Is that a lake?

This photo illustrates the difficult history of Diamond Lake. It doesn’t look like a lake at all — and it might not have been. The 1938 annual report of the park board refers to “the dry lake bed at present.”

Diamond Lake, center, looking northwest. Pearl Park is upper right and the future Todd Park at center right. Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun are near horizon. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Diamond Lake, center, looking northwest. Pearl Park is upper right and the future Todd Park at center right. Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun are near horizon. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

I recently received an email from a reader who lives near Diamond Lake who commented on the differences in how Diamond Lake is treated from other Minneapolis lakes in that there is no hiking or bicycle trail all the way around it. Many perceive the west shore to be private property. In fact, the entire lakeshore is park property. The photo above is undated, but I think it was shot in the 1940s. According to Hennepin County property records, the houses on the east side of Pearl Park were built in 1938.

At this time Todd Park — the dark area north of 57th Street at Portland — was referred to simply as the “east swamp.” It was dedicated as a “park” on the plat of the neighborhood, but it was, on average, 12 feet below the grades of surrounding streets.

Filling and grading Pearl Lake. View looking west near 54th St. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Filling and grading Pearl Lake. View looking west from near 54th St. and Portland Avenue, likely taken about 1936. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Pearl Lake was filled in 1936-37, with dirt from extensive runway excavation and construction at Minneapolis Municipal Airport, which the park board owned and operated at the time. The runway construction and lake filling were both WPA projects. About 200 men and 75 trucks were assigned to the project in 1936. About one foot of peat was peeled off the old lake bed, a couple feet of airport fill smoothed over the skinned landscape, and the peat reinstalled as a top coat.

In the 1938 annual report of the park board, superintendent Christian Bossen wrote that Diamond Lake had almost dried up in the 1920s due to development and low rainfall, but, “With the separation of the storm water drainage from the sanitary sewers, the City Engineer is now using and expects to use to a greater extent Diamond Lake as a storm water reservoir.”

The 1938 annual report contains a detailed description of what the park board hoped to accomplish around Diamond Lake. It  provides the details of an important chapter in the history of the lake and the neighborhood.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com

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7 comments so far

  1. Dan Lapham on

    Hello-I’m reminded of this older post as you add the annual report links today(nice!). As I look closer at the ground level pic and note the housing across (west side) the park, I can recognize the corner of Hampshire Drive and 54th St. County property tax mapping shows a completed home at the NW corner as a 1937 build and also 2 more just north completed in 1937. The photo showing men just starting site prep on those(right under the Washburn Water Tower). The lot between was built on in 1939.
    The site elevation appears rather more than the later aerial pic (and today)would indicate as it’s more in line with the vehicles parked in the shady background. Anyway, it’s amazing today to see the men, with shovels and pickup trucks moving that volume of earth from the airport as a 1937 project. This sure does illustrate the goal to employ large numbers of depression era unemployed men in manual labor-might not ‘fly’ these days!

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks, for reading Dan. You’ve hit on one of the most intriguing aspects of historical photos: what’s behind the pictures. Context is always fascinating.

  2. Shelley Johnson on

    Nice article, David! Diamond Lake is indeed a gem in Minneapolis. One small thing I’d like to clarify: While many maps show all of the west edge of Diamond Lake to be Park Board property, a number of homeowners there and on the south edge actually have deeds that define their property boundaries as extending to the water line. The idea of building a trail has been explored in depth multiple times over several decades, and for many reasons, including safety (no police access), building and maintenance costs, and land ownership legal issues, it has been abandoned.

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks for the comment and info, Shelley.

      The ownership of the shore line is a contentious issue, obviously, because I’m told park board records indicate ownership resides in the city. If it hasn’t been done before, I suppose a room full of surveyors and attorneys would have to compare all the deeds to determine property lines definitively. I would find it odd, however, if the park board had spent so much time and energy — but very little money — over the years 1936-1939 to acquire the land around Diamond Lake only to have botched the deal and left the western and southern shores in private hands. That doesn’t make sense. If the deeds you refer to that claim land ownership “to the water line” pre-date the late 1930s, they may have been superseded by park board acquisitions. According to the park board’s annual report for 1939, the park board’s final acquisitions around Diamond Lake, which completed its ownership of the lake, were accomplished through donations (p. 83).

      Since the park board acquired the lake (if that isn’t in dispute, too!) many plans have been put forward to develop the land around it. Then, as now, a path around Diamond Lake has not been a priority. The 1938 annual report noted that the board even considered building a parkway along the western shore of the lake, but decided against it. (That would have been a bit of a reach if they didn’t own the land.)

      With the likelihood of continuing drought, I wonder who would claim the lake — and its shore — if the lake were to shrink or dry up.

  3. Dan Lapham on

    Nice pics.The more cleared area in the center of the west shore of Diamond Lake was sometimes called ‘Cederstrand Park’. This for Clinton Ave. resident and my wife’s great grandfather who was an improvement association and council president (mayor)of… RICHFIELD. This area was part of the 1927 annexation from 54th to 62nd streets so Mpls Parks fellas plans had to come later here! There is still a relative living there on the lake where the family also once had a tobagan slide and my wife and area kids could slide out onto the ice

    • David C. Smith on

      Great info. Thanks, Dan. Was Cedarstrand Park a formal Richfield Park or an informal picnic area? Theodore Wirth’s first plan for Pearl/Diamond Lake was produced in 1927 when the park board was trying to figure out what to do for parks in the neighborhoods annexed from Richfield. The park board had the power, however, to create parks around those lakes anyway, as it had done at Nokomis a decade earlier. (Lake Nokomis was partly in Richfield.) The Legislature had given the Minneapolis park board the authority to create parks outside Minneapolis city limits forty years earlier to make Minnehaha and Glenwood (Wirth) parks possible. Both of those parks were at the time outside of city limits — and much of Wirth Park still is. As are Meadowbrook and Gross golf courses.

      • Dan Lapham on

        This, as well as a sliding hill on Grass Lake owned by the Bachman family, were informal private recreational areas. A fella on Roslyn Place(just south of Diamond) also flooded and maintained a quality large rink for skating/hockey. Recent Strib articles have discussed the fact that the city owns the shoreline and a trail could be built. Love to see a ‘blow up’ of that play area where holiday picnics and meets with the Ft. Snelling horsey folks happened over many years


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