Minneapolis’s Amazing River Parks: East River Parkway

In view of my presentation to the Citizens Advisory Council on the Mississippi River Gorge Master Plan this evening, I am reproducing the histories of the East and West River Parkways here.

East River Parkway

East River Parkway extends along the east side of the Mississippi River from Arlington Street SE on the University of Minnesota campus downriver to the Minneapolis boundary with St. Paul. The entire acreage from the parkway to the river’s edge is 84.99 acres.

Originally the property was referred to informally as East River Bank Parkway, but was officially named St. Anthony Parkway in 1901. The name of the parkway was changed to East River Road in 1906. At the same time, the east and west river roads, Riverside Park and Minnehaha Park were all officially named parts of Mississippi Park. The current park name was adopted in 1968 when most park roads were officially renamed as “parkways.” In December 1894, upon the suggestion of William Folwell, the board approved naming the east river flats “Cheever’s Landing,” for the man who had operated a ferry on the site in the early days of the city. While the name was officially adopted, the area has always been referred to informally as the East River Flats Park.

The banks of the Mississippi River below St. Anthony Falls, the only true gorge along the entire length of the Mississippi River, played a central role in the creation of the Minneapolis park system. Horace William Shaler Cleveland, the Chicago-based landscape architect who later created the first general plan for Minneapolis parks, was an eloquent crusader for the preservation of the river banks from the early 1870s. At his urging, civic leaders from Minneapolis and St. Paul met to consider the prospect of acquiring and preserving the river banks as a park as early as 1872—eleven years before the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners was created by the state legislature and approved by Minneapolis voters.

A River Advocate

Shortly after the city’s voters gave their approval for a park board in April 1883, the new board hired Cleveland to create a general plan for the development of Minneapolis parks. In his “Suggestions for a System of Parks and Parkways for the City of Minneapolis”, presented to the park board June 2, 1883, Cleveland devoted considerable attention and passion to creating a park on the river banks on both sides of the river. He wrote:

“The Mississippi River is not only the grand natural feature which gives character to your city and constitutes the main spring of prosperity, but it is the object of vital interest and center of attraction to intelligent visitors from every quarter of the globe, who associate such ideas of grandeur with its name as no human creation can excite. It is due therefore, to the sentiments of the civilized world, and equally in recognition of your own sense of the blessings it confers upon you, that it should be placed in a setting worthy of so priceless a jewel.”

He went on to write that a boulevard along the banks of the river would be of “such picturesque character as no art could create and no other city can possess.” As for how to develop the river banks into a park, Cleveland wrote,

“No artist who has any appreciation of natural beauty would presume to do more than touch with reverent hands the features whose charms suggest their own development. No plan for such work could be made.”

What he did propose was a park on the east river flats, opposite Riverside Park on the west bank, which the park board had already designated for acquisition and a bridge over the river linking the two parks.

Despite the best efforts of the park board, Cleveland’s vision for the east river bank would not be realized for nearly a decade. The stumbling block was the cost of the land. Within weeks of Cleveland’s “Suggestions” the park board surveyed and designated for acquisition the east river bank from the University of Minnesota downriver to the city boundary with St. Paul. After many revisions to the acquisition, and the initial purchase of some lots along the river, in early 1885 the park board rescinded its resolutions to acquire the river bank. The park board’s appraisal of nearly every piece of land to be acquired was challenged by property owners in court. Owning the river bank was going to cost more than the park board could spend.

In 1887 the park board sold three of the river lots it had purchased and advertised for sale its remaining land on the river. Those lots became the only land that the park board has ever purchased twice. The first president of the park board, Charles Loring, wrote in the 1887 annual report that “while it is regretted that this parkway was abandoned, it is fortunate that by reason of increase in value the Board will lose no money by the undertaking.” The lots were sold for $1,000 each.

The impetus for returning to the issue of acquiring the river banks was the election to the park board in 1888 of the former president of the University of Minnesota, William Folwell. Folwell had become a close friend of Horace Cleveland. From 1872 until 1886, when Cleveland moved from Chicago to Minneapolis, Cleveland stayed at Folwell’s home near the University of Minnesota campus when he visited the city and the two men carried on a lively correspondence. Folwell’s papers at the Minnesota History Center include nearly one hundred letters from Cleveland and his partner William Merchant Richardson French.

In his second year as a park commissioner, in 1890, Folwell proposed that the park board revisit its goals and objectives—and its vision for the future of the park system. The board appointed Folwell to lead a three-person committee to do that. The report they produced, presented in early 1891, and included in the 1890 annual report of the park board, refined Cleveland’s “Suggestions” of eight years earlier and established the direction of the park board for decades.

As Folwell was preparing his report, he received a letter from Horace Cleveland (without telephones, people often wrote letters to each other even within the city) in October 1890. As always, Cleveland’s focus was on the river banks. He encouraged Folwell to go down to the east river bank below the University with him—and showed his frustration that the river banks still hadn’t been acquired by the park board.

“If all your committee could go,” Cleveland wrote, “it would do their souls good if they’ve got any. When you once take in the possibilities that are open it will drive you frantic to think of losing them. I will devote a day or any part of a day to the exploration of as much as you like and it will inspire you to make a report that will drown the sound of an eighteen pounder.”

Cleveland’s reference to Civil War-era cannons was likely meant to call up the fighting spirit of Folwell, who had commanded a corps of Union Army engineers during the war.

Folwell’s report was indeed loud and reverberates still through the park system. Among other proposals Folwell made, giving the credit “justly and gladly” to Cleveland, was a system of parkways connecting parks in all parts of the city, not just around the lakes in the southwest corner of the city. Folwell’s system of parkways—they could be called the “Grand Rounds,” he suggested—included parkways along both sides of the river.

The park board acted. By the end of 1891 the park board expressed its intent to try once again to acquire the river banks on both sides of the river. Led by Folwell, the board appointed a committee to investigate acquiring the river banks, and in July 1892 the board approved once again the acquisition of East River Bank Parkway from the University of Minnesota campus to St. Paul. The board also passed a resolution encouraging St. Paul to extend Summit Avenue along the east river bank to meet up with Minneapolis’s new park.

By the end of 1892, the park board had the east river bank appraised and made offers to land owners there. Once again about half of the property owners appealed the appraisals. The District Court appointed a second team of appraisers, which raised the appraised value of the land to be taken from $70,000 to $115,000. Even with the increased cost, the park board confirmed the new awards in March 1893. The park board noted at the time that it was trying to negotiate a lower price for Meeker Island, which it believed should be included in the east bank acquisition. No further mention is made in park board proceedings of those negotiations or the island.

A Benefit to the Entire City

The cost was to be assessed on property owners in the area, but those assessments were also challenged. In March 1893, the park board reduced the assessments due to unusual circumstances. For one, the University of Minnesota, which owned much of the adjacent land on the northern section of the parkway, was exempt from assessments. Two, the parkway was unique in that there was taxable property on only one side of the park—the other side was water. The park board agreed to spread the assessments over a larger area of the city and to pay for part of the purchase with $20,000 in park bonds because in its view the parkway was “of benefit to the entire city.”

One of the arguments used by Cleveland and others for acquiring the river banks and preventing development there was that an undeveloped river gorge would provide a path of fresh air through the city; it would serve as the “lungs” of the city. In the 1893 annual report, park board president Charles Loring praised the acquisition, writing “cities as well as animals must have lungs.”

To justify the acquisition Loring wrote: “When a person is ill the doctors say, ‘Go to the country where you can get fresh air.’ But alas! all cannot go to the country, and it is the duty of those who control the laying out of cities to furnish the means for supplying the God-given element to the poorest of people.” By acquiring the lakes, creeks and “the great river” as parks, Loring wrote, we are “supplying the pure blood to our children, which will make them physically and morally strong.”

Perhaps not everyone agreed, however, because in the summer of 1893 the park board approved Folwell’s motion that the mayor be asked to prevent the dumping of offal and rubbish along the east river bank.

The park board ordered work to commence on the construction of the east bank boulevard from the University to Franklin Avenue in June 1894. Included in the improvements was the construction of a stone culvert to permit the stream that fed Bridal Veil Falls to pass under the parkway. Buildings on the river flats, which had been in place for many years, were removed in 1899 and the parkway along the bluff was finally completed.

When the east river bank was acquired the river was not as we know it today. It was wilder, rockier, narrower, and dotted with islands; it was not navigable by steam boats. That began to change, and the park board’s river acquisition began to shrink, when in 1895 the park board granted flowage rights and deeds for portions of the east river park to the U.S. Government for the construction of the Meeker Island lock and dam. When construction of the dam began in 1898 the park board granted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permission to use part of the parkway for trackage and storage during construction.

Despite the imminent loss of land at the east river flats to the reservoir created by the dam, the park board commissioned landscape architect Warren Manning to develop a plan for the layout of the east river park in 1899. Manning noted in his report on the park system in 1899 that he had submitted plans, which were being executed, to create a large central playground for the city on the river flats with an exercise track, gymnasium, bath house and boat house. The park board allocated $3,000 for the improvement of the park and later that summer approved the construction of a stone walk along the parkway from Oak Street near the university to Franklin Avenue with the cost to be assessed on property in the area. The playground that Manning proposed was never built, although the park board did place a bath house on property for a short time in the early 1900s.

The Charming Lake

The park board’s annual report of 1902 referred to the “charming lake” that would soon be created by government dams. The lake was indeed created by the construction first of the Meeker Island Dam near the downriver end of the land acquired for St. Anthony Parkway and later by the “high dam” farther downstream, but it was far from charming. Much of the raw sewage of the city flowed into the river and the reservoir became in reality a cesspool. In 1921 park superintendent Theodore Wirth called the smell of the river nearly unbearable. That result may have contributed to the lack of development of a park on the east side of the river. But apart from the East River Flats, or Cheever’s Landing, the plan for the river banks was always to leave it as nature had made it. In 1910 and 1911 Wirth advocated the development of the flats into a playground, an arboretum that could be run by the University of Minnesota, or a baseball field. In 1912 the flats were graded for the creation of a baseball or football field, but neither was ever completed.

The development of the parkway, however, was a higher priority. The parkway along the bluff was completed to subgrade from Franklin Avenue to the St. Paul city limit in 1909 and improved in 1911. The parkway was not paved for the first time—it had always been an oiled dirt road—until 1957. At that time the parkway was also widened, the first curbs and gutters were installed south of Franklin Avenue, and a concrete sidewalk was poured.

The East River Flats were leased to the University of Minnesota for a parking lot in 1949 and the original ten-year lease was renewed until 1976.  The flats were used as a concert venue in the late 1970s and permission was also granted to the university to use park land to access its Showboat, a floating theater.

Beginning in 1999 the park board developed a master plan for the river flats and the parkway below the University of Minnesota. In 2001, in cooperation with the university, the parkway adjacent to the university was redesigned with paths, a park entrance road, traffic calming measures and landscaping. That planning process has also led to the restoration of native vegetation and shoreline and bluff stabilization at the park.

In 2002 a new bike trail was built from Franklin Avenue to the St. Paul city line. The one-mile section of trail completed the connection along the river to Summit Avenue and downtown St. Paul from the university.

More improvements to the trails followed in 2008 when new benches, lighting, signage and railings were installed, along with water fountains. At the east river flats the parking lot was improved with the installation of rain gardens and storm water filtration systems.

Erosion controls were installed between the University of Minnesota and Franklin Avenue in 2010. A new culvert was placed under the trail at Bridal Veil Falls and retaining walls and railings were repaired.

David C. Smith

Sources: In addition to MPRB Annual Reports and Proceedings, information on the relationship of William Folwell and Horace Cleveland and their correspondence is from William Watts Folwell Papers, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, and William Watts Folwell Papers, University of Minnesota Archives, Minneapolis.


3 comments so far

  1. […] parkway histories could be posted here. I have already posted the original histories I wrote for East River Parkway and West River […]



  3. […] on the Mississippi River Gorge Master Plan this evening, I am reproducing the histories of the East and West River Parkways here. I would recommend reading them both as not all background information […]

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