Where iconic jumps stood, a new (and safe) beginning

The stretch of ground where Big Chester towered for 90 years, as seen from the shadows of the Chester Park forest. Once a mecca for ski jumping in the Northland, Big and Little Chester were torn down in August over safety concerns among city officials. Kyle Farris It would have cowered under the skylines of New York or Chicago, but the view from Dave Schaeffer’s home on the edge of Chester Park in Duluth had a certain rustic charm.

For nearly 50 years, anyone who passed by the outskirts of the park could see Big and Little Chester -- two ski jumps built in 1924 and 1969, respectively -- peeking above the treetops. Once the hub for a world-class ski jumping program that produced several Winter Olympians, the jumps -- worn away from disuse and neglect in recent years -- were demolished in August over concerns from the city that the structures were unsafe.

And so, too, went the view.

“It’s sad to lose them as part of the skyline,” said Schaeffer, executive director for the Chester Bowl Improvement Club, which oversees programming and fundraising for the park. “A lot of people miss that.”

What Schaeffer doesn’t miss are the dangers posed by the jumps, which last hosted an official competition in 2005. He joined the city in doubting whether the structures -- attracting climbers who sometimes were under the influence of drugs and alcohol, according to Schaeffer -- could stand safely much longer.

“I never quite got the courage to climb up myself,” said Schaeffer, who moved to Duluth in 1998. “But it looks much easier to get up than down. If you think about someone going up sober and then down in an altered state, there’s that risk.”

Fears that the jumps were unfit for climbing, unfit to even stand, were further substantiated during their removal in mid-August, Schaeffer said. When contractors were preparing to pull down Big Chester, the cables that had supported the jump for 90 years snapped, taking the jump down with them.

“Right there, that tells you -- big wind, big storm -- could it have just fallen down on its own? Absolutely,” Schaeffer said.

The decision to remove the jumps still was a hotly debated one. A small number of former ski jumpers voiced dismay and even outrage at public meetings concerning Big and Little Chester, asking how the program had been allowed to deteriorate and why the city couldn’t pay to have the jumps restored.

“I think it’s a shame,” said Rocky Contardo, one such ski jumper from Duluth. “When you have a place like that, that kids can enjoy … and then take it away from them -- what are (the kids) going to do?”

Contardo, 91, said he spent most of his winter days during boyhood soaring from the 115-foot-tall Big Chester, which, at the time, would have appeared to climb even higher in the growing forest.

“A lot of us kids were born and raised on this Chester Park hill,” Contardo said. “What’s happening to this city?”

Paula Reed, the city’s community relations officer, said the demolition of the jumps was not a move made lightly. Talk about how to save the jumps and revitalize the sport in the area had persisted for years, without anyone from the ski jumping community stepping forward to take the lead, she said. Meanwhile, the jumps had continued to rot and rust, to the point that the city would have needed to invest $1 million to make them structurally sound and more than $1 million to make them usable.

"The city has tried to do what it can," Reed said. "But with the price tag, it's not feasible."

City officials don’t plan to leave holes where the jumps used to stand, Reed said. Money left over from the demolition will fund a memorial for the jumps -- based on a design by a yet-to-be-named local artist -- as well as an expansion of the park’s downhill ski run, a project that could be completed in time for this winter.

It’s fitting, Schaeffer said, that the alpine ski run should see improvements in the aftermath of the jumps coming down, considering younger generations have drifted away from ski jumping and toward alpine skiing and snowboarding.

“I think a big part of it is it’s hard to see ski jumping,” Schaeffer said. “Kids see skiing and snowboarding in the Olympics and in other winter competitions. Ski jumping is there, but it doesn’t have the airtime. It’s harder to see people doing it, so it’s hard to visualize yourself doing it.”

Schaeffer said he has spoken with a number of former ski jumpers, some of whom have said ski jumping requires work -- climbing stairs to the top of the jump or packing down snow for a smoother ride, for example -- that younger people aren’t willing to undertake.

“I don’t know if I agree with that or not,” Schaeffer said. “Every generation talks about how the next generation of kids is lazier, which has been going on for how long? Thousands of years, probably.”

Most of the old ski jumpers with which Schaeffer has spoken were “sad but supportive” of the jumps being removed, he said. Only a handful, Contardo among them, rejected the idea completely.

“There definitely were a few vocal people at the meetings, but most people, once they had the full details, truly were supportive of the jumps coming down,” Schaeffer said. “I could see the ski jumps from my yard. It’s sad to lose that, but nobody wants to see somebody get hurt.”

Grumblings about removing Big and Little Chester first surfaced in 2007, but local ski jumpers told the city they would do their best to restore interest in the jumps. Those plans never materialized.

A few years later -- with people using Big and Little Chester not as jumps but as jungle gyms -- the city removed the lower portions of the structures, attempting to deter climbers. It didn’t help, the city has said.

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