan Park. Ten acres of the Chambers property between the quarry and Highway 23, including the grove and former home site, were designated as Chambers Grove Park.

The park saw its first major improvements in the 1930s, even though budget cuts during the Great Depression reduced city park staff to a bare minimum. Using labor provided by Duluth’s City Work Administration, the park department in 1933 built a log fieldhouse (also referred to as a pavilion) at Chambers Grove. The rustic log building, constructed almost entirely of material from within the park, included a large auditorium, a piano, a fireplace, and a fully outfitted kitchen.

Two years later, Chambers Grove became home to a reconstruction of the nineteenth-century fur trading post. During the 1930s the Minnesota Historical Society sponsored a series of pageants throughout the state, and the topic of the 1935 pageant was to be the early fur trading days. Fond du Lac was the obvious location for a performance. Nothing was left of the original trading post, so city leaders decided to build a replica as the setting for the historical pageant.

Park Superintendent Paine indicated in his notes that the committee chose not to build the trading post in the original location because by this time the property was privately owned and surrounded by modern buildings. Instead, organizers decided on a site about five hundred feet upstream, within Chambers Grove Park, where the St. Louis River and a wooded island provided an appropriate backdrop. According to Paine, “the Post is typical of the Trading Posts of about 1816…. It does not pretend to be a replica of the Fond du Lac Post, but all of its features are substantiated by existing records for the posts in this territory.”

A crowd of fifteen thousand people gathered in Chambers Grove to hear Minnesota governor Floyd B. Olson dedicate the facility on August 4, 1935. The previous day twenty thousand Duluthians had lined Superior Street for eighteen blocks to witness a parade, led by oxcarts, depicting the early history of the Head of the Lakes. The four-day event included performances of a seven-episode pageant depicting Fond du Lac’s early history. The first three episodes of the pageant dealt with the activities of explorer John Baptiste Cadotte and his voyageurs in 1792, episode four highlighted Henry Schoolcraft’s “discovery” of the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1832, and the final three episodes showed life at the Fond du Lac post and Indian camp life as portrayed by members of Chippewa tribes still residing in the area.

The replica stockade’s popularity was short lived, and it fell into a state of neglect; flooding caused further damage. Writing in 2014, longtime News Tribune and Herald columnist Jim Heffernan remembered that when he was a child in the 1940s and early 1950s, the facility was primarily used “as a urinal” by men and boys. By the 1960s it had been abandoned for many years. According to park department records the stockade was demolished in 1967. The fieldhouse/pavilion was condemned in 1968 and razed in 1969. The park department constructed a new pavilion in 1973.

By that time fire had destroyed the Fond du Lac Inn, the last remnant of the days when the excursion boats of Clow & Nicholson carried crowds to Chambers Grove. That era had come to an end with the steamer Montauk’s last cruise in 1939. The Clow & Nicholson pavilion served as a roller skating rink beginning in 1956 and was abandoned some time before it burned in 1962. Today the property the pavilion sat on is a privately owned campground and boat landing. In 2008 the Highway 23 bridge was renamed Biauswah Bridge to honor Native American military veterans. The name comes from two legendary Sandy Lake Ojibwe chiefs, father and son; the younger Chief Biauswah married a Fond du Lac woman.

After the Flood: Changes Afoot in Chambers Grove

The 2012 flood that devastated much of Duluth hit Fond du Lac particularly hard, as the surging waters of Mission Creek and the St. Louis River overflowed their banks. Roads were destroyed, and several families lost their homes. A sheet metal wall that had separated Chambers Grove Park from the river was compromised, and currents undercut the shoreline, causing serious erosion. In September 2015 funds from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative paid for the installation of three rock weirs in the river adjacent to the park. The J-shaped formations steer fast-flowing water away from the banks to the middle of the river; a side benefit is that the weirs create good spawning habitat for sturgeon. Changes were also made to the slope of the park land, providing better access to the river.

Chambers Grove currently serves as the western access point for the Upper and Lower Cathedral mountain bike trails of the Duluth Traverse, which extends across the length of the city. In summer 2016 the city’s Property and Facilities Management Division began work on the Chambers Park Improvement Project; plans include construction of a new monument sign, handicapped-accessible bathrooms, expanded parking and playground space, LED lighting, a boardwalk through the site of the former Chambers Quarry, and a series of signs interpreting the entire community’s rich heritage.

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