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The unlocking of Upper St. Anthony Falls. Will a view restaurant or whitewater park come next?

On June 9 the lock at Upper St. Anthony Falls will close to shipping traffic. What follows could include a restaurant or a park or lots of things.

Once the final vessels have passed through on the evening of June 9, the upper gates will be closed.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

At midnight on June 9 the lock at Upper St. Anthony Falls will close permanently to shipping traffic. Blame the invasive carp.

An act of Congress last year directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop allowing tugs and barges to use the lock no later than June 10. It’s a defensive measure against the invasive species that has been working its way up the nation’s river systems. The fish, which could crowd out native fish, has already been found as far upriver as Hastings.

The Corps will keep the facility functioning but only for flood control, something that’s been required for just six times in its nearly 60-year life, most recently last June. Once the final vessels have passed through sometime that evening, the upper gates will be closed. During the following two weeks, a set of massive steel bulkheads will be lowered in slots just upstream to protect the gates. The lower gates will be left open and the water level inside the lock will remain at the level of the river below the falls.

It’s currently in the hands of the engineers. But after the lock is closed to navigation, others will begin to let loose their imaginations to envision what the 1960s era facility might become.

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Regional and federal park planners have long been thinking about the river and the riverfront from downriver of St. Paul to upriver from Minneapolis. It is part of the larger Mississippi National River and Recreation Area run by the National Parks Service. It is also contained within the St. Anthony Falls Regional Park Master Plan by the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board.

Employing a narrower focus, the Minneapolis Parks Foundation is working to realize its Water Works Vision in the area around the lock – from the 3rd Avenue Bridge to Portland. But because the lock and dam were not then in line for closure, the plans either make passing reference to the structures or don’t mention them.

That could change, said foundation executive director Tom Evers, once the federal government decides what the future of the locks will be. The first phase of Water Works will be in the upland area nearest the 3rd Avenue S. Bridge. The second phase will involve the area closer to the river including the gatehouse that allow river flows into the complexes that used its force to power flour mills.

“We anticipate in that time period we’ll have a more-clear vision of what’s happening with the site,” Evers said. “We do hope to see the lock and dam as part of the story that will be told.”

Also keeping an eye on the lock is the park board, which discussed but decided against asking the state Legislature next year for money to begin planning a different future for the lock complex. Board President Liz Wielinkski said she thought it was premature and that taking an incomplete proposal to lawmakers could endanger other park priorities, such as developing property at Hall’s Island near the Plymouth Avenue Bridge and the Upper Harbor Terminal remediation.

“We can’t keep adding a million things to our list,” she said.

One commissioner who was ready to include the lock idea in the bonding request was John Erwin. He said the park board and other partners such as the Corps and the National Park Service have a chance to do something dramatic with the property.

“My hope is it would be transferred to the National Park Service and then we could have use of it,” Erwin said. What kind of use? Erwin sees the building adjacent to the lock as a visitor center with a view restaurant that would overlook falls that he envisions being lit at night.

“At night with the Stone Arch Bridge lit up and the falls lit up, it would be a pretty dramatic place to go,” Erwin said. “I think you’d see a lot of public support for a restaurant.” He even thinks the lock itself could be used for a whitewater park.

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Evers said a view restaurant would complement what Water Works planners want for a new Pavilion Building near the 3rd Avenue Bridge. That building would house restrooms, vendors who would rent watercraft and bikes, as well as a cafe and viewing areas.

Those who want to repurpose the lock and the attached building have a kindred spirit in Col. Dan Koprowski, commander of the St. Paul District of the Corps of Engineers. Koprowski said the Corps plans to hire a part-time employee who will continue to conduct tours of the facility by appointment. The nine workers now employed there will be dispersed to other locks on the river.

On the short term it must be prepared to reopen the lock should Congress change its mind. It ordered the lock closed, not deauthorized so it must be kept in working order with gates being tested each month. The lock system was authorized by Congress in 1937. The Lower Falls Lock opened in 1956 and the Upper Lock followed in 1963.  

Once the lock is secured by the bulkheads, he would like to see a study conducted on its future. Such a study was authorized as long back as 1970 but not funded.

In the meantime, the Corps has been talking with regional national park officials to discuss the lock’s future. Should Congress deauthorize the lock, its future could involve either the Corps retaining ownership or it being passed to some other entity. Either way the flood control aspect must be maintained.

“What I hope to see is beneficial use of the site,” Koprowski said Wednesday from the top story of the control building, which has quite a spectacular view of the crest of the falls. “We are too valuable of a location, it’s too much of a resource for people who live in this community to just let it sit here and do nothing. Whatever it is, I hope we can work with other stakeholders and concerned parties to find a way to make use of this facility.”

And what vessel will have the honor of being the last one through the lock? Koprowski said he has been told by commercial tug and barge operators that they won’t risk waiting until Tuesday for fear that a breakdown would strand expensive equipment upriver. That leaves the privilege to a group of paddlers who Koprowski has heard are planning a late Tuesday passage.

But once through, they will have to do what all kayakers will have to do from then on. They will have to find a way to portage upriver past the historic falls.

“I imagine that’s how they did it before this lock was here,” he said.