« Station No. 6: Protecting Lakeside for over a century | Main | 126-year-old Duluth Pack continues to thrive »

Big Chester remains an icon to the hopeful

RELATED STORY: Duluth Olympians' passion stays home at Chester Bowl

DCN Correspondent

Surrounded by the changing fall colors and listening to the potato chip crunch of leaves underfoot, Jim Denney Sr. gazes up the hill at the ski jump known as Big Chester. Big Chester once stood out on this hillside like a lighthouse on the coast, but now trees have grown all around it to shroud its appearance.

“It makes me feel bad to see the jump in this condition,? said Denney.

Chester Bowl was appropriately nicknamed the Ski Jumping Capitol of the United States, stated a 1955 issue of the Duluth Sunday News Tribune. Big Chester stood as the icon of the area.

“Before there was Spirit Mountain, Chester Bowl was it,? Denney said. “Duluthians would point out the jumps to newcomers before they pointed out anything else.?

The jumps at Chester Bowl hold a special place in Denney’s heart. When he was a little boy, he and his dad would walk the short distance from his house to Chester Park whenever they could. Together, they’d watch the ski jumping tournaments.

“Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, skiing was king up here,? said city park manager Thom Storm.

The tradition carried on with Denney when he became a father himself. His four boys, Jim Jay, Jeffery, John, and Joel, were surrounded by the sport since they could remember.

“Where else do you dump four boys in the middle of winter?? said Denney. “They couldn’t get enough of Big Chester in the Chester Bowl.?

Chester Bowl turned into more than a play place for two of Denney’s sons. Jim Jay is now a two-time Olympic skier and Jeffrey almost qualified for the Olympics as many times. Duluthian ski jumpers had prominently appeared in every major competition for 38 years, according to the minutes from a Duluth Ski Club meeting in 1942.

It didn’t stop there. Denney’s oldest son, Jim Jay, competed at Lake Placid in the 1980 Winter Olympics as well.

Big Chester stands quite differently now.

“It’s a landmark accompanied by a cell phone tower now,? Denney said. “Where it stands, our family used to have picnics.?

Not only is the site marred by a blinking signal tower, but, rust now covers the scaffolding. Fading sunlight pokes through the numerous holes that line the jumps’ runway. The top landing no longer sits in alignment with the support base, but instead leans precariously off to one side. Even the “No Trespassing? signs are tinged with rust.

In the last decade, Chester Bowl has shifted from a ski jumping hot spot to downhill skiing attraction.

“When my kids got started with ski jumping, there was no such thing as downhill. We jumpers got that going,? Dewey said.

However, due to lack of interest in ski jumping attention turned onto downhill skiing, which eventually lead to the downfall of Big Chester. Its current condition is why the city council wishes to tear the jump down.

“No one takes ski jumping seriously anymore,? Denney admitted. “Everybody’s busy, it’s hard to get the people to come out to support the sport because they’re all working two jobs or something like that.?

Even the big skiing names still living around the area are have difficulty coming together to find a way to save an icon from their past.

“The Storms’, the Hovlands, my family…we try to get together to chew the fat and make plans to fix up the Chester Bowl,? Denney said. “Usually it ends up being my sons’ and I cutting the grass.?

Big Chester now stands up on the hill of Chester Bowl bearing the weight of a grand time of old upon its slope. People of all ages still climb to the top despite its base being roped off.

UMD student Alex Rugowski has found himself sitting at the top of Big Chester once or twice a month since freshman year.

“I’d climb to the top of the jump with my iPod and clear my head,? said Rugowski, now a junior at UMD.

How much longer Big Chester will continue to stand there is not known, but many would notice its absence.

“Duluth would lose a piece of itself, and so would I,? said Denney.