Linking the Lakes: Making Minneapolis the Venice of North America

Happy Belated Centennial! Yesterday was the hundredth birthday of the channel that links Lake of the Isles with Lake Calhoun. It was the first of the navigable lake connections that later extended to Cedar Lake and Brownie Lake. Some background on those lake connections was featured in an earlier post on Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet.

The “Linking of the Lakes” was turned into a civic celebration that lasted nearly a week. The event was conceived and planned by the Minneapolis Publicity Club. The idea for a civic celebration was apparently hatched in November 1910 at the Minneapolis Harvest Dinner, a more modest one-evening event. While the central event of the civic celebration was the linking of the lakes, it appears to have been pretense for a party.

“It is argued by the business men that in no better way can the city merchant get in more personal touch with his country customers than through the Civic celebration when, under the spirit of merrymaking and jollity, they come together.”
Minneapolis Morning Tribune, July 2, 1911

The park board knew exactly what the intent was when it passed a resolution on December 5, 1910 that “irrespective of the benefits which may accrue to the city through such a celebration, the occasion is of such peculiar interest and significance to this board, that every effort should be made to do its full part…”

The construction of a channel between Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles was not a particularly challenging or imaginative endeavor. As noted in the earlier post, the project had been considered for many years and treated as a done deal as early as 1899 by landscape architect Warren Manning in his recommendations for the Minneapolis park system. In engineering terms it was simpler than the dredging that had been going on for years at Lake of the Isles, both in the 1880s and 1900s. The only construction needed for the project were bridges over the excavated channel, which were not more challenging to plan and build than bridges elsewhere in the city — although the park board’s 1909 annual report included the admission that bridge construction estimates were 50 to 100 percent over budget.

Park superintendent Howard Moore helps launch a canoe in 1960 to celebrate navigable water once again after a few years of a dry channel between Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Even the design competition for bridges, with a top prize of $800, had been disappointing. Park Superintendent Theodore Wirth wrote in the 1909 annual report, “With a few exceptions the designs submitted were not of the high-class character which it was thought the competition would bring forth.” The third prize was not even awarded. To make matters worse, the bridge over the channel from Lake of the Isles to Cedar Lake had to be partially torn down and rebuilt because it began to settle as soon as it was built, which delayed the connection of Isles and Cedar.

The connection of Lake of the Isles to  Cedar Lake was finally completed in 1913, and Cedar Lake was linked to Brownie Lake in 1917. That final connection made possible a new feat of municipal athletic endurance: the swimming of the Chain of Lakes. The Minneapolis Morning Tribune, August 8, 1918 reported the setting of a new record when Dan Bessessen, the new captain of the University of Minnesota swim team and a life guard at Lake Calhoun, swam from the north end of Brownie Lake (off Superior Avenue then) to Thomas Avenue on the southern shore of Lake Calhoun in one hour and thirty-eight minutes. The swim was supervised by Frank Berry, the park board’s recreation director, who accompanied Bessessen in a boat that also carried four time keepers.

Despite the $125,000 price tag to link Isles and Calhoun, the park board appeared not to be profligate with funds. When Wirth submitted plans and an estimate for a park board float for the water parade during the celebration, it was defeated by a vote of 10-1 even though the City of Minneapolis was spending $500 for a float. Another request from Wirth to spend $200 to buy evergreen trees to temporarily cover the “unsightly” railroad embankment adjacent to the lagoon during the celebration was defeated by a vote of 11-0.

I think it’s debatable if the “Linking of the Lakes” was even the park board’s biggest role in municipal or state history in the spring and summer of 1911. I’d give top billing to another event that the park board didn’t initiate, but went along with: the donation to the park board by Clinton Morrison of the land for an art museum. The result of that transaction was the eventual construction of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Dorilus Morrison Park.

I love the channels that connect the lakes, which Jesse Northrop said would make Minneapolis the “Venice of North America,” but I think the construction of what has become an excellent art museum, while it might not make Minneapolis the “Florence of North America,” is still of greater importance to our city today. Even without the channels between lakes Minneapolis was still blessed with exceptional natural attributes. The art museum filled an otherwise unmet need at the time, despite Thomas Barlow Walker’s incredible art collection.

David C. Smith


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