Draining Zenith City
Duluth, MN

Chester Creek

Chester Creek Culvert

Below the historic National Guard Armory.
Below the historic National Guard Armory.

The little river that is the highlight and namesake of Chester Creek Park is as powerful as it is beautiful, and it spends much of its time south of the park underground, below streets, homes, and the historic 1915 Duluth National Guard Armory.

In fact, nowadays the creek is probably best known for the day when floodwaters caused the roof of the tunnel to rupture, exposing the basement of the long-vacant landmark. After the surge, for more than a year, the basement of the Armory was visible from the canal below it, and both could be seen from London Road, through the hole varied by the flooded creek.

Illustration of the construction of the Chester Creek culvert, 1887.
Illustration of the construction of the Chester Creek culvert, 1887.

Duluth was still young when city planners realized the need to contain Chester’s power. In late 1887, when the city had only constructed a few humble drains between 7th Avenue West and 2nd Avenue East, a project between 13th and 14th Avenues East became a major undertaking. That year, the city contracted local stonemasonry firm Fredin & Wilson to contain Chester creek through a series of retaining walls and a culvert beginning at 4th Street.

The masonry retaining walls were planned to be 40 feet high and restrict the creek bed’s width to about 18 feet. Though strictly functional, it was hailed as one of the most beautiful pieces of masonry in the city when it was completed in late November. The culvert at the end of the retaining walls stretched 150 feet and sat about 45 feet below the surface at its deepest point.

All of the work was done in stone.

Chester Creek Infall, near Duluth's old Armory. The creek will not emerge again until it is near the Lakewalk.
Chester Creek Infall, near Duluth’s old Armory. The creek will not emerge again until it is near the Lakewalk.

Lower sections followed. A tunnel crossing at 1st Street was added in 1917 to replace a dilapidated bridge the News Tribune described as “an old and troublesome problem of the city of Duluth.” A few years prior, in 1910, a culvert was constructed below Superior Street to act as the final leg for the runoff to flow into Lake Superior, but the construction of the Duluth Armory in 1915 necessitated the extension of that tunnel below London Road.

Roughly below the parking lot for the Rose Garden.
Roughly below the parking lot for the Rose Garden.

Today these visions and revisions are evident in the tunnel’s many changes in shape, direction, and building materials. At the mouth below Superior Street, the tunnel is that of a stone bridge built over the creek in 1919, which gives way to red brick and concrete, then to yellow brick.

Chester Creek, where it was forced to dip below the circa-1970s I-35 tunnels.
Chester Creek, where it was forced to dip below the circa-1970s I-35 tunnels.

Each of the layers in what is now a 700-foot long tunnel tells a story of expansion above ground, if you know how to read them.

Chester Creek Drain empties into a little-known grotto, just north of the Rose Garden. To find it, simply take the Lakewalk below the Rose Garden and find the former railroad bridge which the trail crosses now… there you will find a path into the grotto, and the outfall.

References »

  • The Budgeteer 25 Sept. 1974. Web.
  • Engineering-contracting 39 (1913): 47. Web.
  • In The Tunnels. WDIO, 2013. Film.
  • Various. (1904-1974). Duluth News Tribune.
  • Various. (1880-1888). Duluth Daily News.