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Snelling Avenue’s incongruous, winding bluff origins: Walk along it with trepidation

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

Most Twin Cities streets don’t have very exciting origins stories. Not from a historic or nomenclatural standpoint, but from an experiential standpoint. There are no dramatic entrances or statements of purpose, for the most part. Mighty Lake Street just sort of decides it doesn’t want to be Minnetonka Boulevard anymore on its way past Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles. University Avenue is so long most people can’t quite picture either terminus (Blaine and Lafayette Street, incidentally). Nicollet Avenue quietly strolls out of Hennepin Avenue a few blocks from the river, and then goes to die in a cul-de-sac in Burnsville. Most others are similarly inauspicious.

At least one St. Paul street, however, has a quite distinct point of origin. Snelling Avenue – a four-lane trunk highway, a major transit route, and often (erroneously) said to be one-half of the busiest intersection in Minnesota – begins its first half-mile crawling a windy, uphill path through an undeveloped slice of bluff connecting West Seventh Avenue and St. Paul’s West End with Highland Park. The stretch of Snelling is so completely incongruous with the rest of the street as it’s typically experienced – twisty, wooded and quiet, whereas the rest is wide, arrow-straight and always busy – that I thought it merited some investigation.

The area around Lower Snelling Avenue down here is referred to by St. Paul historian Donald Empson as a “ghost park,” created less through conscious cultivation and development than the fact that it was on too steep an incline to really do much with. McDonough Park was named for St. Paul’s mayor in the 1940s, one of a long line of St. Paul-born midcentury Irish-American mayors. Snelling Avenue’s historic origins are first as a Dakota route, and then as a trading connection between the old Fort Road and the French-Canadian community in present-day Little Canada. By the 1930s, most of it was designated as a state highway, and it was paved in the middle of the decade. In the intervening decades, it’s become the quasi-urban, quasi-suburban arterial road it is today.

At least north of Edgcumbe Road. South of that, you might as well be winding through a forest out past the county line. It’s a little broken-off piece of pre-modern landscape from a time when St. Paul was all forested bluffs. Most of the rest of Snelling is as straight as a cruise missile, barreling through the urban landscape. This meandering portion stretches around the topography of the bluffs, taking at least two pretty sharp 45-degree turns on its way up the side of the hill.

Snelling Avenue begins as a path through an undeveloped slice of bluff.
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Snelling Avenue begins its first half-mile crawling a windy, uphill path through an undeveloped slice of bluff.

The signs above and below warn you before entering that it’s a “narrow winding hill,” and posts a 20 mph speed limit. Additionally, there’s no sidewalk. Not really until you get to the school zone around Highland Park High School. That’s true above, and that’s true below on West Seventh. If you choose to walk up the bluff along Snelling, you do so at your own peril.

The funny thing is, despite this fact, it’s clearly a heavily used route by pedestrians. There are a few clues to tip you off. First of all, if you look at Google Street View, right on the east side of the road there’s a man ambling along, either foraging or picking up litter alongside the road (not an uncommon sight, despite the “No littering” signs at both entrances to this stretch of road). That man is a sort of avatar for the intrepid St. Paulite determined to make use of this particular route; on my own ascent through the forests of Lower Snelling, I encountered no fewer than seven other people on foot. This may not seem like a particularly large number, but it’s actually far more than I’ve encountered in certain St. Paul neighborhoods on clearly marked and well-tended sidewalks. Most of these seemed like they were high school students from nearby Highland Park – teenagers are the shock troops of pedestrianism, able to mobilize faster and push further past nearly any barrier.

If you look at Google Street View, there’s a man ambling along
If you look at Google Street View, there’s a man ambling along, either foraging or picking up litter alongside the road.

The woods of McDonough Park around Lower Snelling Avenue provide a barrier against adult meddling, I presume, and I got the sense a lot of the area was occupied mostly by teenagers, either taking a shortcut to the buses that run along West Seventh. Or perhaps they’re just escaping the quiet orderliness of the neighborhood above. We had some woods behind my high school, too, a similarly undeveloped little parcel of land hemmed in between developments. Every high school should have some woods behind it. Someone has spray-painted a safety orange smiling face onto the end of a felled tree along the road. Teenagers? A rogue road crew? Hard to say.

There is a foot path beaten alongside Lower Snelling, and while it’s not the kind of path I’d necessarily recommend for a casual hiker, as a link between two neighborhoods, it’s not bad. There are a few stark reminders, though, of the risk one takes on these sorts of bucolic roads – there is a crucifix, rosary, American flag and bouquet of silk flowers tied to a traffic sign. It’s not clear if it memorializes a motorist or a pedestrian, but it’s not hard to imagine either scenario.

The woods of McDonough Park
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The woods of McDonough Park around Lower Snelling Avenue provide a barrier against adult meddling.

Risks aside, I don’t blame the various people on foot traveling alongside, though – Lower Snelling is not only picturesque and a pleasant sylvan throughway in an unexpected place, but undeniably convenient. It links up the city’s oldest continually used road with a large neighborhood and major transit route.

Really, the whole area seems like a great location for a stairway – a twisting, gently elevating stone or wood set of stairs that would give pedestrians a pleasant view of this unusual stretch of road, and provide safe access for high school students wanting to go hang out at Mickey’s Diner, located nearby on West 7th. Something similar to the staircases on Walnut or Lawton Streets, both further east up the same bluff.

Maybe someday. Until then, if you’re using this path, look out for pedestrians and/or oncoming traffic, enjoy the foliage, and marvel at the fact that there’s at least one stretch of mighty Snelling Avenue that plays country cousin to the rest of the road’s urban-via-the-suburbs personality.

orange smiling face
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Someone has spray-painted a safety orange smiling face onto the end of a felled tree along the road.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/18/2015 - 10:49 am.

    Giving up our little secrets

    Most metro residents know nothing of downtown Saint Paul, much less Snelling hill and other fairly hidden byways.

    Having lived at Irvine Park in the 90s, I still miss the secret stairway up past the old Hill House dynamo plant to Summit Avenue.

  2. Submitted by Rick Ryan on 11/18/2015 - 10:57 am.

    lower Snelling

    Pre-freeway we took Snelling Avenue to get to the Airport from Arden Hills where my family lived at the time, to get to the airport. If the weather was good we took the windy route, if it was snowy we turned right on Edgecumbe and went further down to another street to drop down to Fort Road.

    • Submitted by Julie Barton on 11/18/2015 - 03:06 pm.

      ….sliding down Snelling Avenue in a tiny 1970s BMW…

      I remember going from the airport to Shoreview back in the mid-70s, in my parents fun (yet not exactly safe or winter-ready) 1970 BMW coupe. We got to the second serious curve then the wheels lost purchase and we slowly started to slide backwards. The we started to slide quickly backwards… Thank God for metal and rubber bumpers, because there was no damage once we finally came to a stop against the curb (with it’s pile of snow).

      That street still gives me the willies, but I would seriously love to cycle up it one day — if they closed off traffic, or put in a trail next to it.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 11/18/2015 - 11:26 am.


    Being from ‘out state’, I remember using that section of Snelling when we would go ‘to the cities’ to visit relatives way back in the ’50’s….it always made me wonder why that ‘rural’ section of road never was upgraded…..and it still is there !…Good !…leave it !

  4. Submitted by Mary Lilja on 11/18/2015 - 12:35 pm.

    Snelling Avenue — “The Lost Road”

    We drove on this stretch of Snelling on our way to my grandparent’s house in St. Paul for Sunday dinners. Our mother, a St. Paul native, would tell us how she loved driving on it growing up, and how she and her siblings called it “The Lost Road.” They would ask their father if they could please drive on The Lost Road! I always think of that story and enjoy winding my way through the woods when I’m headed over to St. Paul. Thanks for this piece, Andy.

  5. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 11/18/2015 - 12:47 pm.

    walking on W 7th

    Don’t forget that walking or crossing on or near West 7th also involves taking your life in your hands.

  6. Submitted by Donald LaCourse on 11/18/2015 - 03:56 pm.

    Lower Snelling Ave.

    There were many of us who walked up and down that stretch to get to Highland Jr. and Sr. High School. We were the kids who lived below the hill, as in “the other side of the tracks”. On the corner of W.7th and Rankin stood Bill’s Popcorn Shop (owned and run by my Dad), a hangout for local teens from 1959-1970. I was hit by a car once on my way home from school, happily un-injured. It was a trek any day, but winter was quite a challenge!

  7. Submitted by Robert Beutel on 11/18/2015 - 04:26 pm.

    Trucks on the South end of Snelling

    As a nearby resident, I occasionally see trucks attempting the Snelling hill in either direction (marked “not a Truck Route”). These are most likely out-of-towners being misled by a GPS.
    One Georgia labeled truck struggled noisily up the steep northbound side, paused at the top, and then did a 180 in the wide intersection of Snelling and Edgcumbe to proceed back downhill southbound. It is so much easier to drive a truck down Montreal to West Seventh.
    I agree that a sidewalk and stairway would be so welcome to pedestrians on this narrow, dangerous piece of the mighty Snelling Avenue. The bottom of the trail is a steep, sometimes slippery slope into a nursing home parking lot.

  8. Submitted by Carol Chubiz on 11/18/2015 - 08:13 pm.

    A Road Like in Germany

    I moved here from Germany in the early 80s, I discovered this road. It was winter and it reminded me of a road I took each day to get to a small village in central Germany where I lived for several years. I still take that road when I feel nostalgic for those old times.

    I get the same feelings when I pass through Selby and Western on my way home in the area. Old Europe.

    Yes. I love that part of Snelling.

  9. Submitted by Scott Kelley on 11/18/2015 - 09:22 pm.

    Thanks for the memories

    When we lived in Highland, I always wanted to sled down lower Snelling on a massive snow day when there (hopefully) wouldn’t be any traffic on 7th but alas, I never got around to it.

  10. Submitted by Sieglinde Gassman on 11/18/2015 - 09:37 pm.

    What a lovely surprise it is!

    Discovered lower Snelling’s winding end inadvertenly when exploring the street from the north shortly after moving to Minnesota in the early 70s. Still think of this surprising stretch as an adventure. A bit afraid I might find it blocked off or straightened out one day. Thanks, Andy!

  11. Submitted by David Markle on 11/19/2015 - 11:15 am.

    Obscurity may be a plus

    Something tells me that the residents in nearby areas prefer the traffic-unfriendly status of the roadway, although an added sidewalk or pathway seems desirable.

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