Minneapolis’s Amazing River Parks: West 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. I would recommend reading them both as not all background information is repeated.

West River Parkway

West River Parkway is the current name for the parkway along the river bluff that extends down the Mississippi River Gorge from Portland Avenue to Minnehaha Park. Included in the 205.13 acres of park land listed in the MPRB inventory is all land from the parkway down the gorge to the river’s edge.

The first official name for the riverside land was West Riverside Park, which was adopted in 1904. (Not to be confused with Riverside Park, which was south of Franklin Avenue and not yet contiguous then with the river gorge park.) William Folwell had proposed naming it Michael Accault Park. Folwell noted that Accault was the leader of the French exploring party that included Father Louis Hennepin as a subordinate member in 1679. Hennepin is credited with being the first European to view St. Anthony Falls, which he named after his patron saint, Saint Anthony of Padua. The park board chose a more descriptive name and Accault’s name has been forgotten. In 1906, when the parkway was given its first permanent pavement, it was renamed River Road West.

The name was officially changed in 1939—for 27 days—to Ridgway Road to honor James Arthur Ridgway, who had been a park commissioner in the 1890s and then secretary to the board for 27 years. Ridgway personally negotiated the acquisition of the river gorge land at near-donation prices from landowners in 1902. He had earlier negotiated the donation or purchase on very favorable terms of most of the land for Minnehaha Parkway. Charles Loring recommended that Ridgway should be honored by having park named for him for those and many other achievements on behalf of Minneapolis parks. However residents along the river-bluff parkway objected to the change in name and the park board rescinded it. The name was changed to West River Parkway in 1968, when several park roadways were officially renamed as “parkways” to underscore their important place in the Minneapolis park system. Ridgway was eventually honored by having a short stretch of parkway in northeast Minneapolis from Gross Golf Course to Stinson Boulevard named for him.

In the 1940s residents of south Minneapolis campaigned to rename the parkway for Leif Ericson, the Norwegian sailor and explorer. That campaign followed an attempt by some, including the mayor of Minneapolis, in the 1930s to rename Glenwood Park for Ericson. The park board chose to rename that park for Theodore Wirth instead.

On July 3, 1918 the park board officially named the reservoir created by the new “high dam,” later called the Ford Dam. The official park board name for the river through the Minneapolis River gorge is “DeSoto Harbor.”

The Creation of Minneapolis’s Park System

The banks of the Mississippi River gorge downstream from St. Anthony Falls figured prominently in the creation of the Minneapolis park system. From the early 1870s landscape architect Horace Cleveland was a leading proponent of preserving the river banks as a park. Cleveland’s views had a strong influence on park advocates in the young city and when the park board was created in 1883, he was asked to create a plan for the new park system. (See East River Parkway for more on Cleveland and his thoughts on preserving the river banks.)

Despite the importance Cleveland placed on preserving the “jewel” of the city, the first park board focused its attention more on creating neighborhood parks and acquiring the shores of Lake Harriet and Lake of the Isles. The park board made an attempt to acquire the east bank of the river as a park in 1883, it had both banks of the river surveyed, but the attempt failed due to the high cost of the land.

Cleveland’s original plan for a system of parkways connecting the city’s parks was revived in 1891 by park commissioner William Folwell, the former president of the University of Minnesota and a friend of Cleveland. At that time Folwell suggested a system of parkways that could be called the “Grand Rounds” that would encircle the city and follow the river bluffs on both sides of the river.

In 1893 the park board finally completed the purchase of the east bank of the river, which prompted the first president of the park board, Charles Loring, to advise other commissioners that their “duty will not be done until you have secured the west bank of the river.”

William Folwell continued his campaign to add the west river bank to the park system throughout the 1890s after he had become president of the board. Typical of his comments in that era were his words to other commissioners in the 1898 annual report. “The west river bank,” he wrote, “is so eminently adapted by situation, contour and natural vegetation that its loss to the city would be a calamity.”

The problem at the time was that due to an economic depression in the 1890s the park board had no money to buy land, even though land values had plummeted. As the local and national economies began to recover, the desire to acquire the land took on new urgency. “To see the chance of acquiring these properties at low figures slipping away makes me sick,” Folwell wrote in 1899. In 1901 Folwell said it would be “a disgrace and almost a crime” not to acquire the river banks for a park.

Later that year, with an improving economy, which meant higher revenues from property taxes, and a reduction in the park board’s debt, the park board found that it was able to issue new bonds to finance land purchases. With the capacity to issue up to $70,000 in new bonds in 1902, the park board negotiated the purchase of the west bank of the river from Franklin Avenue near Riverside Park to Minnehaha Park, including the islands in the river, for the modest sum of $42,846. The park board did not acquire the strip of river bank between Franklin Avenue and Riverside Park, saying that it was “better left for future acquisition after the lime quarries were worked out.”

A Parkway Along the River

In 1903 the park board took over the eastern segment of Riverside Avenue that then ran along the river bluff in order to create a parkway there. (That’s why today’s Riverside Avenue isn’t located at the side of the river at all.) The next year the park board constructed the first segment of the parkway from Lake Street to Minnehaha Park.

When the park board hired a new superintendent of parks, Theodore Wirth, in 1906 one of his top priorities was to improve the parkway. He reported in his first annual report in 1906 that the “most important improvement” in the park system that year was the construction of a permanent roadway on the west river road, which he believed would reduce future maintenance costs.

The first hint of what the parkway would eventually become was provided in Wirth’s 1909 annual report in which he included a map of his proposed extension of the park and parkway from Franklin Avenue to 20th Avenue, including the west river flats. He recommended that the “unsanitary settlement” on the flats, known as Bohemian Flats, be replaced by a marine park. The area did eventually become the city’s harbor, nothing close to a park though, thanks to another development that would have an impact on the riverside park: the creation of the “high dam,” or Ford Dam, downstream.

The construction of the Meeker Island Lock and Dam in 1902 cost the park board some land below Riverside Park, as well as on the east bank flats, but the high dam took much more. The park board had sent representatives to hearings on the construction of the dam as early as 1909 and in 1910 suggested to the Army Corps of Engineers, which was responsible for the construction of the dam, that the park board should receive half the electricity generated by the dam in return for the “flowage rights” over land that the park board owned. The U.S. government did not agree to that condition. In 1916 the park board transferred to the federal government more than 27 acres of land along the river, including the islands it owned, that would soon be submerged in the reservoir the dam would create. The park board gave a charity the rights to cut down the timber on the islands in the river before they were submerged, noting that neither the park board nor the Corps of Engineers wanted a stand of dead timber in the middle of the new reservoir.

Shortly after the reservoir was created, however, everyone realized that it was not the “charming lake” once envisioned by its creators. Sewage from most of the city flowed into the reservoir above the dam emitting odors that were “almost unbearable” in Theodore Wirth’s words in 1921 when he proposed improvements to Riverside Park. It is not surprising that the park board committed no money to making the improvements Wirth proposed, which included an amphitheater overlooking the cesspool. An intercepting sewer was finally constructed in the mid-1930s that carried Minneapolis’s sewage to a treatment plant south of St. Paul.

Up Stream

Not coincidentally, the park board extended the parkway along the river north from Franklin Avenue to 3rd Street in 1938 by acquiring 8.5 acres of land from the city and federal governments. A less offensive river offered a more attractive parkway location and the park board found a source of funds for the development: the federal government. The parkway extension was financed largely through federal work relief programs; WPA crews constructed the road. It was the largest and most ambitious of all depression-era park construction projects under federal work relief programs.

At roughly the same time, the federal government took action that eventually opened the way for West River Parkway to extend north into downtown. In 1937 the government approved extending the nine-foot-deep navigation channel in the Mississippi River to the northern limits of Minneapolis above St. Anthony Falls and in the 1940s the city made plans to create an upper harbor. The only way that deeper channel and the harbor could be of any use was to build a lock around the falls. With the coming of World War II, however, that project would be delayed for a quarter century.

Before the lock was built, West River Parkway was improved in 1954 by creating a grade separation at Franklin Avenue. The parkway was constructed under the Franklin Avenue Bridge to relieve what was called one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the city. That project was the only major park project approved by the city for bond funding that year.

The new lock to lift shipping traffic to the upper river was finally completed in 1963. In the course of building the lock at the falls, the Army Corps of Engineers had to remove a support column from the Stone Arch Bridge. The loss of the column required a steel-girder reinforcement to the bridge. In the process of building the lock the old tail races from mills along the river were also filled and the open space created by the fill was leased to a concrete company for storage of sand.

One of the first mentions of the area near the falls in park board documents was in a 1960 report on possible park acquisitions in anticipation of the park board’s 100th anniversary in 1983. The park board estimated an expenditure of $1 million to acquire land on Nicollet Island and the river banks near St. Anthony Falls for a park and historical site.

The future development of West River Parkway was aided when in 1967 the city established an Upper Harbor on land acquired from the state. The new upper harbor would eventually open up the land that had been used as harbor on the west river banks at Bohemian Flats.

In 1972 a report created by Minneapolis city manager Tommy Thompson, Mississippi/Minneapolis, provided the first comprehensive assessment of what the city could do to develop the central riverfront, an area that was being abandoned by the mills and railroads. Partly as a result of that report the park board, the city and the city housing authority, created the Riverfront Development Coordinating Board (RCDB) in 1976, which was chaired by park commissioner Ole Olson. In the next two years the RCDB produced a blueprint for riverfront development that has largely been followed. Included in RCDB plans was a parkway along the west bank of the river through the central riverfront. (The RCDB plan, which was to be funded in large part by the legislature through the newly created Metropolitan Council, also addressed Nicollet Island and the east river bank from Boom Island to Father Hennepin Bluffs.)

Over the next few years, as land acquisitions began on Nicollet Island and Main Street on the east bank, the park board was the lead agency in developing a plan for a parkway on the west bank that would connect West River Parkway through the central riverfront to Plymouth Avenue upstream from downtown.

How to acquire the land for the parkway was the big hurdle until the real estate subsidiary of the Burlington Northern Railroad offered to donate unused railroad land for a river parkway from Portland Avenue to Plymouth Avenue. That parkway, James I. Rice Parkway, was completed in 1987.

With the new parkway north from downtown the park board was left with the difficult task of acquiring the land to join West River Parkway and Rice Parkway through the former industrial land downstream from Portland Avenue.  Most of that land was acquired in the 1990s in three complicated transactions. Nine acres of land near the lock around St. Anthony Falls was acquired from the concrete company that held a long-term lease on the land. Another ten-acre parcel of land was acquired from First Bank (now US Bank) in a transaction related to the redevelopment of the Cedar-Riverside area. A permanent easement across the final segment of land to connect the parkways was acquired from Minnegasco, which had once operated a plant to convert coal to gas on the site.

As the land was being acquired for the final stretches of a parkway that would connect Minnehaha Park to north Minneapolis along the river, the park board in 1988 constructed an underpass for the parkway beneath the Lake Street Bridge.

With the land to extend West River Parkway to the central riverfront acquired in stages, the parkway was also constructed in stages. In 1990 the redesigned segment of the parkway from Washington Avenue to 4th Street was completed. Over the next 8 years, the parkway was built in three stages from Portland Avenue south to 4th Street. The final segment was completed in 1998 accompanied by a celebration of the “Golden Spike,” in transcontinental railroad terms, which united the northern and southern sections of the parkway.

An important development along West River Parkway occurred in 1996 when a remnant prairie was established at East 36th Street and the parkway.

A popular attraction on the west river bank is the Winchell Trail. The first segment of the trail from near Lake Street to 44th Street was constructed in 1914 and extended to Franklin Avenue in 1915. The trail was officially named in 1916 for Newton Horace Winchell, an eminent geologist from the University of Minnesota, who had identified the geologic forces that had created the Mississippi River gorge, the city’s lakes and Minnehaha Falls.

In 2008 the park board began trail and bluff repairs along the parkway at 24th, 25th and 38th-42nd streets. Two years later, in 2010, the bicycle and pedestrian paths from Franklin Avenue to Godfrey Avenue were repaved and new lighting, signage and drinking fountains were installed.

In 2010 the park board contributed land along the parkway overlooking the river for a Remembrance Garden for victims and survivors of the I-35W Bridge collapse. The garden was dedicated in 2011.

David C. Smith

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2 comments so far

  1. Patrick L. Coleman on

    Thanks, David, for the re-post of this article. Very informative, and suggesting that I must have given some serious inattention to River Road activities over the past forty years.

    • David C. Smith on

      I will probably always call it “River Road.” Makes me wonder how long “Lake Calhoun” will persist.


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