The Myth of Bassett’s Creek
I heard again recently the old complaint that north Minneapolis would be a different place if Bassett’s Creek had gotten the same treatment as Minnehaha Creek. Another story of neglect. Another myth.
You can find extensive information on the history of Bassett’s Creek online: a thorough account of the archeology of the area surrounding Bassett’s Creek near the Mississippi River by Scott Anfinson at From Site to Story — must reading for anyone who has even a passing interest in Mississippi River history; a more recent account of the region in a very good article by Meleah Maynard in City Pages in 2000; and, the creek’s greatest advocate, Dave Stack, provides info on the creek at the Friends of Bassett Creek , as well as updates on a Yahoo group site. Follow the links from the “Friends” site for more detailed information from the city and other sources.
What none of those provided to my satisfaction, however, was perspective on Bassett’s Creek itself after European settlement. A search of Minneapolis Tribune articles and Minneapolis City Council Proceedings, added to other sources, provides a clearer picture of the degree of degradation of Bassett’s Creek — mostly in the context of discussions of the city’s water supply. This was several years before the creation of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners in 1883 — a time when Minnehaha Creek was still two miles outside of Minneapolis city limits. The region around the mouth of Bassett’s Creek was an economic powerhouse and an environmental disaster at a very early date — a mix that has never worked well for park acquisition and development.
“A Lady Precipitated from Bassett’s Creek Bridge”
Anfinson provides many details of the industrial development of the area around the mouth of Bassett’s Creek from shortly after Joel Bean Bassett built his first farm at the junction of the river and the creek in 1852. By the time the Minneapolis Tribune came into existence in 1867, industry was already well established near the banks of the creek. A June 1867 article relates how the three-story North Star Shingle Mill had been erected earlier that year near the creek. The next March an article related the decision to build a new steam-powered linseed oil plant near the creek on Washington Avenue.
Even more informative is a June 27, 1868 story about an elderly woman who fell from a wagon off the First Street bridge over the creek. “A Lady Precipitated from Bassett’s Creek Bridge, a Distance of Thirty Feet,” was the actual headline. (I’m a little embarrassed that I laughed at the odd headline, which evoked an image of old ladies raining down on the city; sadly, her injuries were feared to be fatal.) But a bridge height of thirty feet? That’s no piddling creek — even if a headline writer may have exaggerated a bit. The article was written from the perspective that the bridge was worn out and dangerous and should have been replaced when the city council had considered the matter a year earlier.
By 1871 the Washington Avenue bridge over the creek had been replaced by the only large stone arch bridge in Minnesota, according to the Tribune. “It was built to last a century, and will stand that long unless torn away to give place to a superior structure,” a Minneapolis Tribune writer speculated on September 21, 1871, unable to foresee that the creek itself would disappear from the landscape in about two decades. The point of this citation is that the area was so developed that bridges over the creek were already being replaced, they were worn out, decaying, a dozen years before Minneapolis had a park board. But it gets worse.
“The mammoth sewer called Bassett’s Creek”
By 1876 Bassett’s Creek was a nuisance to many. In April, the City Council was petitioned to straighten Bassett’s Creek and sink it in a canal. The next month Mayor Ames wrote to the council urging the improvement of the city water works, which at that time took in city water from the Mississippi River below the mouth Bassett’s Creek.
“The water supplied by the Water Works is unfit for domestic purposes. All the drains in the upper portion of the West Division of the city—and especially that mammoth sewer called Bassett’s Creek—empty into the river above the Water Works and the disease generating poison, somewhat diluted, is distributed to those of our citizens living along the water mains.”
— Mayor Albert Ames, in a letter dated May 24, 1876 cited in Proceedings of the City Council, March 21, 1877
City engineer Thomas Rosser used similar language later in 1876 referring to the “sewer known as Bassett’s Creek.” Professor S. F. Peckham, a chemistry professor hired to analyze city water samples, agreed in March 1877 that “Bassett’s Creek in its present condition is practically an open sewer.” The city council’s select committee on water supply went a step further, noting on March 17, 1877, that “local contamination [of the water supply] from city sewerage, especially from Bassett’s Creek, is such as to cause grave apprehensions of disease.”
In an editorial on October 18, 1882 the Minneapolis Tribune called the creek a “prolific source of filth and poison,” and surmised that “the suggestion that a solution of the difficulty might be found in turning the creek into a sewer, the outlet of which should be below the falls, is certainly worthy of consideration…the old bed of the stream could then be filled up.” About the same time the paper reported that developer Louis Menage proposed to straighten the creek across 20 acres of property he owned west of Washington Avenue so that he could build houses there.
By this time, of course, the prominent residents of the Bassett’s Creek area nearer the river had departed. Anfinson writes, “As the sawmills began to take over the nearby river front in the late 1860s, the noise and air pollution began to bother the homeowners south of Bassett’s Creek. Bassett moved to Nicollet Island in 1870.”
Bassett’s Creek was of no interest to anyone who wanted to create beautiful and healthful places of relaxation and revitalization by the time the park board was created in 1883. Even Horace Cleveland, one of the most effective proponents of preserving land for public use, and the most ardent supporter of securing the Mississippi River banks below St. Anthony Falls for a park before they could be spoiled by industry, saw little potential in Bassett’s Creek in the populated neighborhoods of north Minneapolis. In the important “suggestions” he made to the new park board in June, 1883, which created a blueprint for parks in Minneapolis that was followed for decades, Cleveland saw only possibilities to minimize the deleterious impact of a polluted Bassett’s Creek.
“The region traversed by Bassett’s creek is one which threatens danger to the health of the future city, and its proper treatment is a problem that demands early attention. No one has said anything to me in regard to it, and it was only as I have crossed it at one or two different points that I have had an opportunity to observe it. I venture to make only one suggestion in regard to it, which is that the risk of malaria from it will be greatly increased by the construction of causeways across it at the points where it is crossed by streets, as the valley between every two streets would thus be converted into a deep pit, impervious to the air, whereas if bridges are used, the winds would still have free passage up and down the valley.”
— Horace W. S. Cleveland, Suggestions for a System of Parks and Parkways for the City of Minneapolis, June 2, 1883
A year later, the Tribune noted in an article on a real estate boom in North Minneapolis that the “work of filling up Bassett’s Creek goes steadily on.”
Plans for straightening, channeling, or burying the creek continued. On December 30, 1888 the Tribune reported that a survey of Bassett’s Creek had been made by the city engineer from its mouth to the second crossing of Western Avenue (now Glenwood Avenue at about Dupont Avenue North). “It is proposed to straighten the creek and build a wall on each side seven feet high,” the paper reported
The result of those efforts is seen in these two segments of the 1892 Minneapolis plat map.
Park Planners Preferred Cheap, Pretty and Unused
As I’ve said and written on many occasions: the park board in Minneapolis — like park organizations nearly everywhere else — has always been opportunistic; it acquired land and developed parks and playgrounds when it could do so at little or no cost and when few people complained of economic injury due to parks. That’s why nearly all parks, in Minneapolis and elsewhere, are on land that had little or no economic worth or potential. In other words, parks are on land that was given away or could be purchased cheaply. It was land that had little value, because it had few other uses.
Theodore Wirth makes my point with his description in the park board’s 1906 annual report of land he recommended adding to Glenwood Park. He wanted to expand the park to include land that was “irresistably attractive with its wooded hills and dells and small woodland meadows of irregular outlines. For all other purposes this land is almost useless, for park purposes it is made to order.”
Park land had to be cheap; it also had to be scenic. Especially in the early days of park building. (In the 1900s, when creating playgrounds became an accepted role for park boards, more parkland was sought in developed areas.) That’s why the first national and state parks were established in the midst of breathtaking scenery like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Niagara Falls and Minnehaha Falls, instead of the cotton fields of Georgia or the corn fields of Illinois.
The third thing to keep in mind about park acquisition a century and more ago was the laudable and visionary goal of preserving attractive features of the landscape. When there was still so much that was undeveloped to be preserved, park founders gave little thought to what needed to be reclaimed. By all three tests — cost, appeal and use — Minnehaha Creek topped Bassett’s Creek as worthy of park board attention. The land around Minnehaha was mostly donated and very charming. And it ended in a beautiful waterfall and a lovely secluded glen to the river, where a single mill had been abandoned years before. To suggest that the two creek valleys were treated differently for other reasons is a stretch.
Where Bassett’s Creek was cleaner and more attractive west of industrial north Minneapolis, it was protected, preserved and made part of the park system (when the land around it was donated to the park board or sold cheaply!) at Bryn Mawr, Glenwood (Wirth) Park and Bassett’s Creek Park. That a parkway was never built beside it is the topic for another post.
Would a clean, meandering Bassett’s Creek from Bryn Mawr through the post-industrial wasteland of near-near-north to the Mississippi be a wonderful amenity today? Would it enhance the appeal and value of more property in the core city? It would be amazing — and I applaud the efforts of people like Dave Stack to keep the issue alive. Reclaiming any of this buried creek will require many more years of extraordinary effort, creative thinking and gutsy investment. Perhaps it’s impossible. In any event, it’s likely to happen only after further investment and development along the Mississippi River itself — opportunists, remember? — and the effort will not be advanced by uninformed claims of past neglect.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© David C. Smith