Archive for the ‘Harry Perry Robinson’ Tag

Rails, Trails, and Sorrow

My park-related reading and the death of an important Minnesotan converged last week.

I was reading Peter Harnik’s From Rails to Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network due to my interest in the movement that led to the creation of the Cedar Lake Trail and the conversion of the Stone Arch Bridge into a pedestrian and bicycle trail. Reading about converting railroad tracks to trails took me back to one of my favorite books this year, Escape Artist: The Nine Lives of Harry Perry Robinson by Joseph McAleer. Harry Robinson, among several lifetimes (nine!) worth of accomplishments, was an advocate for creating all those railroads in the late 1800s.

Stone Arch Bridge in 2004. Converting the railroad bridge to a pedestrian and bicycle path helped revitalize the Minneapolis riverfront which was once dominated by railroads.

As I was contemplating the efforts to create, then repurpose railroads, I saw the obituary for John Helland and an accompanying tribute to him by Dennis Anderson in the StarTribune . Helland was a retired research and policy analyst for the Minnesota Legislature. What McAleer, Harnik and Helland have in common — superficially, at least — is that I met them through these pages. Rich compensation for work that is otherwise not remunerated. They all wrote to me with questions or comments on my posts here, some of which were public and attributed, others exchanged privately in-person or by email.

I wrote a few months ago that I looked forward to reading McAleer’s biography of Harry Robinson, an Englishman who put his stamp on Minneapolis in the 1880s as a journalist, friend to the powerful, and son-in-law of one of Minneapolis’s most influential men, Thomas Lowry. The book lived up to my expectations as it unfolded the story of Robinson’s journey from itinerant Oxford grad to gold prospector to journalist who was knighted for reporting from the trenches of World War I to spokesman for the expedition that discovered and opened King Tut’s tomb. Robinson had more adventures than you or I and he also wrote brilliantly about those adventures, other pressing issues, and the sometimes unsettling prejudices of his time. McAleer chose wisely in sharing freely with his readers the power and wit of Robinson’s own writing through frequent quotations and excerpts from Robinson’s journalism, correspondence, and fiction. Robinson’s considerable influence was due to his writing skill and it is appropriate that his biographer gives us the flavor of that writing.

It was Robinson’s role of railroad advocate — he founded The Northwestern Railroader, a Minneapolis-based magazine in the 1880s and was later the editor of the Chicago-based Railway Age — that resonated as I read Harnik’s book. Harnik was the cofounder of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which advocates converting abandoned railroads to recreation trails. He tells the story of the movement to repurpose an asset at one stage of our history into a quite different asset in a quite different time. Among the projects he mentions are not only the Stone Arch Bridge and Cedar Lake Trail in Minneapolis but also the Cannon Valley Trail in southeastern Minnesota. Harry Robinson was a champion of clearing the land and laying the track, Harnik was a champion of acquiring those same ribbons of land when they no longer carried trains and resurfacing them for recreational use. Both saw value in those strips of land that crisscrossed nearly every county in the country.

Of particular note was that Robinson and Harnik both recognized the necessity of grass roots activism to achieve their objectives. Robinson helped organize “railroad men” into local clubs that largely supported railroad management and their preferred political candidates. Robinson claimed the clubs he helped organize were non-partisan but they generally served Republican interests. After McKinley defeated Bryant in the 1896 presidential election, the new President personally thanked Robinson for his support and organizing efforts on his behalf.

Harnik’s conservancy also recognized the necessity of local champions of rail trails and also asserted its non-partisan nature — more accurately so than Robinson. He cites many examples of cooperation from both sides of the political fence. As different as their objectives appear to have been, I think its fair to say that Robinson and Harnik believed they worked for a common good and both sought allies on carefully targeted issues rather than broader ideological causes.

I was also struck by Robinson’s observations of Americans from his privileged position in English society. McAleer writes, “The American character and can-do spirit had impressed him [Harry] deeply. Twenty years later, Harry reflected on ‘the notion that every American is, without any special training, by mere gift of birthright, competent to any task that may be set him.'”

While our history carries ample warnings of the dangers of an over-zealous belief in American exceptionalism, Harry Robinson’s observations seem corroborated by Peter Harnik’s accounts. He cites many examples of people without prior qualifications taking it upon themselves to organize, plan and execute efforts to secure old railroad beds, tunnels and bridges for public use. In many cases they stood against the formidable might of railroad corporations and at times intransigent public and private bureaucracies. Harnik’s heroes come from all corners of private and public life, from those who had profit and non-profit motives as well as those who really didn’t care much about motives but saw something they thought needed doing and, as Harry Robinson would have appreciated, thought they could do.

As I consumed this stew of railroads and trails, non-partisan commitment to service, and the constantly evolving notion of the public good — against a backdrop of great adventures — came the news that John Helland had died. Dennis Anderson laid out the details of Helland’s service to Minnesota as the legislative staff person responsible for writing many of the state’s environmental and conservation laws. Anderson noted that Helland “and others like him in government, are the dutiful — and smart — ones who write the laws and policies that legislators oftentimes can only imagine.” Anderson also applauded Helland’s professional non-partisanship.

I was especially pleased that Anderson included “smart” in his description of Helland and others like him in government. From my own service in the federal government and from working closely with people in local government service, from municipal to park to library employees, I have enormous respect for employees in the public sector. Their work is in many respects more difficult than work in the private sector because they work for so many bosses and must serve, or at least consider, so many competing agendas. Yet they accomplish so much with intelligence and grace. As did John Helland.

Sir Harry Perry Robinson’s life, apart from adventure and glamor, is at its core a worthwhile jumping off point for consideration of so many pertinent contemporary issues: economics, politics and government, heritage, journalism, relations among nations, and more. Whether we agree or not with his views today, they are threads in the tapestry we have become. McAleer’s book about a man and Harnik’s book about a movement compel us to think about how we define and balance private gain and public good. Helland’s legacy, perhaps even more than the natural resources he helped conserve, is his example of how to pursue that balance.

Harry Perry Robinson Gets a Biography

One of the larger-than-life characters from Minneapolis history in the late 1800s has his own biography now and I just ordered my copy. I wrote about Englishman Perry Robinson in my story about the Makwa Club and in an earlier story about his best friend in Minneapolis, famous interior designer and park commissioner John Scott Bradstreet. (I have just reposted my article, one of my favorites, about Bradstreet and his proposed Japanese temple on an island in Lake of the Isles.)

Escape Artist: The Nine Lives of Harry Perry Robinson by Joseph McAleer is already out as an e-book and will be released in print October 1. You can order a copy from publisher Oxford University Press or Amazon or your favorite local book store (highly recommended).

I haven’t read it yet, but I know a good bit about Robinson and I had the opportunity to hear more stories about him from author Joe McAleer. Joe visited Minneapolis while researching the Robinson story and over a burger at Red Cow we had a chance to talk about the dynamic Englishman who adopted Minneapolis for awhile–and married the daughter of one of its leading citizens. And that’s barely a footnote in a story that includes American Presidents, English Kings (modern) and Egyptian Kings (ancient) and runs from the gold mines in the United States to the trenches of World War I to Robinson being knighted Sir Harry.

Initial reviews out of the United Kingdom are very positive. If this story doesn’t end up on Netflix, I’ll be astonished. But don’t wait for the movie.

David Carpentier Smith

Restored Posts: Makwa Club, Toboggans, Building Restrictions, Parkways

In response to requests and my own whimsy I have restored several posts to these pages today.

I restored one post at the request of author Joe McAleer, whom I met through these pages. He is just finishing a biography of one of the most fascinating characters I’ve come across in Minneapolis history,  Harry Perry Robinson. Joe’s book is entitled Escape Artist: The Nine Lives of Harry Perry Robinson, which is due out in June 2019 from Oxford University Press. Robinson visited Minneapolis as a young Englishman right out of college in the 1880s and made the city his home for several years while writing for local newspapers, becoming besties with many influential Minneapolitans and marrying the daughter of Thomas Lowry. He achieved his greatest fame as a correspondent covering World War I from the trenches of France for London newspapers and was knighted for his efforts. I’m really looking forward to reading his life story.

Due to a link in the piece Robinson inhabits on this site, I also restored some of my favorite photos: the toboggan slide from Queen Avenue out onto Lake Harriet. There is much to see in those images from 1914.

Toboggan Slide Lake Harriet 1914 side

The impressive structure of the Lake Harriet toboggan slide (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Given continuing discussions of building near Minneapolis lakes, I wanted to restore a piece I wrote a few years ago about how the city passed the first ordinance limiting building heights around lakes. It was passed in 1912 in response to a threat to build a hotel beside Lake of the Isles at 25th Street.

I also reposted stories on the intersection of Dean Parkway and Calhoun Parkway.

I’ve reposted a few other pieces that seemed worthwhile, which I’ll let you discover for yourself by scrolling through the site.

David C. Smith

In the past I included my email address on everything I posted here, but due to the volume of spam I received I had to quit doing that. But you can always reach me by posting a comment on some post or page on this site. Every comment is reviewed before it is posted, so they all come to my attention.

The Makwa Club’s Lake Calhoun Toboggan Slide

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 only photo I can find of a toboggan slide from that era was the North Star chute on Glenwood Hill, 1887. (Minnesota Historical Society)

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

© David C. Smith

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