The Park Board that Operated an Airport

The Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport was once the site of the Snelling Racetrack, a two-mile concrete race track that was built to hold car races similar to the Indianapolis 500. It failed — and became an airport instead. The airport was developed and operated by the Minneapolis park board for nearly two decades. You can read the story of the Snelling Racetrack here, another of my earlier posts that I have restored to this site.

The two-mile oval adjacent to Fort Snelling included a grandstand that was built to hold 100,000 fans, although the few races held there never attracted nearly that many people.

The Park Board eventually built the runways, hangars, terminal and control tower that were taken over in the 1940s when the Minnesota legislature created the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC). The last major renovation of the airport runways by the park board — before ceding control to MAC — took place as a Works Progress Adminstration (WPA) project. The rubble from the old runways was used as fill in Pearl Lake, now Pearl Park — without a lake.

David C. Smith

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6 comments so far

  1. Joe Hoover on

    The book, “Richfield: Minnesota’s Oldest Suburb” has a good history on the racetrack and on Speedway Field the first airport that replaced it.

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks, Joe. Good recommendation. I have that book on my shelves at home.

  2. Barb and Tom Balcom on

    A couple of comments on your excellent article.

    First, I understood that the racetrack was built on unstable soils in a wetland area and that is what doomed the racetrack soon after it was built. Is that right?

    Second, that Pearl Park was created when the wetland was filled with the racetrack debris. Historic maps show that Pearl Lake originally existed from 52nd to 60th Street and Portland Avenue was near the eastern shoreline. When Pearl Park was created (from racetrack fill In the 1920s or 30s), the southern end of the lake was renamed Diamond Lake and the remaining wetland to the north wasn’t filled for soccer fields (source of fill unknown?) until the 1980s or 90s. Is that right?

    Thanks for continuing your excellent Minneapolis Parks history work!

    Tom

    >

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks, Tom. I’m not sure of the terrain at the airport site prior to the race track, but the airport is still surrounded by wetlands, so it’s reasonable to assume that more of that land was soggy before it was filled.
      Several years ago I posted some images of the Diamond Lake/Pearl Lake area and additional information at https://minneapolisparkhistory.com/2012/12/07/is-that-a-lake/. As far as I know, Diamond Lake and Pearl Lake were considered two bodies of water at the time the land was acquired by the park board in the 1920s. Theodore Wirth’s first plans for the area were in the 1927 annual report of the park board and they treated Diamond Lake and Pearl Lake seperately.
      More information on the history of the park is provided on the park board’s website at https://www.minneapolisparks.org/parks-destinations/parks-lakes/pearl_park/. Click on the “History” tab near the bottom of the page. You can do the same for Diamond Lake.

  3. Dan Lapham on

    I was a youngster involved with Pearl Park baseball and football. With football we practiced on the otherwise unused north end that still had some cattails and water even further north. Smaller chunks of concrete were in evidence every spring from frost heaving. We would scout for them and pick and dig those out. I haven’t been back there since the 60’s, but don’t doubt that ‘harvesting’ still happens.


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