In the 1870s in Minneapolis, there was a prominent group of citizens who took it upon themselves to adopt a very sniffy attitude about the usefulness of a park board. Actually, they had the same attitude about parks in general in our tiny new metropolis. “There never would be a house south of 10th Street,” predicted one, quoted in a history of the city written in 1895. In fact, the man continued, “all of the land south of that was open country or a natural park.” Why bother with parks?
Fortunately, the parks prevailed, and the city was prescient enough to buy up – among much else – the lands adjacent to Minnehaha Creek. It was indeed open country in the 1870s, but that wouldn’t be true even 20 years later. Neighborhoods grew up close to the creek and eventually surrounded it on both sides, but they didn’t reach the edge of it. The immediate land on either bank was and remains wild and relatively untouched.
Or giving that appearance, at least. In many ways, the creek today is as much an artificial construction of the parks board as anything – early maps show it meandering in those long, loping curves you find in the reconstructed parts of the creek in the west metro we encountered last week. It’s quite straight and channel-like in places. But the creek is, without a doubt, much more accessible, cleaner and more enjoyable than it would be today had the anti-parks faction prevailed a 150 years ago. There’s an alternate historical scenario in which the last leg of our walk along the creek involves ducking through shuttered factories, mill ruins, private country clubs, fetid puddles of sewer runoff, and other unsavory features of the landscape. Instead, walking along the creek from Lake Harriet to the Mississippi River is lined with walkways for virtually the entire distance. Just as Horace Cleveland envisioned it.
The final stretch of the creek through south Minneapolis is the least varied of all the landscapes you pass through on your way to the falls. I mean this in a good way, though I say it with a tinge of dismay. There’s a certain enjoyable quality to the unpredictability of the creek, especially in Minnetonka and Edina: will it be in someone’s backyard? Will it pass through a church? A graveyard? A private golf course? A boardwalk? (The answer to these questions is yes, yes, yes, yes and yes, all within about two miles of each another.)
In Minneapolis, it’s all parkland. Some parts are a little bit more sylvan than others, but there aren’t really any surprises with regard to land usage, topography or walkability. Which is relaxing, as a park should be.
The most curious aspect of this parkland is the absence of much in the way of dynamic or large-scale architecture along the way. At least not right along the creek. Tangletown, a fascinating neighborhood with its own complex history, is largely hidden away from the creek below – you can make out its most famous feature, the Washburn Water Tower, but just barely. The Guardians of Health sculptures that surround the tower just peeking over the trees. That’s about the only example of heroic-scale architecture along the way.
The houses are nice enough, and in the Field neighborhood in particular, there’s some good examples of those stucco fairy tale cottages you see strewn through south Minneapolis, sitting on the parkway. Otherwise, the houses you pass along the way are solidly built middle-class homes from about the time the city caught up to the creek, the interwar period.
As in most parks, the most interesting feature is generally the people that use it. We’ll come to that in a moment, but along the way, there are some notable pieces of public art, memorials and infrastructure.
Jeff Barber’s “Cottontail on the Trail” is probably the best-known piece of art along stretch, located near Portland Avenue and familiar to walkers, joggers and cyclists along the creek since it was placed there in 2002. I think it’s a very strange sculpture – the proportions on that rabbit are so odd – but it’s very sweet, and I’m not going to argue that it’s not beloved by the neighborhood. This is evident in the decorations that surround and augment it throughout the year. Last weekend, someone had draped an autumnal garland of maple leaves around one of its ears. Moreover, it’s usually got kids climbing on it, which is almost always a good sign of the health of a public space and the artwork in it.
You’ll find a few memorials scattered along the way. Several benches are named for people, perhaps Twin Citians who’d used and loved the trails and creek over the years. Not far from the cottontail statue is a field of daffodils and a boulder fixed with a bronze plaque. There’s some lines of verse from “A Shadow of the Night” by nineteenth century New England poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich, commemorating the life of Christine Borden Alexander. Alexander was a northeast Minneapolis resident who died of cancer at the age of 33 on Valentine’s Day, 1985. The daffodils and plaque were placed in the park a year later by her family.
The bridges are their own types of monuments, to infrastructure, to engineering, to themselves. Walking under all of them – some surprisingly high up for such a flat city, reminding you how low the creek travels through the landscape – are rewarding in their own ways. The Nicollet Avenue Bridge stands apart, however. Up top, there are plaques informing you of your arrival in Tangletown, but below, it’s a vast, echoing concrete chamber. There’s a stark contrast with the high, arching grandeur of this clearly urban structure with the bucolic surroundings.
My favorite bridge, even more than the one on Nicollet, is the one on 28th Avenue. There are some impressive stonework footbridges at a number of points on the creek, some dating as far back 1890. (As a quick side note, here is the great thing about investigating the background of the physical infrastructure of the Twin Cities: someone’s probably already done it, and done it well. Here I tip my hat to John A. Weeks, whose website on the bridges of the Twin Cities is comprehensive and well worth the two hours of your day you’ll inevitably spend being absorbed in it.) The bridge on 28th, though, is the only one with decorative wrought iron work in addition to the stonework that makes it unique among all of these bridges. The railing is made up of overlapping latticework, embellished at each cross-section with a six-pointed star. The six-sided star motif is in the railings, too – negative space created brilliantly by overlapping notched lattices. The sources I found didn’t seem clear on whether this is latticework that was salvaged from an older bridge, or created for this particular bridge by its unknown architect in 1904. And who knows what the six-pointed stars are about? Obviously they could be Stars of David, referencing Judaism, but the six-sided star turns up all over the place in the pre-modern visual lexicon: brewing, alchemy, occultism. Is it errant orientalism? Secret declaration of faith? My guess if the former, but again, who knows?
As great as all these things are, as I said earlier, the best part of a park is the people who use it. Walking the final stretch of the creek to Minnehaha Falls, there’s so much to see. In the Sunday I walked the creek with a small group of friends over three hours, there is all sorts of activity. There’s some lost cat drama east of Nicollet that is far too weird to recount here – you’ll have to trust me that we tried to do the right thing. There’s a resin eyeball someone has placed in the eye of a tree near Minnehaha Avenue. There’s an abandoned skateboard near the bottom of the creekbed, possibly dating to the late 1980s based on the retina-smashing neon pink graphic design work on the bottom. The board is abandoned in such a way that suggests its rider met with a wipeout so traumatic he or she just ditched the board and ran straight home.
Best of all, we encounter a cardboard labyrinth near Cedar Avenue. I mean, a full-sized labyrinth, maybe 12 feet wide and eight feet high, made of refrigerator boxes. It’s labeled MAZE OF DOOM by the entrance. The MAZE OF DOOM appears to be unoccupied, so we tentatively investigate, only to find ourselves lost in the twists and turns inside. As we find our way out, we meet a kid named Daniel, who’s there with his mom, inspecting the structure. It turns out its his 10th birthday, and he lives a block away. His parents, Mark and Melissa, have hired Julian McFaul and his kid’s company-slash-immersive-theatrical-project Adventures in Cardboard to create this labyrinth in the park. Amazingly, given the size and complexity, he assembled it is about 15 minutes. Melissa beings us over to the house, where Daniel’s friends, a gaggle of chattering southside pre-teens, fabricate swords, shields and armor out of cardboard in the backyard, ready for an afternoon tearing through the labyrinth. The MAZE OF DOOM will probably be gone by the time you read this, but it was certainly on of the most spectacular sights of the entire multi-weekend walk. A park, as we’ve seen, is more about the people who use it than what’s built around it.
The end of the trip is as spectacular a payoff as you could ask for. The grandeur of Minnehaha Falls are well-documented, both in this column and elsewhere. However, if you only go as far as Sea Salt and the LBJ photo and the Falls themselves, you’re only getting part of it. Continuing to walk down past the falls, alongside the fast-running stream, you come to the confluence of the creek and the Mississippi River, 22 miles after the water has left Lake Minnetonka. The beach where this happens represents the best of the urban Midwest: it’s partly forested, mythical creek, partly river city beachfront. Adding to that spectacular quality, the walls of the cliffs facing the creek and the beach in this area, near the confluence, are St. Peter sandstone. It’s undulating bands of white and yellow that seem too intense in color to be in the side of a cliff. A giant alcove has been eroded in the middle, making a space for people to walk in and run their fingers along the walls. The floor of the alcove is coated with fine, granular, crystal-like quartz sandstone.
It’s lively along the beach where the creek runs into the river. Dudes on bicycles are toting fishing gear, kids are running around, couples are canoodling. Townies are here, and so are tourists, all of them taking photos of each other on their smartphones. You hear a dozen languages on the creek and on the beach: on a random Sunday afternoon, one could make out snippets of conversations in Spanish, Russian, Hindi, Somali, Chinese. Minnehaha Falls is maybe the best park in the city because it’s the most accessible – easy to get to for anyone on the southside, by train, bus, bike, car or foot, or from the Mall, or from the airport. On a nice weekend, everyone’s there, making good use of the creek and everything around it. As it should be. It makes you glad that this part, at least, is parkland.
Standing at the confluence and looking upriver at the lock and dams, it’s hard to believe one creek could cover so much territory – in terms of infrastructure, ecological systems, public engagement, architecture, historic significance, any other metric – in just 22 miles. We do love our lakes in Minnesota, and they’re great, but as far as bodies of water are concerned, Minnehaha Creek is truly something special.
Next time I’ll tube it.