Chester Park ski jumps face uncertain futureAs Duluth works to develop a master plan for Chester Park, the future of the park’s ski jumps appears to be up in the air.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
As Duluth works to develop a master plan for Chester Park, the future of the park’s ski jumps appears to be up in the air.
The jumps have fallen into disrepair and will require significant work to survive, said Kathy Bergen, director of Duluth’s Parks and Recreation Department. She maintains that leaving the jumps alone is not a valid option because they’re not structurally sound and they continue to attract climbers, despite closed gates and warning signs.
“We have some concerns that need to be addressed,” Bergen said.
She said removing the two remaining jumps — Big and Little Chester — would be an option.
“Sometimes safety has to win out over sentimental value,” Bergen said.
But tearing down the jumps is a difficult idea to swallow for the likes of George Hovland, who grew up skiing at Chester and went on to compete as a “Combined Nordic” athlete — blending ski jumping with cross-country racing — at the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, Norway. He said the sport was such a part of Duluth’s identity that he can’t imagine the community without any jumps left standing.
“I, and other jumpers who are still around, feel Big Chester is such an iconic structure and is so much a part of our history that we ought to preserve it,” he said.
Big Chester was built in 1924, and Little Chester dates to 1969.
Curt Leitz, chairman of the Chester Bowl Improvement Club, said he understands the city’s concerns about the jumps becoming a safety liability, but he’d still like to save them.
“I feel those jumps are a very important part of our history, identity and culture here in Duluth,” Leitz said. “I personally think they’re worth preserving for that reason alone.”
Duluth became known as a hotbed for ski jumping. Besides Hovland, the city has produced several other Olympians, including Jim Denney, Greg Swor and Adrian Watt
The historical value of the jumps is not lost on Thom Storm, Chester Bowl program executive director. His father was a national ski jumping champion at age 15, and Storm grew up jumping at the park, as well. He said the jumps feel like a part of his Norwegian heritage.
“But they’re also kind of an attractive nuisance that’s probably going to keep deteriorating in an era of limited resources,” Storm said. “Should we spend $30,000 to shore up Big Chester for the next 25 years? Or would you rather put that into our alpine ski program, which served 700 kids last winter?”
In October of last year, the city tore down the lower portions of Big and Little Chester, removing the steps and judging stands to reduce the number of people climbing up the aging structures. Storm said that when local colleges were in session it wasn’t uncommon to have 40 to 50 people per week climb to the top of the jumps. He was often left to remove graffiti and pick up beer bottles and cans night visitors left behind.
“We were worried someone could get hurt, and no one wants that,” he said.
Since the steps were removed, the number of climbers has decreased dramatically, Storm said. But he said the jumps still attract the occasional daredevil willing to make the ascent by climbing angle irons to the top.
Duluth has not had an active ski jumping program for several years.
Jim A. Denney and his son, Jim J. Denney, a former Olympic ski jumper, unsuccessfully tried to fix up the jumps and revive Duluth’s jumping program in 2007, when the city last threatened to take down Big and Little Chester.
The elder Denney said ski jumping requires a seriously committed core of volunteers to shovel, rake and hand-pack snow on the jumps.
“If you don’t have enough people who are interested and dedicated, it won’t work,” he said.
Storm said young thrill-seekers today have so many alternatives to ski jumping that it’s difficult for the sport to compete.
Even if Big Chester doesn’t have much of a future as an operating ski jump, Hovland believes it deserves to be saved.
He suggested a glassed-in viewing platform could be installed at the top of the jump, with an elevator taking people up and down. He also envisions a ride, similar to Spirit Mountain’s Timber Twister, that would carry people down the jump, over the edge and clear to the bottom of the hill, simulating the feel of actually making a jump on skis.
As for unwelcome night climbers, Hovland suggests access could be controlled by enclosing the jump with razor wire fencing.
“I want to save the structure and try to turn it into an asset instead of a liability,” he said.
Bergen said the city is willing to consider all options for the park and encouraged people to bring their ideas to an open house today at the Chester Bowl Chalet.
“No decisions have been made,” she said. “We’re waiting to hear what people have to say. Sometimes people come up with good ideas we’ve never considered.”