Archive for the ‘Lake Calhoun’ Category
I acquired this photograph because it’s the only one I’ve seen of an outlet from Lake Calhoun. But in light of today’s public tours of Lakewood Cemetery’s greenhouses I looked at the picture differently. Until I was told by Katie Thornton at Lakewood that the cemetery once had six huge greenhouses I had no idea what the buildings in this picture near the southeast shore of Lake Calhoun could be. Now I realize they might be the Lakewood greenhouses.
If you make it over to the Lakewood Cemetery greenhouse tour today and I don’t, please ask if their greenhouses are what we see here and let me know what you learn. If you have better information — or guesses — on what those structures might be, please share.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
If you have read my history of the Minneapolis park system, City of Parks, you may recall that Charles Loring’s efforts to acquire land around lakes Harriet, Isles and Calhoun remain a subject of speculation. No one has ever found a clear strategy or well-documented plan by Loring, the first president of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners, to acquire the lakes, even though he spent the better part of several years in getting those complicated real estate deals done. I focused mostly on Loring’s desire to create a parkway from Loring Park, then still called Central Park, around the lakes to Lake Harriet, which had been acquired already for the fledgling park board largely by gift. Even the generous gift of land around Lake Harriet by Henry Beard, James Merritt, Charles Reeve and, ultimately, William King, was prompted by the desire to have a parkway around the lake, which accounts for the limits of the original gift: a strip of land only 125 feet wide around Lake Harriet — just enough for a walking path, a carriage way and a few trees or flowers to dress it up.
A new discovery suggests, however, that Loring had much more in mind than parkways. As part of the ongoing project to inventory the park board’s historical records with the goal of making them more accessible to researchers, I recently found a letter written by Loring in 1886 that sheds more light on his thinking about the lakes.
The letter, dated June 14, 1886 and addressed to park board secretary Rufus Baldwin, discusses Loring’s views on what needs to be done to acquire land at Lake of the Isles. Loring notes that Alfred Dean, who owned much of the land that had to be crossed by a parkway at Lake of the Isles, had already told Loring he could do whatever he wished. Loring then wrote,
“My opinion is that we do not want the land on the outside, but do want it next the lake. As the plat now is, the boulevard goes around the little marsh thus.”
Loring then includes a small drawing.
He is very explicit, writing on the road next to the lake “This is what we want” and concluding bluntly, “We must control the lake.”
This evidence that Loring was thinking far beyond parkways is reinforced by the concluding page of his letter when he addresses a new topic: boats on Lake Harriet. He notes that a steamer has been placed on the lake and he has asked the owner to remove it, but adds that after talking with “Judge Fish” — park board attorney Daniel Fish — Loring doesn’t want legal questions raised yet about “rights on the water”. Clearly, Loring is thinking about park board control not just of boulevards around the lake, but activity on the lake as well. His earlier comment, “We must control the lake”, takes on even greater significance.
We may owe even more to Charles Loring and his vision than we previously knew.
While on the subject of Loring I want to mention a note I received a while ago from, William Scott, the great-great-nephew of Charles Loring’s second wife Florence Barton Loring. You can read more about his family’s relationship with the Bartons and Lorings in the “Comments” section here.
This is the carte de visite of Florence Barton that he refers to. Thanks to William Scott for sharing the photos below.
This must have been taken long before she married Charles Loring at age 45 in 1895. Read much more about Florence Barton Loring here.
William Scott also sent a photograph of family and friends at Minnehaha Falls in about 1910. Love those hats! The new bridge with the boulder face over a concrete structure was brand new in 1910. Appears to be a dry year.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© 2016 David C. Smith
I have neglected these pages in recent months, yet I have so many good park stories to tell, some of them from readers. I will get to them soon I hope. In the last eight months I have discovered more fascinating information about Minneapolis parks and the people who created themthan at any time since my initial research for City of Parks. But until I can get to those stories, I wanted to show you one of the more interesting bits of history I’ve encountered recently. Garish, but oddly charming.
The images below are of a promotional envelope used by a Minneapolis merchant in advance of the July 1911 Civic Celebration that was conceived primarily to celebrate the digging of the channel that connected Lake Calhoun with Lake of the Isles — as is noted at the bottom of the envelope. I found these images on an Ebay auction site and use them with permission of the seller of the envelope who sells mostly postal history under the name of “gregfree”. This envelope is for sale at an opening bid of $150 — more than I can pay. I appreciate gregfree’s willingness to let me share the image with you. Maybe you should buy it. If you do, thank him for me.
I love the background in green, a photo of the Stone Arch Bridge and Mill District, laid over a map of the city that shows the Chain of Lakes and Minnehaha Creek meeting the Mississippi River in the lower right corner.
It’s nice to know that Minneapolis also had the lowest death rate in the United States. How that was measured, I’m not sure.
The coincidence of me finding this image now has a bit of Ouija-Board spookiness to it, because the lake connections have been on my mind — and in the news — a good bit lately. The channel that was celebrated 103 years ago between Isles and Calhoun has been in the news because the developer of a residential building at Knox Avenue and Lake Street has been pumping millions of gallons of water from a flooded underground parking garage into that channel, which has prevented it from freezing and caused considerable increase in phosphorous levels in the lake. More phosphorous means more algae. The Park Board and the City have sued to stop the pumping. Good! Such negligence on the part of a developer is astonishing. Hmmm, what do you think might happen if you put a parking garage below the water table between two lakes? I’m no engineer, but I think I’d be a tad suspicious of anyone who told me, “Hey, no problem.” The next time you hear people complaining about too much government regulation, ask them if it’s cases like this that they have in mind? I hope the Park Board uses every weapon at their disposal in this case to protect our lakes.
The other lake connection issue is not so clear-cut, but may be more important. That is the issue of tunneling under or bridging over the Kenilworth Lagoon that connects Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in order to build the Southwest LRT.
The history of other interests, public and private, wanting to take a little park land here or there for this or that good idea is long and sordid. For decades the park board has had to fight those who wanted just an acre or a little easement across park property. If the Park Board had acquiesced, all we’d have left of a magnificent park system would be a couple triangle parks. The reasons for taking park land have often been legitimate. For instance, I’m strongly in favor of better mass transit in Minneapolis and the entire Twin Cities metro area, but only if it doesn’t harm parks — or even the notion of parks. Is a tunnel or a bridge over Kenilworth channel better for the LRT? That question and a hornets nest of others, isn’t the right place to start. The only place to start in my very prejudiced opinion is with “Will it harm park property?” If the Park Board determines that the answer to that question is “Yes,” it is obliged to oppose those plans with all its might — regardless of how small the “harm.” Because in historical terms, “harm” seems more than precedent, it is invitation.
I have more to write about the issue. Did you know that the Park Board once went to the United States Supreme Court to prevent the State of Minnesota from taking Minneapolis parkland? True story. Til then quite an interesting envelope. Thanks again gregfree.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© 2014 David C. Smith
NOTE: The following outline and photos introduce the important role of Lake Harriet in the creation and growth of the Minneapolis park system. While much of this information is familiar to Minneapolis residents, I prepared this presentation for students visiting Minneapolis today from University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. I thought other readers of minneapolisparkhistory.com might enjoy the images and information as well. For more in-depth info visit the history pages of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. For a more complete picture of the parks surrounding Lake Harriet see the history of Lake Harriet, but also of William Berry Park and Lyndale Park.
If the prized Minneapolis park system were a living thing, Lake Harriet would be its heart. The Grand Rounds — 60 miles of parkways threaded through the city — would be the rest of the circulatory system of veins and arteries. The analogy holds more for the creation of the park system, with parkways radiating out from Lake Harriet and back, than for the current function of Lake Harriet in the system.
Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun had always been primary targets of people in Minneapolis and St. Anthony who believed the growing towns needed parks. For decades, residents of the small towns beside St. Anthony Falls had taken Sunday excursions to the shores of the lakes for picnics and relaxation. As early as 1869, the Board of Trade, a chamber-of-commerce type organization, had voted to acquire the shores of Lake Calhoun for a “pleasure drive” and had secured commitments from all landowners around the lake except one to donate their shoreline for that purpose. That one unnamed holdout must have torpedoed the entire plan.
When the Minneapolis park board was created by an act of the Minnesota Legislature and ratified by Minneapolis voters in 1883, it was well-understood that the lakes would become part of a new park system. Proof was easy: the legislature expanded the city limits of Minneapolis to include Lake Harriet at the same time it created the park board. One went with the other.
One of the park board’s first acts was to hire landscape architect and park advocate H. W. S. Cleveland to advise the board on the creation of parks. About a month later Cleveland presented his “Suggestions” to the broad for a new park system featuring interconnected parkways rather than just a couple large parks. The map that accompanied his suggestions, below, shows in red the parkways he recommended. Note that only Lake Harriet is fully encircled by parkway, the “heart” of this circulatory system.
The map provided a blueprint for a park system that the park board tried to implement. Although the board failed to acquire many of the specific routes proposed by Cleveland — and added others — the concept of a system of parkways encircling the city eventually became the Grand Rounds parkway system of today.
Cleveland used another anatomical metaphor in the park system he proposed that focused on what was most important to him. He called the Mississippi River gorge and parkways on both sides the “lungs” of the city. He meant that a corridor of green on both sides of the river — the “jewel” of the city — would provide a flow of fresh air through the city north to south, which would help prevent pollution and disease. It was not a coinage that originated with Cleveland, but had been used to advocate city parks in the dense and squalid urban cores of Paris and London since early in the century.
In fact, however, the Grand Rounds parkway system had its start at Lake Harriet and the rest of the parkways followed. It was the first parkway the park board attempted to acquire. A first appraisal of the shores of the lake put the cost at $300,000, much more than the park board could legally spend. Then landowners Henry Beard, Charles Reeve and James Merritt approached park board president Charles Loring with an offer: they would donate to the park board a strip of land 125 feet wide that nearly encircled the lake. The park board gratefully accepted that offer 1985. (Ownership of a portion of that land was being contested at the time in court and a court ruling returned much of the land to William S. King, then a park commissioner. He honored the deal already struck with the other landowners and the park board owned a strip of land for a parkway around most of the lake.)
The park board’s other parkway projects revolved primarily around creating routes from other parts of Minneapolis to Lake Harriet. Hennepin Avenue was acquired to be a parkway connection from Central (Loring) Park to Lake Harriet. But when heavy traffic on that road dimmed its prospects for ever being a parkway, an alternative route to Harriet was found. Land was donated for Kenwood Parkway from Central Park to Lake of the Isles, then around Lake of the Isles, which hadn’t figured at all in Cleveland’s plan, to Lake Calhoun. The park board purchased the eastern shore of Lake Calhoun, at what Loring considered an exorbitant but necessary price, to reach the southern tip of Lake Calhoun. From there, Linden Hills Boulevard, also acquired from Henry Beard, would carry traffic to Lake Harriet.
Cleveland conceived of another major circulatory connection to Lake Harriet as a parkway east from Lake Harriet to the Mississippi River. He envisioned that to be Lake Street, but that thoroughfare already was home to a concentration of businesses that made it too expensive to acquire. The route east from Harriet that later emerged, largely due to free land, was Minnehaha Creek. Although much farther south and far from the central city neighborhoods that Cleveland thought would need a parkway, Minnehaha Parkway became the park connection to Minnehaha Falls and the river parkways.
Even the parkways from the Lake District into north Minneapolis were really arteries directly from the north side to Lake Harriet. When it became evident that Lyndale Avenue could not be converted into a parkway from Central Park north, the park board looked to the west to connect Lake Harriet via Cedar Lake and what eventually became Theodore Wirth Park and Parkway to north Minneapolis. Once again the appeal, at first, was the prospect of free land along that route from William McNair, a friend of the parks and several park commissioners.
Further supporting the Lake Harriet-as-heart metaphor is that the northern half of the Grand Rounds was inspired by what had already occurred in the southern half of the city connecting lakes, river, and creek to Lake Harriet. William Folwell, former University of Minnesota president, park commissioner and Cleveland’s close friend, urged the park board in a special report at the end of 1890 to return to the vision of Cleveland. In his report, he urged the board to resurrect and finish the system of parkways throughout the city that Cleveland had suggested. Folwell even gave that system of parkways, which began and ended at Lake Harriet, a name for the first time: Grand Rounds.
To the Water’s Edge
The parkway at Lake Harriet also established another critical precedent in the history of Minneapolis parks. In keeping with Cleveland’s plan for an interconnected system of parkways, the park board wanted a parkway around the lake instead of just a large park beside it. The parkway acquired encircled the lake on its shoreline. That meant the park board owned the entire lake and it established that precedent for later acquisitions at Lake of Isles, Lake Calhoun, Minnehaha Creek, even the Mississippi River gorge. Nearly everywhere in Minneapolis, the park board owns the water front. The only places that is not true today is the banks of the Mississippi River above the falls, and that is in the process of being acquired piece by piece, and those parts of Bassett’s Creek that had been tunneled below ground even before the park board was created.
The unique and defining feature of Minneapolis today is not only that the city has lakes and creeks and a river running through it, but that almost all land abutting those bodies of water is publicly owned and preserved as parkland. We aren’t restricted to a glimpse of water between mansions built on lakeshores, the people own the lake shores. The effect on the prosperity of the city has always been significant. As Minneapolis park board studies have shown, property values are increased not only adjacent to the lakes, creeks and river but up to several blocks away from those amenities because they are publicly owned.
Donation of Land
Another reason for the centrality of Lake Harriet to the development of the Minneapolis park system was the means by which the park board acquired the Lake Harriet shoreline: it was donated. That also established a precedent that Charles Loring, in particular, was very successful in replicating. Loring secured other land donations in the few years after the donations by Beard, Reeve, Merritt and King. Kenwood Parkway, most of Lake of the Isles, half of Lake Calhoun, part of Cedar Lake, much of Minnehaha Creek, Stinson Parkway, Lyndale Park and The Parade. Even much of the river gorge was sold to the park board well below market value.
Let Us Entertain You
Lake Harriet was also the heart of park board expansion into new areas, especially providing entertainment and recreation. Entertainment at the lake began at a pavilion built by the street railway company on private land beside the lake, but became one of the most popular destinations in the city after the park board allowed the street railway company to build a pavilion on the shores of the lake in 1892. The park board didn’t provide the entertainment directly, but did exercise considerable control over the types of entertainment the railway company was allowed to present. That entertainment did not always meet the approval of all park commissioners, but it continued because people liked it and turned out by the thousands. It is one of the first examples of the nature of parks being adapted to what people wanted.
Another important attraction at the Lake Harriet Pavilion were row boats. One of the donors of land around the lake Charles Reeve offered in 1887 to pay the park board $1,000 for the right to rent boats and sell refreshments at the lake. Competitive bidding pushed the price up to $1,250, a large sum in the day, before Reeve gained concession rights. But by 1889 the park board realized it could make a nice profit running the boat and refreshment concessions itself and purchase Reeve’s boats.
The Bicycle Craze
Active recreation, physical exercise, began at Lake Harriet with boating and canoeing, but then along came the bicycle craze of the 1890s and the park board continued what has become a long tradition of accommodating what people wanted from their parks.
Bicycling was so popular that the park board built a bicycle path around the lake in 1896. So many people rode bicycles to the lake that the park board built an enclosure where people could check their bicycles while they were at the pavilion or renting a boat. It was built to hold 800 bicycles. Soon after, the park board built bicycle trails along Minnehaha Creek as well.
These are just the beginning of the accommodation of public desires at Lake Harriet and then other park properties. What began at Lake Harriet, like the parkways radiating out from it, quickly extended to other parts of the park system even as new amenities were added at Lake Harriet. From the picnic shelter at Beard Plaisance on the west side of the lake in 1904 to the Rose Garden created on the east side of the lake in 1907, the throngs drawn to the lake were regularly provided new attractions.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© 2014 David C. Smith
Julieann Swanson, Assistant Curator of Digital Collections and Archives at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design just sent a fabulous photo of the Lake Street, Dean Parkway, and West Calhoun Parkway intersection from about 1956 in response to my post earlier today. See Julieann’s comments on that post for more information on this photo and the Digital Content Library.
Julieann suggested that the photo is circa 1955, but I’ve advanced it a year to 1956, because I believe that is a red 1956 Chevy sitting at the east-bound stop light. And, yes, the traffic lights are quite visible in this photo! Would that car have been called, “Cherry”? I’m a little too young to remember ’50s slang.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© 2013 David C. Smith
Two photos from the 1950s, and two that are much older, show how people got to Lake Calhoun once upon a time. Both photos are from the Minnesota Historical Society’s online collection. I haven’t written about that collection in some time, but I continue to use it extensively for research on Minneapolis parks and other historical subjects. You should take a look if you haven’t before. It’s a treasure.
The first photo shows the intersection of Lake Street, Dean Parkway and West Calhoun Parkway, looking west.
Many Minneapolis parkways were once called “boulevards”, but that changed in 1968 when the Minneapolis park board renamed nearly all of them “parkways.” The park board wanted to create uniformity in treatment, but also believed that by calling them parkways, people would better understand that they were owned by the park board and were part of the park system. I still refer to them as boulevards at times, out of habit, as do many others. Curiously, Google maps hedges, labelling the road around the west side of Lake Calhoun “W Calhoun Pkwy” and “Calhoun Blvd”.
Note that the lot on the southwest corner of the intersection (upper left) is still undeveloped in 1953.
The earliest photos I’ve found of the American Hardware Mutual Insurance Company building on the site are dated 1956, such as this aerial photo from the Minneapolis Star Journal Tribune.
The park board never owned that piece of land, although it would have been a good addition to the lake park. The park board reported in 1916 that the purchase of 93 acres on that corner was pending, but the deal never was completed. The land behind the building to the southwest was once a small bay of the lake, which the park board filled with material dredged from the lake bottom.
Perhaps it’s simply an issue of the resolution of this photo, but I don’t see traffic lights even though it appears that east- and west-bound traffic is stopped. The lights must have been installed about this time, because the city engineer had developed an initial plan for lights at this increasingly busy intersection in 1951.
The photo below was taken at the opposite, or southeastern, corner of Lake Calhoun at about the same time.
The photo is notable especially because the foundation of the street railway bridge over 36th Street still stands. This was the location of the rails that went to Lake Harriet and beyond to Excelsior and Lake Minnetonka. Of course, there were no traffic lights at the intersection of 36th and East Calhoun Parkway either.
The trestle had been there since before the park board built the parkway. (See more on the Lyndale Railway Company at Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet.) In the photo at right you can see the bridge foundation (far right), in front of the carriage turning east onto 36th Street. The fountain in the boulevard for watering horses was an interesting touch. So was the scalloped hedge between the parkway and the lake. Does anyone know when the street railway bridge supports were torn down?
Most of the earliest parkways around lakes ran right along the water’s edge. That feature of early parkways is more prominent in the photo below of the end of Calhoun Parkway in about 1905. At that time the parkway ended where it turned south to connect to Lake Harriet. The land behind the photographer in this photo was private land all the way around the west shore of the lake back to Lake Street and the top photo.
The photo below shows the approach to the north end of Lake Calhoun from about the same time period as the photo above.
This photo shows Lake Street facing west at the northeast corner of Lake Calhoun. This was before the park board acquired the north shore of the lake. The only park land around the lake at this time was Calhoun Parkway beginning at the left of this photo and continuing to the previous photo.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
One of my favorite photos of Lake Calhoun. The photo is undated, but I would estimate that it was taken in the late 1910s. The view indicates it was taken from the Minikahda Club on the west side of the lake looking northeast toward downtown. The photo was taken after the Lake Calhoun Bath House (center) was completed in 1912, but before a parkway was built on the west side of the lake, which occurred in the early 1920s.
Note how far into the lake the diving platforms were built.
One of things I like from this photo is a sense of the connection between Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun. There is some open land between them. This was taken a few years before construction began on the Calhoun Beach Club across Lake Street from the bath house.
Another remarkable feature of this photo is the prominence of the Basilica on the skyline west of downtown. The Basilica was dedicated in 1914.
This is the view that Theodore Wirth hoped could one day be incorporated into the park system if the Minikahda Club ever relocated. Wirth wrote in the 1906 Annual Report of the Board of Park Commissioners, his first, that this view was of “such scenic beauty that it is almost a crime to pass it unnoticed.”
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© David C. Smith
A couple of months ago I posted photos of a toboggan slide at Lake Harriet in 1914. Now I’ve rediscovered a description I had saved long ago of a toboggan slide from an earlier time on a Minneapolis lake. The Makwa Club — makwa is the Ojibwe word for “bear” — built a toboggan slide at Lake Calhoun in 1888, according to the Minneapolis Tribune, January 22, 1888.
The Tribune reported that the Makwa Club was formed in 1885 and had its first toboggan slide on Lowry Hill near Thomas Lowry’s house. For the winter of 1888 the club built a much grander slide at Lake Calhoun. The Tribune reported, “The slide is much superior to any that has been built in Minneapolis before and is probably as fine as any that is in existence in the country.”
The other toboggan slides in the city that winter were maintained by the Flour City Toboggan and Snowshoe Club and the North Star Toboggan Club. (Newspapers of the time referred often to the toboggan “craze,” much like the bicycle craze that would soon follow, and the canoe craze that came after that. Today, I suppose, we text or tweet.) The Flour City slide was a 1,000-foot slide near Ridgewood Avenue that ended near Franklin and Lyndale. The North Star slide was west of the city in what is now Theodore Wirth Park.
The Makwa slide was 220-feet long, running onto Lake Calhoun from the bluff on the east side of the lake where the Lyndale Hotel once stood. The slide had three chutes that had a drop of 55 feet and crossed both the street railway track — 15 feet above the track — and Calhoun Parkway — 24 feet above the road. (Yes, the Makwas did get the permission of the park board to build its slide over the parkway.) The slide met the lake ice about 50 feet out from the shore and the level runway continued 1,500 feet onto the lake. After a run of about 1/3 mile, toboggans hit roughed up lake ice that prevented them from running onto Lake Calhoun’s horse trotting track.
The grandest feature of the slide, however, “had never before been tried in any slide,” according to the Tribune: a wooden warming house and starting platform at the top of the slide, 10 feet off the ground. The front of the warming room was made almost entirely of glass and looked straight down the slide,. The slide was illuminated by five electric lights.
The Makwas even had an arrangement with the motor (trolley) company by which the 7:40 train out from town every evening stopped at the foot of the slide to drop off club members and the 9:57 train made a special stop at the same place to pick them up for a return to the city after an evening of mirth. The slide was for the use of club members only.
The Makwa uniform was breeches and blouse of heavy gray French wool and stockings, toque and sash of cardinal. The membership of the club was limited to 200 and included many of the best-known young men of Minneapolis. The president of the club in 1888 was English journalist Harry P. Robinson, who was featured in an earlier article about his close friend John S. Bradstreet. Bradstreet was a Makwa, as was park commissioner Eugene Wilson.
The problem with the Makwa’s grand slide was that no one was willing to pay for it. In 1891, the Tribune reported that a lawsuit had been filed — in what it called the “Makwa mess” — by the man who built the slide in an attempt to recover his costs from the officers of the defunct club. Makwa Club members had been assessed $10 each to pay for the slide in 1888, but most didn’t pay. Some claimed that the officers of the club did not have the authority to spend the money on the slide. (I wonder if these claimants used the slide!) Of the $800 charged to build the slide, only about $300 had been paid. The Makwa directors, including Robinson, then sued individual members who hadn’t paid up. The Tribune reported on only two of those cases: one was not contested and the other lost on a technicality.
One of the “chief forms of pleasure that the belles and bloods of the city indulged in” that winter through “the most select of all the clubs” ended up being a free toboggan ride for most of them. (Tribune, March 20, October 18, December 22, 1891.)
By the fall of 1891, however, Makwa president Robinson had married the daughter of one of the wealthier men in Minneapolis, Thomas Lowry, so he may have found the means to pay the builder of the toboggan slide that was “much superior” to any other in Minneapolis.
If you’ve ever seen a picture of the Makwa Club’s Lake Calhoun toboggan slide, please let us know. We’d love to see it.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© David C. Smith
It’s not a common sight. I’d never seen it myself until I saw this picture from Fairchild Aerial Surveys taken in 1955. St. Anthony Falls is completely dry.
Water levels were down everywhere at the time. Meteorological charts list 1955 as the 13th driest year on record in Minneapolis, but a look at longer-term data reveal that rainfall had been below normal for most of the previous 40 years. Downstream from St. Anthony Falls, the river was also very low, revealing the former structure of the locks at the Meeker Island Dam.
That dry spell had a significant impact on park property. Many park board facilities, from beach houses to boat houses and docks, were permanent structures that required proximity to the water’s edge. Parks were also landscaped and mowed to the water line and, since the depression, at least, many lakes had WPA-built shore walls that looked goofy a few feet up on dry land.
Park board annual reports provide time-lapse updates.
1948: Minnehaha Creek dry most of the year, lakes down 1.5 feet.
1949: Chain of Lakes 2 feet below normal, rainfall 2.5 inches below normal, water in Minnehaha for limited time during year
1950: Lake levels at record lows, lake channels dredged 4.5 feet deeper to allow continued use, water in Minnehaha Creek for only brief period in spring
1951: Record snowfall and heavy rains raised lake levels o.44 feet above normal in April; flooding problems along Minnehaha Creek golf courses required dikes to make courses playable; attendance at Minnehaha Park high all year due to impressive water flow over falls.
1952: Wet early in year, dry late; lake levels stable except those that depend on groundwater runoff, such as Loring Pond and Powderhorn Lake, which were down considerably at end of year
1953: Lake levels fluctuated 1.5 feet from early summer to very dry fall; flow in Minnehaha Creek stopped in November; U.S. Geological Survey began testing water flow in Bassett’s Creek for possible diversion
1954: Again, water level fluctuations; near normal in early summer, low in fall; Minnehaha Creek again dry in November.
1955: Fall Chain of Lakes elevation lowest since 1932, but Lake Harriet near historical normal; Minnehaha dry most of year
1956: Lakes 4 feet below normal, weed control required, boat rentals incurred $10,000 loss
1957: City water — purchased at a discount! — pumped into lakes raised lake levels 1.5 feet; park board began construction of $210,000 pipeline from Bassett’s Creek, which, unlike Minnehaha Creek, had never been completely dry, to Brownie Lake.
1958: Second driest year on record; Minnehaha Creek dry second half of year; pumps activated on pipeline from Bassett’s Creek, raised water level in lakes 4.2 inches by pumping 84,000,000 gallons of water.
1959: Dry weather continued; Park board suggested reduction in water table may be result of development; Park board won a lawsuit against Minikahda Club for pumping water from Lake Calhoun to water golf course. When Minikahda donated lake shore to park board for West Calhoun Parkway in 1908 it retained water rights, but a judge ruled the club couldn’t exercise those rights unless lake level was at a certain height — higher than the lake was at that time — except in emergencies when it could water the greens only. Lakes were treated with sodium arsenite to prevent weed growth in shallower water; low water permitted park crews to clean exposed shorelines of debris.
1960: Lake levels up 4 feet due to pumping and rain fall; channels between lakes opened for first time in two years; hydrologist Adolph Meyer hired to devise a permanent solution to low water levels.
That’s more than a decade’s worth of weather reports. The recommendation of hydrologist Adolph Meyer was very creative: collect and recycle water from the air-conditioners in downtown office buildings and stores, and pump it to the lakes. That seemed like a good idea until the people who ran all those air-conditioners downtown thought about it and realized they could recycle all that water themselves through their own air-conditioners and save a lot of money on water bills. End of good idea. Instead the park board extended its Chain of Lakes pumping pipeline from Bassett’s Creek all the way to the Mississippi River. But that’s a story for another time.
If you’ve followed the extensive shoreline construction at Lake of the Isles over the last many years, you know that water levels in city lakes remains an important, and costly, issue — and it probably always will be. It’s the price we pay for our city’s water-based beauty.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory.com
Afterthought: The lowest I ever remember seeing the river was following the collapse of the I-35W bridge. The river was lowered above the Ford Dam to facilitate recovery of wreckage from that tragedy. Following a suggestion from Friends of the Mississippi River, my Dad and I took a few heavy-duty trash bags down to the river bank near the site of the Meeker Island Dam to pick up trash exposed by the lower water levels. Even then the water level wasn’t as low as in the Fairchild photos.
The newspaper headline hinted of a sordid affair: “Long Line Waits Grimly in Courthouse Corridor.” Many were so young they should have been in school. Others had skipped work. They stood anxiously in the dim hallway, waiting. News accounts put their numbers at 500 when the clock struck 8:30 that April morning. Many had already been there for hours by then. They prayed they would be among the lucky ones to get permits to store their canoes at the most popular park board docks and on the lower levels of the lakeside canoe racks, so they wouldn’t have to hoist their dripping canoes overhead.
The year was 1912 and nearly 2,000 spaces were available on park board canoe racks and dock slips at Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet. Nearly all of them were needed, which represented a huge increase over the 200 permits issued only two years earlier. The city was canoe crazed.
By contrast, in 2011 the park board rented 485 spaces in canoe racks at all Minneapolis lakes, in addition to 368 sail boat buoys at Calhoun, Harriet and Nokomis.
Wirth’s plan (above), presented in the 1912 annual report, would have created a five-acre peninsula in Lake Harriet near Beard Plaisance to accommodate a boat house that would hold 864 canoes. The boat house would have been filled with racks for private canoes, as well as lockers for canoeists to store paddles and gear. The boat house, in Wirth’s words, “would protect the boat owners’ property, and would relieve the shores of the unsightly, vari-colored canoes.”
The board never seriously considered building the boat house and that summer the number of watercraft on Lake Harriet reached 800 canoes and 192 rowboats. Most of the rowboats and about 100 of the canoes were owned and rented out by the park board. Even more crowded conditions prevailed at smaller Lake of the Isles where the park board did not rent watercraft, but issued permits for 475 private canoes and 121 private rowboats.
The park board’s challenge with so many watercraft wasn’t just how to store them, but how to keep order on the lake. An effort to maintain decorum on city lakes began in April 1913 when another year of permits was issued. The park board announced before permits went on sale that because of “considerable agitation about objectionable names” on boats and canoes the year before, permits would not be issued to canoes that bore offensive names.
The previous summer newspapers reported that commissioners had condemned naughty names such as, “Thehelusa,” “Damfino,” “Ilgetu,” “Skwizmtyt,” “Ildaryoo,” “O-U-Q-T,” “What the?,” “Joy Tub,” “Cupid’s Nest,” and “I’d Like to Try It.” The commissioners decided then that such salacious names would not be permitted the next year, even though Theodore Wirth urged the board to take the offending canoes off the water immediately.
When the naming rules were announced the next spring, park board secretary J. A. Ridgway was given absolute power to decide whether a name was acceptable. To begin with he allowed only monograms or proper names, but used his discretion to ban names such as “Yum-Yum” even though that was the name of a character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” Even proper names could be improper.
Despite the strict naming rules, all but 75 of the park board’s 1400 canoe rack spaces were sold by late April, and practically all remaining spaces were “uppers” scattered around the three lakes.
The crackdown on canoe-naming wasn’t the end of the park board protecting the morals of the city’s youth on the water however. Take a close look at the 1914 photo below by Charles Hibbard from the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection.
The photo shows canoeists listening to a summer concert at the Lake Harriet Pavilion. Notice the width of the typical canoe and how two people could sit cozily side-by-side in the middle of the canoe. Now imagine how easy it would be to drift into the dark, get tangled up with the person next to you and make the canoe a bit tippy. Clearly a safety issue.
The Morning Tribune announced June 28, 1913 that the park board would have no more of such behavior. “The park board decided yesterday afternoon, ” the paper reported, “that misconduct in canoes has become so grave and flagrant that it threatens to throw a shadow upon the lakes as recreation resorts and to bring shame upon the city.”
The solution? A new park ordinance required people of opposite sex over the age of 10 occupying the same section of a canoe to sit facing each other. No more of this side-by-side stuff, sometimes recumbent. According to the paper, park commissioners said the situation had become one of “serious peril to the morals of young people.” Park police were given motorized canoes and flashlights to seek and apprehend offenders.
The need for flashlights became evident after seeing the park police report in the park board’s 1913 annual report. Sergeant-in-Command C. S. Barnard, referring to the ordinance that parks close at midnight, noted a policing success for the year. To get canoeists off the lake by midnight, the police installed a red light on the Lake Harriet boat house that was turned on to alert lake lovers that it was near 11:30 pm, the time canoes had to leave the lake. Barnard reported that the red light “has been a great help in getting canoeists off the lake by 11:30 p.m., but owing to the large number who stay out past that time (emphasis added), I would suggest that the hour be changed to 11 o’clock in order to enable the parks to be cleared by 12 o’clock.”
Indignant protest against the side-by-side seating ban arose immediately. Arthur T. Conley, attorney for the Lake Harriet Canoe Club, suggested that the park board show a little initiative and arrest those whose conduct was immoral rather than cast a slur on “every woman or girl who enters a canoe.” If Conley believed the ordinance was a slur on men and boys as well he didn’t say so, but he did add, “We dislike to hear that we are engaged in a sport which is compared with an immoral occupation and that we are on the lake for immoral purposes.”
In the face of protests, the new ordinance was not vigorously enforced and was repealed before the start of the 1914 canoe season. The Tribune noted in announcing the repeal that “the public did not take kindly to the ordinance last year and boat receipts at Lake Harriet fell off considerably on account of it.”
Despite the repeal of the unpopular ordinance, boating fell off even more in 1914. In the annual report at the close of the year Wirth attributed the decline partly to a terrible storm that passed over Lake Harriet on June 23 resulting in the drowning of three canoeists. Newspapers reported dramatic rescues of several others. By 1915 the number of canoe permits had dropped under 1400 even though canoe racks had been added to Cedar Lake, Glenwood (Wirth) Lake and Camden Pond.
The popularity of canoeing continued to decline. Wirth noted in 1917 that there had been a very perceptible decrease again in the number of private boats and canoes on the lakes. While he attributed that decline partly to unfavorable weather, he also noted the “large number of young men drawn from civil life and occupations to military service” as the United States entered WWI.
There were only six sail boats on city lakes in 1917, and all six were kept on Lake Calhoun. The first year that the park board derived more revenue from renting buoys for sail boats than racks for canoes was not until 1940. From then until now sailing has generated more revenue for the park board than canoeing.
The number of canoe permits leveled off for a while in the 1920s at about 1000 per year, but the canoe craze on the lakes had passed, much as the bicycle craze of the 1890s. During the bicycle craze the park board had built a corral where people could check their bikes while at Lake Harriet. That corral held 800 bicycles. At the peak of the much shorter-lived canoe craze in the 1910s, the park board provided rack space at Lake Harriet for 800 canoes. Popular number. Fortunately, the park board did not build permanent facilities — or a peninsula into Lake Harriet — to accommodate a passing fad.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© David C. Smith
If you’re a long-time follower of Minneapolis politics, you might think this headline came from the 1988 fight to prevent a high-rise building from being constructed next to the Calhoun Beach Club facing Lake Calhoun. But you have to go back much farther in history to get to the first city ordinance to restrict construction on parkways encircling Minneapolis lakes.
I wrote a few weeks ago about Theodore Wirth’s description of the Calhoun Beach Club as a “disfigurement.” In that post I noted that Charles Loring was the first to warn the park board of the likelihood of commercial encroachment on the lake following the highly successful opening of the Lake Calhoun Bath House in July, 1912. Loring urged the park board to acquire the property across Lake Street from the bath house to prevent commercial development there. The fear, I’m sure, was the opening of saloons or dance halls. (Just two years earlier, in June 1910, the park board expanded Riverside Park when a dance hall was planned for land facing the park. The board preempted the dance hall plans by acquiring the land through condemnation.)
Since I wrote that post I’ve learned that by the time Loring made his suggestion in August 1912, the city had already passed an ordinance limiting construction on parkways around the lakes. And it had nothing to do with the Lake Calhoun Bath House. The purpose of the ordinance was essentially to facilitate the construction of this castle. Continue reading
The letters Theodore Wirth wrote to his friends during his 1936 around-the-world voyage, which included a quote on the Calhoun Beach Club, reveal little about Minneapolis parks, but quite a bit about the man.
When Wirth retired as Minneapolis park superintendent in 1935 — he was forced to retire due to civil service age rules — he travelled with his wife to Hawaii, Samoa — where he visited his son, a U. S. Navy officer — Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, the Canary Islands, England and on to his boyhood home in Switzerland. Over the course of his travels he wrote ten “general letters” to his friends in Minneapolis. The first was dated December 15, 1935 from a ship sailing from Los Angeles to Honolulu and the last was dated September, 1936 from Winterthur, Switzerland, his home town.
As Wirth explained in General Letter No. 2:
There are so many of you back home that it is of course impossible for me to write to you all. Even if I could do so, it would mean that I would be writing on the same subject time and again. I bargained for a good solution of this problem with Mr. Bossen (his successor as park superintendent) and Miss Merkert (his secretary for many years) before we left home, and I am to write a general letter from time to time, which is to be typed and circulated as may be deemed advisable.
The very method of distributing his letters speaks to his Swiss efficiency, but the content of those letters reveals a good bit about the man as well. Most of his letters are inconsequential newsy travelogues, but I am struck that he was most passionate and enthusiastic about plants on many stops during his voyage.
From his first letter, when he wrote of visiting John McLaren, the famous superintendent of San Francisco parks, he singled out trees for comment. Of California’s Redwood State Park, which McLaren took him to visit, he wrote, “the big Redwood trees are worth a world’s trip to see.” It is the first of many references to the grand and unusual plant life he observed.
Of course he wrote also of parks, commenting on a new park being built in Honolulu, and city planning, noting that Adelaide, Australia was the best-planned city he’d ever seen or heard of. But many of his most detailed observations were about plants.
In New Zealand he makes note of the “elaborately planted” grounds at Lake Rotorua, the “gorgeous tree ferns” towering 50 feet above the undergrowth, even the high yields of New Zealand’s wheat farms.
Of a tour of Sydney’s botanical garden with the curator, he notes a fine specimen of Morton Bay Fig, Ficus Macrophylia with a crown 110 feet in diameter and begonias eight to ten feet tall, concluding “there is no end to what I could report along the lines of plant life here.” He writes that Sydney has much more land set aside for recreation and open space than Minneapolis — Australians are “enthusiastic devotees or every worth while sport” — but it is “sadly lacking” in street tree plantings.
Melbourne is “lavishly decorated with floral displays,” he writes, but he also recounts his travel to see gigantic gum (Eucalyptus) trees six to eight feet in diameter and 150 tall, a “truly majestic sight, not unlike our glorious Redwoods,” and notes that the tuberous begonias at the Fitzgerald Gardens there were the largest he had ever seen.
He writes with special enthusiasm about the bulb nurseries of Holland and how the bulbs were auctioned, mentioning that he had letters of introduction to three bulb-growers from his friend O. J. Olson, a St. Paul florist. He encouraged every florist to visit Holland in May.
Thank you, Sonia Abramson
Copies of the ten letters, 48 pages, Wirth sent to his friends were given to the park board in August 2011 by Ed Abramson. Ed’s aunt, Sonia Abramson, was an employee of the park board, working most of her life in administration. Sonia must have been among those who received copies of the letters after Miss Merkert typed them from Theodore Wirth’s handwritten originals. Ed and his sister-in-law, Cookie Abramson, discovered the letters after his aunt died in 1998 at age 93. Ed recalls that his aunt “loved doing what she did.” “She did a marvelous job for the city and the park board treated her well. It was a win-win,” he said.
Wirth makes two other references to things Minneapolis in his letters — in addition to his Calhoun Beach Club reference.
He provides this account of Pago Pago: “The Pago Pago harbor is not any larger than Lake Calhoun. Imagine the lake surrounded by abruptly-raising, densely wooded mountains from 1,700 to 2,200 feet high — absolutely landlocked — the entrance from the ocean not visible once you are in the harbor.”
He also notes that while sailing from Samoa to Fiji, one morning on deck he was “agreeably surprised” to run into Edward C. Gale, a prominent Minneapolis attorney, son of Samuel Gale and son-in-law of John Pillsbury. They travelled on the same ship until they reached Auckland, New Zealand.
Wirth’s ten letters conclude with a description of parks and playgrounds in Switzerland which suggests where Wirth’s views of parks originated. Among his observations:
“The forests of Switzerland are both the nation’s park and playground in the fullest sense of the word.”
“People flock to the woods singly and in droves to find their recreation.”
“The Swiss people are an exceedingly nature-loving nation — the natural scenic beauty of their homeland makes them so.”
“Playgrounds, as we so properly advocate, build and maintain in the States, are not as essential here in Switzerland.”
“The entire population is more or less self-taught in their practice of exercising, physical culture and body development.”
“Playground activities are managed by the school authorities.”
“Park construction and operation are better known here under the name of “Gardenbau” and the branch of government that has jurisdiction over all pertaining to it is the one of Horticulture.”
These claims tend to corroborate my impression that Wirth never quite understood the American affinity for organized ball games and competitive sports. While many, many neighborhood playgrounds were designed by Wirth, there was nearly always in his layouts a clash between his instinct to create gardens — at least visually pleasing spaces — and his recognition of the popular demand for playing fields.
Theodore Wirth accomplished many things as a park superintendent, but I believe, as these letters suggest, his first love was gardening and horticulture.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com