Chester Park

An unidentified boy prepares to dive into the artificial pond created by damming Chester Creek near the field house, 1929. Photo by F. R. Paine. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Chester Bowl / Upper Chester

In 1919, Duluth mayor Clarence Magney proposed expanding Chester Park by acquiring land above the parkway, the area now referred to as Chester Bowl or Upper Chester. But even before it officially became part of the park, many people used the Chester Bowl area for recreation, especially ski jumping.

The Duluth Ski Club moved from its first home in the Woodland neighborhood when it purchased property and built a ski jump in Chester Bowl in December 1906, naming the jump “Chester Creek Hill.” The News Tribune pointed out that the new site “is much nearer town than the Woodland hill [so] it will be much easier of access for those who have but a short time once a week to spend on the runners.” The club also favored the Chester Creek site because the surrounding hills sheltered it from wind and the northern exposure protected it from the rays of the afternoon sun.

The Ski Club paid $5,000 for the Chester Creek land, purchasing it from an out-of-town owner. Club members went to work immediately to clear brush and build a wooden scaffold for ski jumping. They also cleared a number of paths down the slopes where, according to the News Tribune, “the novice can disport himself merrily with jumps of from two to ten feet” and prepared toboggan slides with “bumps over which the women and children can shoot the chutes and gain some of the exhilarating effects which belong primarily to the ski rider.”

On New Year’s Day 1907, the News Tribune reported that more than five hundred Duluthians enjoyed the new facilities at Chester Bowl. 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. More scaffolding was soon added to make the jump higher in order to break distance records—the News Tribune claimed the Duluth jump was the largest in the world.

The hill officially opened with a tournament on January 6, 1907, and the most successful skiers of the day landed jumps of seventy-five to eighty feet. For the next nine years, the Duluth Ski Club dominated the sport in the United States, and Chester Creek Hill became the center of American ski jumping.The club hosted the Fourth Annual National Ski Tournament of America in February 1908. The best ski jumpers from across the country poured into Duluth, along with thousands of spectators. The tournament began on Tuesday afternoon, February 11, with Flaaten’s Third Regiment Band leading the contestants in a march from downtown Duluth to Chester Creek Hill. The band remained at the hill throughout the afternoon, playing music to entertain the crowd. Another parade took place in the evening with contestants carrying torches as they walked in a procession along Superior Street from Lake Avenue to Eighth Avenue West.

The next day sleighs carried spectators from the streetcar on Ninth Street up to Chester Bowl for the tournament’s main events. Despite warm weather and soft snow conditions, Duluth’s John Evenson set the new American record jump of 116 feet. Evenson’s teammate Ole Feiring jumped even farther—134 feet—but he fell on his landing, disqualifying the attempt. The festivities ended with a huge banquet at the St. Louis Hotel, which over three hundred people attended. Mayor Marcus Cullum pronounced the tournament a great success and the city of Duluth the best in the world.

In addition to record-setting jumps, many firsts took place at Chester Creek Hill. The News Tribune reported that at the club’s local tournament in January 1908, skier John Rude “turned a complete somersault on skis…the first time that this trick has ever been accomplished in public at the head of the lakes.” And a few years later the ski club advertised that “the first moving pictures of ski jumping ever made in America will be taken…by Lyman H. Howe.”

In April 1908 the massive scaffold collapsed following a wind storm; club members rebuilt it by December. In May 1916 another wind storm destroyed the slide, the tower, and the grandstand. The ski club had already faced a financial shortfall every winter trying to keep up with necessary repairs to the structures and this loss, estimated at $1,000 or more, proved to be the final blow for the club. The ski slide was not rebuilt, and the club abandoned Chester Creek Hill—at least for the time being.

The City Takes Control

Chester Park—and indeed all of Duluth’s parks—received a boost in 1917 with the election of Clarence Magney as mayor. During his first year in office, Magney recommended that the city purchase Chester Bowl as part of a sixty-acre tract of woodland between Skyline Parkway and Kenwood Avenue that would become known as Upper Chester Park. The purchase was finally completed in June 1920, for a price of $37,000. Park Superintendent Henry Cleveland announced plans to rebuild the ski slide and make needed repairs to the toboggan slides as soon as funds became available. He predicted that this new section of Chester Park would be “one of the prettiest and most popular parks in the city some day,” a prophecy that has certainly come true.

But before the city had a chance to improve the winter sports facilities, the Chester Bowl area became a summer campsite. After Henry Ford made automobiles affordable to a wider portion of the population in the early 1900s, car ownership exploded, and people across the nation took to the road to tour the country. In 1921 Mayor Snively and Park Superintendent Cleveland formed a plan to cater to this new group of tourists—known as “autoists.” They worked with the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway Association to create three auto tourist camps in Duluth: at Indian Point on the St. Louis River, Brighton Beach on the shore of Lake Superior, and the newly acquired Upper Chester Park.

Cleveland converted the Duluth Ski Club’s old building at Chester Bowl into a shelter for tourists, established tent sites, and installed toilet facilities, electric lights, and public telephones so that the autoists would have “all the conveniences of a camp near the city.” While the Indian Point and Brighton Beach camps survived for many years, the tourist camp at Chester Park lasted only two years.

Meanwhile, the Duluth Ski Club became active again. Although it had lost its valuable location at Chester Bowl when the city purchased the property, its members voted to rebuild at Chester during a meeting in November 1923. In order to operate their organization on park property, the club made a gesture: it purchased additional land at the top of Chester Parkway and donated it to the city, which then allowed the club to build the new slide that Cleveland had promised. In 1924 the club erected Duluth’s largest ski slide to date. Nicknamed Big Chester, the wooden slide was approximately 65 feet or 20 meters high. Two years later a steel-girded slide, reportedly the “largest steel slide in the world,” was built at Chester. (While local and national newspapers failed to mention the slide’s height or length, club historian Ben Rasmussen wrote in 1955 that it was originally 125 feet or 38 meters high.) The club immediately began referring to the new steel jump as Big Chester. The 1924 wooden jump, renamed Little Chester, was thereafter used by the Chester Park Boys Ski Club.

The Ski Club continued to work in cooperation with the city to maintain Chester Park—at least the upper portion, including Chester Bowl and the ski hills. In 1927 the club worked with the park department to build toboggan slides and a new field house at Chester Bowl. A skating pond was created by damming a portion of the creek below the ski jumps. According to Park Superintendent Paine, upstream from the ski jumps the creek was shifted farther to the west to make room for full-sized football and baseball athletic fields. Tennis courts were added in 1928. Paine’s annual report referred to the effort as “the vision of the Duluth Ski Club and the Duluth Outdoor Club…to make Upper Chester Park a center for outdoor activities the year around.”

Designed by Chalmers Agnew, the field house included a kitchen and lunch counter, a meeting room, dressing rooms for skiers, and living quarters for a caretaker. A separate building provided storage for seventy-five toboggans. According to the News Tribune, two toboggan slides started from “just south of the Kenwood car line.” The slides crossed Chester Creek and carried riders six hundred and seven hundred feet, finishing on the athletic field. A third slide traveled eight hundred feet “along the west side of the ravine ending up at the old ski jump and just west of the skating pond.” This third slide, the newspaper reported, was “for those who are looking for thrills.” Street lights made the skating pond and toboggan slides accessible after dark. Tobogganing cost ten cents a day per person, and checking shoes while skating was also a dime. Toboggans could be rented for twenty-five cents an hour.

Just two years after these improvements were completed, the nation entered the Great Depression. Many employees of the park department lost their jobs following severe budget cuts, and workers from national programs, including the Works Project Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, completed most of the maintenance projects at Chester Bowl during the Depression.

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