When the U.S. Air Force was building its housing for officers and others at the Duluth air base, it's clear the generals were more worried about the Cold War and Bolsheviks than coldwater streams and brook trout.
The housing project, which is now the 240-unit Aspenwood townhome neighborhood, was built off Arrowhead Road in Duluth in 1960, and the Air Force didn't pay much attention to the health of Chester Creek that flows down the middle of the 58-acre property.
Bulldozers not only filled in the original stream and moved it, but crews then funneled Chester Creek into 800 feet of 48-inch pipe and buried it underground, religating it to storm sewer status.
That's where it stayed until this summer when a private-public partnership project dug the stream out of its darkness and rebuilt a more natural, meandering stream channel to replicate nature's original version.
It's hoped the $700,000 project will restore habitat for the designated trout stream which still holds some native brook trout in other stretches, as well as stocked brown trout. The project was funded in large part with the state's 3/8ths percent conservation sales tax through the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund. The project was spearheaded by the South St. Louis County Soil and Water Conservation District and Trout Unlimited, with assistance from Aspenwood's owners and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"We have a pretty active group of homeowners who are very green-minded. There was a lot of excitement about getting this stream back,'' said Andrew Slack, property manager for Aspenwood.
Ulland Brothers Inc. crews are busy ripping out the old pipe and digging a new channel for the stream, plus a second-tier, slightly higher-ground flood plain for rainstorms and snowmelt periods when the stream flow is very high. They're also adding gravel, boulders and willow stems along the banks to create hiding spots for trout.
The digging will be done by month's end with Madison Avenue through Aspenwood reopened soon. Trees will be planted this fall to keep the newly opened creek shaded and cool.
"It's a unique project to get back this much stream at once, especially on private land,'' said Matias Valero, a conservation engineer for the South St. Louis Soil and Water Conservation District.
It's the third such project in the past two years aimed at restoring Chester Creek, a state-designated trout stream that starts at a cold spring in swampland near the Duluth airport and flows through Kenwood, St. Scholastica, Chester Park and eastern Duluth neighborhoods before dropping into Lake Superior.
The first project in 2017 repaired a flood-ravaged section in the midst of Chester Bowl Park and re-meandered a part of the stream that had been dammed for decades before the 2012 flood. The second project, finished this spring, rerouted the stream on county property just off Rice Lake Road below the community garden area. The Aspenwood project is finishing up this summer.
Not only is the 800 feet through the heart of Aspenwood open for new habitat, but it also reconnects upstream and downstream portions that are also decent fish habitat. And it offers newly accessible green space for residents, both humans and wildlife - a place where kids and adults can explore. A family of ducks has already returned even as backhoes are working.
"We had to rebuild the (road) crossing over the creek, and that's when people started to get together and think we could do more than just put another culvert in,'' Slack said. "The trout couldn't go through the buried pipe. But now it's been daylighted for them."
To qualify for the state conservation funding, Aspenwood agreed to a "fishing easement'' all along the stream. Even though it's on private property, any angler can walk up and down the stream to fish.
The new Madison Avenue crossing over the creek was built with a large box culvert lined with gravel and is short enough that trout should pass under, Valero said. He said similar stream restoration projects are underway on Sargents, Miller and Mission Creeks in Duluth. Eventually the Aspenwood project could be continued downstream onto St. Scholastica property, he said.