Hall’s Island Redux

With the Park Board’s request yesterday for input on plans for the new Graco Park at Hall’s Island, I thought it might be a good time to pull out of mothballs my original post on the history of Hall’s Island. The following was originally published in 2012 as The Re-creation of Hall’s Island: Part I. I have restored the link to the original post here, if you’d prefer. I had removed the post from the website because I intended to write much more about changes to the river, but that project is on hold for now and I think this information may be useful as background to those considering the history and the future of the island and surroundings. I must admit that this is one of my favorite posts.

The Re-creation of Hall’s Island: Part I (originally published March 14, 2012)

Before he saved enough money to go to medical school, Pearl Hall’s job as a teenager in the mid-1870s was pitching wood onto a cart at a lumber yard near the Plymouth Avenue Bridge on the east bank of the Mississippi River. He remembered vividly from those days of hard labor what he called a little steeple of land sticking out of the Mississippi near the bridge. He could see the tiny patch of ground when he stood on top of his loaded wagon–and he saw the little steeple gradually grow.

Hall’s Island in 1903 plat book (John R. Borchert Map Library, University of Minnesota)

What Pearl Hall saw from his perch of pine was the beginning of Hall’s Island, the island that as Dr. P. M. Hall he would eventually acquire and turn over to the city, the island that became the site of a popular municipal bath house, the island that eventually was dredged onto the east bank of the great river, and the island that the Minneapolis park board will soon begin to re-create as the first step in its RiverFIRST development plan.

Hall didn’t think about that little speck of land again until he was elected to be Minneapolis’s Health Officer in 1901. Then he wrestled with the problem all health officers everywhere wrestled with and usually lost to: how to dispose of garbage. Not just coffee grounds, melon rinds, and chicken bones, but real garbage — offal, dead horses, night soil — where death could take took root and grow.

For decades the Mississippi River had been the city’s dump and would long remain its toilet, but in 1901 Minneapolis built a garbage crematory between the workhouse and Shingle Creek in the far northern reach of the city. It was a long road, a costly road from the center of the city to the two-story incinerator. The garbage collectors spent most of their time on that slow, odoriferous trudge north instead of picking up more garbage. More teams were needed, costs accelerated. Or the teamsters tired of the slow road and dumped the junk in vacant lots. Still, from 1902 to 1905 the incinerator burned from 12,000-19,000 tons of garbage a year

What Dr. Hall really wanted as the city’s new health officer was a less costly, less deadly alternative. Then Dr. Hall recalled the little cone of land near the bridge. It had grown to nearly an acre of silt and sawdust. Anchored by deadheads or perhaps old boom piers, covered with willows and cottonwoods, it was a dream: near the center of the city and best of all vacant, new, unclaimed, unowned.

The distance from the little island to the east bank ranged from 75 to 200 feet. The east channel was only a few feet deep in most places, and the current so lazy that building a bridge across it would not be difficult. For Dr. Hall it seemed a perfect solution. He could move his garbage incinerators to the little island nearly in the heart of town.

His first job was to acquire the island, not a simple task. He went to Washington in June 1902 to seek assistance from Congressman Loren Fletcher, assuming that the federal government, which controlled river navigation, would be the owners of the newly made land. St. Anthony Falls ended navigation of the Mississippi from the south, but the big river was still a viable transportation route for many miles north of the falls. Early steamboat service ran from Minneapolis to St. Cloud. The papers carried near-daily reports of Hall’s efforts and the deliberations in Washington and even covered a visit to the island by the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in St. Paul.

Finally, the federal government made a decision that caught many by surprise: it didn’t own the island because it had been created — accreted — after Minnesota became a state. So the state must own it. Dr. Hall headed to St. Paul, where state officials claimed that he could homestead the island. Off to the spit of land he went and built a squatter’s shanty. He told an amusing story years later about the final reckoning of the island when he claimed to have bought it from the state at auction by intimating to other potential bidders that his wallet was bulging and he was perhaps a tad mad. Other prospective island owners backed down when they saw the “blood in my eye,” Hall said, and he owned himself an island that has carried his name into the 21st Century.

Perhaps adrenalized by the thrill of the title chase, Hall and the government agencies he dealt with overlooked initial speculation, and a written claim sent to the city council, that those who owned the east bank of the river enjoyed riparian rights to any accretions between the main channel of the river and its low water mark — including the little island beneath the bridge. But no one paid much attention.

With the ownership of what had become “Hall’s Island” established — or so everyone, including the city attorney, thought — Dr. Hall set about putting his island to good use. The day after he received the deed to the island from the state in November, 1902, Dr. Hall and his wife, Anna, deeded the island to the city for the “location and operation of a public crematory for the destruction of garbage.”  Dr. Hall had already made plans. He was quoted in the Minneapolis Journal before the title was even his that he would use the clean ash generated by the incinerators to enlarge Hall’s Island.

While the covenants in the deed to the city and Hall’s own stories supported the intent to use the island for a crematory, for a time in the summer of 1902, while in Washington, Hall must have considered using the island for another purpose, foreshadowing its future. The Minneapolis Journal reported June 17, 1902 that as soon as Dr. Hall received title to the land from the federal government, he would begin construction of a public bath house on the island. Personal hygiene, health officers knew, played a role in disease perhaps as much as bacteria-breeding horse and dog carcasses. And there wasn’t much running water in the working class homes of northeast Minneapolis at the time. It wasn’t just cleanliness that concerned Hall and others, however: each summer, the Journal reported, ten to twenty boys drowned in that river. Beguiled by cool water, bewildered by swifter-than-imagined currents, the small bodies often just vanished. Whether you cleaned them up, kept garbage off their streets or prevented them from drowning, the result was the same — more living children.

Despite the lone mention of a bath house, plans to move the city’s garbage incinerators to Hall’s Island dominated news from city hall. Bids were received, discussions held over the feasibility of extending a railroad track to the island to deliver the incinerators, and Ninth Avenue was extended to the river ready to sprout a bridge to the island.

Everything seemed in order to everyone except First Ward aldermen Michael Gerber and John Ryan. The two Democrats, on a City Council dominated 17-9 by Republicans, said “Not in our ward,” and dug in their heels. Others pointed out that they had no veto power because the island wasn’t technically in their ward, it didn’t have a political home. Hall and others demonstrated that the incinerator gave off no odors, or even the dreaded cinders spewed from other industrial plants nearby. Most of the garbage wagons, Hall argued, would come across the Plymouth Bridge and wouldn’t travel the streets of northeast any more than before. But Gerber and Ryan stood firm.

One newspaper account noted their “violent” opposition and said the issue was so heated that even though the Republicans could have approved the relocation, they didn’t. The Democrats, standing together behind Gerber and Ryan, threatened filibuster. The Tribune, which favored incinerator relocation, wrote that even some Democrats thought the aldermen were being “childish.” Others, including Hall, wondered publicly about the real cause of this nefarious opposition, and speculated that money was a motive: someone had plans for that land that would make a lot of money. Some even said the Wisconsin Central Railroad, which blanketed nearby Boom Island with tracks and roundhouses, wanted to expand onto the little island and was offering to pay $5,000 to $10,000 for the spit of land they could then enlarge. The railroad promptly denied that it coveted the cay.

Still Gerber and Ryan held out — even when Hall received a letter from a colleague in Atlanta who had placed an incinerator similar to Hall’s in the center of downtown Atlanta — next door to the Union Depot — without negative effect or complaints. Other cities that had established garbage crematories based on Minneapolis’s plans were Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Tampa, Spokane and Lowell, Mass. according to the Tribune, June 11, 1905. Hall was later elected chairman of the Municipal Health Officers section of the American Public Health Association and was a frequent speaker at medical meetings around the country on the disposal of garbage. But the prophet wasn’t heard in his own land.

An Island — and a Plan — Disappears

Even though the council wouldn’t approve of his plan to put a garbage incinerator on the island he had acquired for the city, it gave Dr. Hall a nice raise — nearly ten percent — to $3,000 a year, in early 1905. Although there had already been efforts to increase the size of Hall’s Island by dumping ashes there, the island was used for nothing but a swimming hole. In July 1904 the Journal reported in an article about the prevalence of drowning on the river that many boys swam at the island and urged the city to establish baths at places other than the distant bath house at Lake Calhoun. The report noted that, “several businessmen have offered money toward a bathing fund just to do away with the frequent drownings.”

It’s not clear why Dr. Hall and some councilmen gave up on placing a garbage burner on Hall’s Island, but a brief news item on July 9, 1905 may hold the key. Under a headline “Hall’s Island Is Gone,” the Journal reported that the island had disappeared. Dr. Hall responded a couple of days later that the island wasn’t really gone, just submerged. The question was probably as obvious to Dr. Hall as to your average fifth grader, “Who wants a garbage burner on an island subject to submersion?”

In little more than a week after the island went under, Alderman Gerber and Dr. Hall announced their plans for a bath house on the islan when flood waters subsided. Plans took shape fast. Workmen started clearing the island in the first week of August. To speed efforts to have a better place to swim, neighborhood boys volunteered to help clear the island. On August 8, the Journal reported that lumber had arrived for the bath house and for the stairs that would be built down to the island from the Plymouth Avenue bridge and also noted “a big sale of trunks in northeast Minneapolis.” Boys who had been swimming from the island in the past tended to use the cover of brush and reeds to swim “au naturel,” the Journal claimed.

The mechanics of operating a single bath house and swimming beach also began to be thought out. The Journal admitted that “girls were overlooked in the plan” at first, because “girls are not in the habit of getting drowned in the river and the chief object of the baths was to save the boys.” Apparently, no one speculated that girls weren’t drowning not because they couldn’t swim or didn’t want to, but because they were perhaps smarter or better swimmers than the boys. For their superior ability not to drown, girls were awarded two half-days use of the bath house each week. Even though the current was gentle in the back channel, two-by-fours were driven into the river bottom to create a picket fence downstream of the bathing area to prevent boys — and girls — from being washed away.

By the next week the bath house was already in use, so no formal opening was needed. Dayton’s store had donated 100 towels “of the highest quality” to the bathhouse and Donaldson’s had donated towels and soap, too. A flag pole for the bath house was given by Bardwell-Robinson Co. and an American flag was donated by the president of the German-American Bank, Frank Gross, who would become known a few decades later as “Mr. Park Board” for his decades of service on the board.

Hall and Gerber announced several important policies. There would be no admission charge to the bath house or beach, but there would be a small charge for use of a towel and swimming suit. The bath house would be open Sundays because no liquor would be served and as Gerber put it, Sunday was when “the great army of labor has a day of rest.” At the time, most people worked six days a week. By the end of August the bath house was already so popular according to the Tribune that a policeman was assigned to “keep in check the rough element, which occasionally finds its way to the baths.”

The popularity of the bath house determined the future of the little island, but it was confirmed by Dr. Hall when he addressed the city council in mid-September. Ironically, he spoke to the council about a calamity a few days earlier: the garbage burner in Camden had itself burned down. When discussing the future of a garbage incinerator Hall admitted that any effort to relocate the burner to Hall’s Island or Hennepin Island  or anywhere else would be met with “immediate opposition, and result in final failure.” He proposed rebuilding the incinerator where it was in the far northern corner of the city, but suggested building a rail line directly to the incinerator to increase hauling capacity and decrease cost.

Plans for the new bath house, with separate buildings for men and women, were prepared in 1906 by architects Boehme and Cordella. (Minneapolis Journal, March 11, 1906)

During the winter of 1906 the city council developed plans for a new bath house with one building for men and another for women with a refectory in between. The Gerber Baths were named after the alderman who had fought so hard against an incinerator and had fronted his own money to have the first bath house built. (He was later reimbursed by the council, perhaps too generously. In 1909 a grand jury expressed great displeasure at the financial management of the bath house. The city council subsequently removed Gerber’s name from the bath house, renaming it the Minneapolis Municipal Free Baths.) During the winter of 1906 teams hauled refuse, sand, stone and earth from all over the city to make the island larger.

Before the 1906 swimming season began at the new bath house, Dr. P. M. and Anna Hall removed the restriction on the title to the island they had deeded to the city. Instead of limiting use of the island to burning garbage they permitted the island to be used for “municipal purposes.” That restriction — or permission — proved meaningless over the next few years.

In court after court, the city lost its argument that it had acquired legal title to the island from Hall, who had acquired it from the state. It appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, then to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals and still it lost. The real owners of the island, the courts determined, were those who owned the eastern shore of the river. The courts ruled in every case that the state’s only legal interest in the river was in maintaining open navigation and, because the island had accreted between the shore and the main navigation channel, it didn’t belong to the state. The courts didn’t buy the city’s argument that because some boats could pass down the channel between the island and the eastern shore that it was a navigation channel, when on the other side of the island the river was 600 feet wide and ten to fifteen feet deep.

Finally the city council looked reality in the eye and did the only thing it could do given the popularity of the baths: it condemned three acres of land on the river bank, buying it through eminent domain. Even that was a tedious and court-challenged course of action. It wasn’t until 1917 that the city council finally acquired title to all the parcels of land on the river bank to allow it to fully own Hall’s Island. The last lots were purchased from Frederick W. Rowe, a Congressman from New York, who had acquired the land from his parents, the city council’s antagonists for nearly 15 years.

When the final accounting was done, the city paid a little less than $35,000 for the river bank that also included ownership of the island. And by then the days of the island serving as a popular bathing spot were already numbered. The popularity of bath houses at Lake Calhoun, Glenwood Lake, and Lake Nokomis, as well as the Webber Baths at Camden Park and the showers at the Logan Park field house had collectively reduced attendance at Hall’s Island. Another factor was the opening to the public of baths at Unity House, a northeast settlement house, in 1911.

The river was increasingly polluted and less attractive as a place to swim, too. And it was subject to the vagaries of weather. Although I have seen no record of another year like 1905 when the island was submerged, in 1912 the channel between the island and the eastern bank dried up. The Journal reported on July 3, 1912 that after wide fluctuations in water levels for a week, in the course of four hours the river dropped four feet and the shoreline receded 45 feet, leaving children romping in mud where the day before they would have been “out of their depth” in water. The paper noted that the city council had spent $500 in 1911 just to keep a flow of water in the channel. The drying of the channel in 1912 occurred during a hot spell so intense that the Tribune reported the drowning death of a man in the Mississippi River “after the heat, it is believed, had driven him insane.”

“The Tribune and I Swat the Fly”

Perhaps the heat of the summer of 1912 played a role in one of the more unusual contests ever sponsored by a newspaper. With encouragement from Dr. Hall, the Tribune ran a contest for children in late August to see who could collect the most dead flies. The campaign was actually called “The Tribune and I Swat the Fly,” which did not refer to clubbing insects with a rolled up newspaper. Special cardboard collection boxes were provided by a paper company and Dr. Hall and staff calculated a way to count dead flies by weight. The Tribune’s plan was to eradicate flies and therefore reduce disease, consistent with Dr. Hall’s sermon for much of his life that flies were disease carriers. Collection stations were set up around the city where kids could turn in their catch each day and get more boxes. The Tribune offered an eye-popping first prize of $50, $25 for second place, and $1 each to the top 100 finishers. The final tally of dead flies must have astonished everyone: more than 3 million! The top prize was snatched by George Knaeble, 13, who turned in more than 260,000 flies, nipping Theodore Bedor, 12, by fewer than 1700. The two boys lived on opposite sides of town, Knaeble on Blaisdell Avenue and Bedor on Plymouth Avenue. Flies were everywhere.

If you weren’t driven to distraction by all those flies, you may still be asking, “The city paid how much for the land in 1917? $35,000?” That’s right. It must have been considered a fair price because it took several rounds of appraisals before those prices were agreed upon. But it doesn’t seem like much compared to the $7.7 million the park board paid for the property in 2010. Of course the park board bought 11 acres and the city only bought three — and an island.

In between, of course, the city sold the land, which is why the park board had to buy it again. The bath house was last used in 1926 after attendance had dropped off steadily and it burned down in 1929 just before it was to be demolished. I don’t know what happened to the island over the next 30 years. That’s the next story to research.

Dr. Hall was voted out of his post by the city council in 1913 despite a letter of support signed by more than 100 doctors in the city. While in private practice for the next five years he wrote an informative daily column on health and medicine, “Health and Happiness,” for the Minneapolis Tribune. In 1918 he accepted the post of superintendent of Minnesota’s Ah-Gwah-Ching Tuberculosis Sanitorium near Walker. He remained in that position until his death in 1928.

The park board never did establish a public bath on the east side, other than the shower rooms at Logan Park field house, despite its intentions at Marshall Terrace in 1915. The city council opened the John Ryan Baths — indoors on 2nd Street NE — in 1921 and the park board later managed that property for the city. It was named for the alderman who had fought with Michael Gerber to keep the garbage incinerator off of Hall’s Island. Otherwise the only place the park board has ever offered swimming facilities in northeast Minneapolis was at the Rosacker (Lupient) Pool at Northeast Athletic Field, which opened in 1968.

Although park board president William Folwell had speculated as early as 1897 that operating public baths in all seasons may be an appropriate undertaking for the park board, as it had been for governments of ancient civilizations, it never effectively expanded beyond lake beaches except for the pool at Webber (Camden) Park. The Webber Pool was one of the most effective structures the park board ever built, but two other pools — at North Commons and Northeast Athletic Field — in more recent times have not atoned for the fact that neither north nor northeast Minneapolis has a lake.

Newspaper reports claimed that the park board’s offer to run the Hall’s Island baths for the city council in 1911 was rebuffed because, the council said, the baths had always been a purely municipal project and should be controlled by the council. Then, as ever, there was tension between the park board and the city council. In fairness to both institutions there was only an emerging consensus nationwide that park boards, instead of school boards or other arms of municipal government, should be responsible for playgrounds. Many still held the belief that park boards should be providing quiet, restful escapes from ugly, dirty, noisy cities,  instead of worrying about where children could swim without drowning. Perhaps those conflicts were resolved somewhat in the next ten years, because there was a newspaper report in 1921 (not confirmed by park board proceedings) that the park board had “consented to cooperate” with the city council in making improvements that would convert the baths at Hall’s Island into a new “beauty spot.” The Tribune claimed that park superintendent Theodore Wirth was preparing plans for Hall’s Island. I can find no evidence in park board reports that Wirth ever did.

Fast forward to Hall’s Island in 1962, when the city council requested bids for the three acres of river bank and island it still owned. The only bidder was the lumber company that had acquired much of the surrounding land for its lumber yards, Scherer Brothers Lumber. The sale was completed to the lumber company for $95,000 the company claims on its website. A newspaper clip posted there from the Minnetonka Herald, January 10, 1963, called the land “the most expensive undeveloped land in Hennepin County.” At that price the land had only tripled in value per acre in 46 years, which seems fairly modest, especially when compared to the twenty-fold increase per acre over the next 47 years to the $7.7 million the park board paid in 2010.

The lumber company did invest some money in the improvement of the property it bought in 1963. In a Certificate of Title application filed in 1990, the company claimed that the part of the channel of the Mississippi River upriver from the Plymouth Avenue Bridge “which is now land, was created by the dredging of a portion of Hall’s Island and depositing same into the channel.” In other words, Scherer very likely used some of the same stone, sand, earth, refuse, sawdust, manure and ashes that were once used to enlarge Hall’s Island to connect the island to the river bank.

According to preliminary RiverFIRST plans, which you can access at the park board’s website, some of that same material will now be removed to create a new channel where the old one was. An island that was partly man-made once will be man-made again all in the name of nature, in the name of putting the RiverFIRST.

David C. Smith

© 2012 David C. Smith


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