Accept When Offered: A Brief History of Minnehaha Parkway

Given recent discussion of the history of Minnehaha Parkway, I thought it might be useful to consider a brief timeline of when and why the parkway was acquired by the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners and how it was developed. I wrote some of this for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in 2008, but it is not presently accessible at Most other individual park histories, such as Minnehaha Park and Minnehaha Creek Park (the creek west of Minnehaha Parkway to Edina), are available there under the “History” tab on each park page. I would encourage you to read them.

Park board records do not reveal the origin of the idea of a parkway along the valley of Minnehaha Creek. The first mention of a park along the creek is in the park board proceedings of October 8, 1887 when, after hearing from “interested parties,” the park board resolved that when lands along Minnehaha Creek “are offered, they be accepted” between Lake Harriet and the Soldier’s Home. (The Soldier’s Home was then planned to be built at the mouth of Minnehaha Creek on the Mississippi River on land donated to the state by the city. Minnehaha Falls was not yet a park, although it was in the works.) As part of the resolution, the park commissioners expressed their intent to create a parkway beside the creek when they deemed best to do so—meaning if they ever had the money.

Mpls Parks Fig 00-02 Minnehaha Boulevard

An early 1900s postcard image of the parkway and path at an unknown location. Don’t you want to follow that path? It’s a favorite image I included in City of Parks: The Story of Minneapolis Parks

Today Minnehaha Parkway begins at Lake Harriet Parkway on the south shore of Lake Harriet andfollows an overflow channel from the lake along what was once Humboldt Avenue South to the creek south of West 50th Street. The original parkway was built on both sides of that channel, but the west-side parkway was eliminated from 49th to 50th when Lynnhurst Park was redesigned in 1970. It then follows the creek east to Lake Nokomis. At Lake Nokomis the parkway and creek diverge. To the east the parkway continues straight along what would be East 48th Street to Minnehaha Park. That wide parkway, designed by landscape architect Horace William Shaler Cleveland, resembles the western section of Summit Avenue in St. Paul, another parkway Cleveland designed. At Lake Nokomis the creek passes under the parkway to Lake Hiawatha. From Lake Hiawatha the creek meanders between East 46th Street and Minnehaha Parkway to Longfellow Garden and Minnehaha Park. The parkway is 5.3 miles long and comprises roughly 235 acres.

Crosstown Parkway Failure

The park board’s intent to create a parkway along the creek must be understood partly in light of the park board’s failure to acquire land for a crosstown parkway on Lake Street as Cleveland had recommended in 1883 as part of his plan to create a parkway system that encircled the city. In 1884-1885 the board had tried to acquire land for his proposed parkway from the Mississippi River to Lake Calhoun, but the cost was prohibitive. The board had reached agreements to acquire the land along Lake Street from the river to Bloomington Avenue—mostly undeveloped land—but west of Bloomington to Lake Calhoun Lake Street was already so developed with homes and businesses that the board could neither afford market prices nor convince landowners to sell cheap.

The park board for a time shifted its focus for an east-west parkway four blocks further south to 34th Street which offered the additional attraction of aligning with Summit Avenue on the St. Paul side of the Mississippi—imagine a parkway from downtown St. Paul to Lake Calhoun, assuming the bridge would have been built there instead of Lake Street—but that too was deemed beyond budget. When some suggested moving further out to 38th Street for the parkway, Cleveland himself objected, claiming that 38th was too far from the center of town to be accessible to those who didn’t have carriages—and those were the people he cared most about when he created his plan for a parkway that encircled the city.

In the annual report of 1887, board president Charles Loring reported that property owners along the creek had committed to securing by donation a parkway 200 feet wide from Lake Harriet to Minnehaha Falls. Loring was not only the president of the park board, but also president of a five-man commission appointed by the governor of Minnesota in 1885 to acquire the land around Minnehaha Falls as a state park. The importance of Minnehaha Falls was surely a motivating factor in park commissioners wanting to preseve and protect Minnehaha Creek.

The acquisition of Minnehaha Creek must also be viewed in light of the early park commissioners’ acquisition of almost all waterfront in the city, from lakes to ponds to rivers to creeks. Many of those commissioners would have witnessed the fate of the creeks nearer downtown: Bassett’s Creek had long been a sewer and Tuttle Creek in southeast Minneapolis had essentially disappeared. Though I haven’t found the intent stated in so many words, park commissioners were inclined, often prodded by Cleveland, to preserve resources in as natural a state as they could.

Out in the Country

Given the desire of park commissioners to acquire an integral part of Cleveland’s vision for the park system, they were receptive when an offer finally was made to donate land for a crosstown parkway—even if it was far from town. The bonus was that it included a creek! In early 1889 Henry and Eunice Butler and Josef and Louise Fogg donated forty acres of land—200 to 600 feet wide—for a parkway on both sides of Minnehaha Creek from W. 50th St. to Lyndale Avenue South. Prompted by the donation, the park board also purchased 25 lots along Humboldt Avenue between the donated land and Lake Harriet to connect the creek with the lake. The purchased land cost $10,000 and almost the same amount was spent the following year to purchase by condemnation the remaining lots for a parkway to Lyndale.

Under the conditions of the donation, the park board constructed a parkway on both sides of the creek to Lyndale Avenue in 1889. The board named the new parkway Minnehaha Boulevard but also named the northerly drive Butler Drive and the southerly drive Fogg Drive. In the annual report of that year, the park board reported that it had received “liberal offers” of more donated land along the creek from Lyndale Avenue to Cedar Avenue, which would provide another three miles of parkway. Some of those offers came with conditions, however. For instance, Adelaide Clark wrote to the park board in 1894 urging the board to comply with a condition of her donation: building a bridge over the creek at Luverne Avenue. (I’ve aways wondered why there was a bridge there—although it was moved from its original location in 1962 to accommodate the I-35 bridge over the creek.)

Loring also noted in the 1889 report that the most feasible route from Cedar Avenue to Minnehaha Falls had not yet been selected, but that it was impossible, for reasons he did not specify, to continue a parkway along the creek over that route. (Cleveland wrote, however, that the creek valley there was too narrow and steep to hold a parkway.)

In 1889 the city of Minneapolis also purchased the land around Minnehaha Falls on behalf of the state to make a state park of the waterfall and glen.

In 1891 the park board designated for acquisition the remaining land needed for a parkway along the creek east of Lyndale Avenue and for the parkway alone east of Cedar Avenue. The acquisition of that land—169 acres—most of it by donation, was completed in 1892. The total cost of acquiring the parkway land from Lake Harriet to Lyndale Avenue was about $35,000, with nearly a third of that spent on the land between Lake Harriet and the creek.

The land for the parkway east of Lyndale all the way to Minnehaha Falls—some with creek, some without—cost more, bringing the total cost by October 1893 to over $155,000, forty percent of which was assessed on property in the area that “benefitted” from the creation of the parkway. A year earlier, the board estimated the acquisition cost at $173,000 and assessed 100 percent of that against benefitted property, but in the midst of the Panic of 1893 property values crashed and property owners protested those assessments vigorously, so they were reduced. They were further reduced by two-thirds in 1900 when the park board’s attorney, Chelsea Rockwood, reported that if remaining assessments owed on the property were not reduced further, some of the property owners planned to abandon their property. He advised that the reduced assessments were as much as the park board could hope to receive. (I provide these details to highlight the serious challenges overcome by the park board to acquire and develop park land even when a good portion of it was donated.)

In 1891 Loring praised the acquisition of the creek. He called the land along the creek a “longitudinal park” that was “more generally accessible to the people than the same area would be lying more compactly.” In June, 1891 Horace Cleveland was asked by the board to prepare a plan for the parkway from Lake Harriet to Lyndale Avenue and to recommend the best route for the parkway from Cedar Avenue to Minnehaha Falls. Any plans he created for the western portion of the parkway, and a record of park board actions on them, have not survived. At that time the park board owned neither Lake Amelia (Nokomis) nor Rice Lake (Hiawatha).

Charles Loring later credited J. Arthur Ridgway, a park commissioner at the time and later the park board’s secretary, for negotiating most of the reduced-price purchases and donations of land along the creek and suggested that a segment of the parkway be named “Ridgway” in his honor. The board did not follow Loring’s recommendation at the time, but nearly 60 years later, in 1952, the park board renamed the section of St. Anthony Parkway between Gross Golf Course and Stinson Boulevard “Ridgway Parkway” in his honor.

In 1893 the park board approved the construction of Minnehaha Parkway all the way to Minnehaha Falls, but the last section from Lake Nokomis to Minnehaha Falls wasn’t completed until 1899.

The Addition of Bicycle Paths

In 1897 in response to a bicycle craze, the park board created a bicycle path along much of Minnehaha Creek, going so far as to shave down the steep hill on the parkway near Lyndale Avenue to make it less strenuous for cyclists. The bicycle craze of the 1890s ended within ten years. In 1907 park board president Jesse Northrup recommended that the board convert the under-used bicycle paths to bridle paths and walking paths. By then, automobiles were already using the parkways. In 1903 the park board approved a speed limit of 15 miles-per-hour for cars on parkways.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s several additional parcels of land were acquired near the creek to straighten the parkway and reduce maintenance costs. In 1897 the park board did not maintain ice-skating rinks in parks throughout the city following publication in Minneapolis newspapers of a plea from Charles Loring, who was not a park commissioner at the time, for children around the city to forego ice-skating for the winter so the park board could afford to buy some additional land it needed to widen the park along the creek. The children of the city acquiesced to the request from the acknowledged “Father of Minneapolis Parks,” but not happily, and the next winter, despite no improvement in the park board’s precarious financial position, ice-skating rinks were once again maintained by the park board.

An early expression of concern for water quality in Minneapolis’s lakes and streams came in 1902 when park commissioner and noted architect Harry Jones asked park superintendent William Berry to talk with the Minnesota Sugar Company about its discharge of water and refuse into Minnehaha Creek from its St. Louis Park plant.

Let’s Get This Straight

In 1910 park superintendent Theodore Wirth began a campaign to straighten portions of Minnehaha Creek itself. He had two reasons. One, reduce the amount of water needed in the creek to maintain a pleasing flow of water over Minnehaha Falls. Two, allow the widening of the parkway to accommodate increasing automobile traffic. The proposal must have met with objections because two years later in the annual report, Wirth tried to alleviate fears that straightening the creek would destroy its natural beauty. He repeated his call for widening the parkway in 1914, but still did not prevail.

In 1917, owing to unusually warm weather, the park board permitted—“for one year only”—swimming at places other than the designated beaches on city lakes and in Minnehaha Creek.

The new parkway was finally improved—and the creek bed rearranged—beginning in 1923. Over the course of four years, 1923-1926, Minnehaha Parkway was completely rebuilt at a cost of over $1 million. It was the most expensive project in the first 70 years of park board history. It would not be surpassed in cost until the construction of Parade Stadium in 1951. Part of the cost was in the construction of six new bridges over the creek, including three that replaced old wooden bridges.

Wirth noted in his 1924 annual report that the work along the creek had been criticized as “detrimental, even destructive” to the natural beauty of the parkway, but he disagreed. The old parkway, he wrote, didn’t show the most picturesque parts of the creek valley. The new parkway did and, he added, the new parkway would lead to more residential development in the area.

Meanwhile the eastern section of the creek, from Lake Hiawatha to Minnehaha Park was acquired in 1922 along with Lake Hiawatha. (The name of the lake was changed from Rice Lake to Lake Hiawatha in 1925.) The cost of acquiring the creek bed was included in the $550,000 price tag for acquiring Lake Hiawatha and additional land for a golf course beside the lake. The entire amount was assessed over ten years on property in a large portion of south Minneapolis. The large assessment for the purchase of the land was one reason for the delay in developing Lake Hiawatha and Hiawatha Golf Course until 1931. The park board did not believe it could assess the cost of development on top of the cost of the land purchase. That region of the city was also already paying property assessments for the cost of developing the swamps around Lake Nokomis into a lake and park.

One of the major changes to Minnehaha Parkway since it was re-engineered in the 1920s was the construction of I-35W over the parkway in 1962. The parkway was closed most of that year for regrading and relocating the Luverne Avenue bridge in preparation for the construction of the freeway. The same stretch of the parkway was closed again in 2008 when the freeway was widened.

The other major changes to the parkway occured in 1972 as a part of a re-evaluation of the entire parkway system led by landscape architect Garrett Eckbo. Eckbo recommended slowing traffic on the parkways by narrowing them and making segments of the parkways one way among other changes.

That was also when parkways were first distinguished from city streets by their red pavement. (Did you ever wonder?) Most sections of Minnehaha Parkway still have the pigmentation that subtly says “parkway”, although the practice has been discontinued on new sections of pavement.

A significant change on the eastern end of the parkway near Minnehaha Park occurred in 2000 when a new highway was built on Hiawatha Avenue. The new Highway 55 was built over Minnehaha Creek to avoid disruption of the creek bed and then a land bridge was built over the highway to carry Minnehaha Parkway and provide space for a new Longfellow Garden. (See Longfellow Gardens for more on that development.)

The historic footbridge over Minnehaha Creek at Bryant Avenue was rehabilitated and reopened in 2010. Many of the other bridges over the creek had been refurbished in 2007, when some pedestrian paths near the creek were also resurfaced.

Over the decades many changes have been made to Minnehaha Creek and its watershed, and many new features added to park property. I’m sure that will continue. The Minnehaha Regional Trail Master Plan presently being considered includes several new approaches to creek land and water management that will generate many opinions and preferences. But I think we can all agree that no part of the proposed plan is as bad as the worst idea ever proposed for Minnehaha Creek: converting it to a canal for power boats, a commuting route from Lake Minnetonka into the city.

David Carpentier Smith


2 comments so far

  1. Dan Lapham on

    I was a student at Page school when the removal of the original Luverne bridge happened. The crews used dynamite and shook our building as we were in the school about 1/2 block away.

  2. […] map, dated to the 1880s when much of the land along the creek was donated to the park board. (For a history of the creek as a park east of here, see my post of several months ago.) East from Nicollet Avenue to Portland Avenue the creek’s […]

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