History of Columbia Park


Columbia Park’s name goes back to the year 1892, which was the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to America.

A map of Minneapolis that was published in the 1900 edition of Hudson’s Dictionary of Minneapolis shows Sandy Lake and a grid of streets to the southwest and west—numbered from 29th through 33rd avenues and 2-1/2 through 7th streets—but no streets at all to the north, where nearly all of Columbia Park’s current residential area lies.

In Where We Live: The Residential Districts of Minneapolis and Saint Paul by Judith A. Martin and David A. Lanegran (University of Minnesota Press, 1983), the authors’ map shows the Columbia Park neighborhood as “suburban-in-the-city.” This type of built environment is described as “left open and undeveloped until after World War II. This zone filled in during the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s . . .  the housing here is typical of inner-ring suburbs: ranch houses, ramblers, brick and stucco bungalows, and Cape Cods.” One early exception to this pattern is Architect Avenue, so named because of a design competition among architects in about 1905.

Elsewhere in Northeast Minneapolis, the Waite Park neighborhood and the section of Windom Park between Stinson and New Brighton boulevards are identified as “suburban-in-the-city.”)

An intriguing Park Board map, dated December 1930, shows a proposed plan for the actual park area. It shows a winding road connecting Central Avenue at 33rd Avenue (the location of the golf course manor) with Columbia Parkway (where the park playground is now), via the Columbia Park Bridge (see below). It shows athletic fields to the southwest of the picnic shelter, a large parking area where the rugby pitch is located, and a swimming pool at the northwest corner of Central Avenue and St. Anthony Parkway. A PDF document of the map is available CP park plan 1930.

Lake Sandy – or Sandy Lake?

At one time the neighborhood had a large and shallow lake, named Lake Sandy, but all that remains today are some scattered wetlands within the golf course. Northeast historian Genny Zak Kiely included some material on the much-missed body of water in her 1980 book Pride and Tradition:

Sandy Lake—a popular recreation area from the late 1880s to early 1900s—was used early on for hunting and fishing, and at one point was the only city park with an ice rink, warming house, and concession stand. Apparently never measured for depth and volume, something happened in the early 1900s that caused it to begin shrinking; Some historians assert that it was fed by underground springs that ceased to flow.  But before that, in 1893, the park board bought 183 acres—including 40-acre Sandy Lake—that became Columbia Park, and made plans for a citywide lake dredging program. Some evidence points toward material from Lake of the Isles having been dumped in Sandy Lake between 1907 and 1911. through that period, Sandy Lake shrinks on park board maps, and is gone altogether on the 1918 map.

Some of the area became part of the Soo Line rail yard, some part of the Columbia Park golf course. In 1918 the park drainage system was connected to the Soo Line’s and the meadow was deemed dry enough for athletic use. It was plowed and seeded in 1937, and fairways were installed in 1940.

Researcher  H.O. Pfannkuch investigated and reported on it at some length in his 1986 “Lake Sandy Restoration Project Feasibility Study,” published in the CURA Reporter.

Lake Sandy was located within the bounds of present day Columbia Park and Golf Course. The Park Board acquired the land in the late nineteenth century and started to drain the shallow lake almost immediately. Drain files were laid in 1893 and connected to existing sewer lines. By 1914‑15 the lake had ceased to exist. The park was used for athletic fields and records refer to it as “the meadow.” Drainage presented an ongoing problem.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no evidence of a massive filling of the lake basin with the dredgings from Lake of the Isles. Construction of St Anthony Parkway and the golf course required some filling in. The former lake basin continued to be a wetland until 1937, when it was plowed and seeded and fairways were installed.

Citizens have requested the regeneration of Lake Sandy from the year 1928 to present day. “The geology of Columbia Park favors the creation of lake and wetlands,” writes Professor Pfannkuch, but “the economics and politics of the situation in Columbia Park may be more critical, in the long run, than the hydrology and geology of the proposed lake site.”

Construction of the parkway has cut the basin in two. If restored, both basins would be relatively shallow, approximately the same mean depth as Lake of the Isles, 8 feet in the north basin and 6 feet in the south basin. The south basin could be filled and maintained with runoff from its own watershed and would be roughly 6 acres,‑ the north would be about 40 acres. It could sustain a lake once it was filled, but further investigations are needed to determine ground water flow.

St. Anthony Parkway

A brief description of the early history of this portion of the Grand Rounds is included in Theodore Wirth’s Minneapolis Park System 1883-1944:

Between Central and University avenues, the parkway skirts along the southern boundary of Columbia Park, then follows a direct route along Thirty-third Avenue NE through an uninteresting flat section of undeveloped land and railroad yards to Marshall Street, from where it borders the bank of the Mississippi along the edge of an old brickyard to Thirty-sixth Avenue Northeast, making connection with the Forty-second Avenue North bridge at the pumping station over which it reaches Camden Place.

Grading operations on the river section of the parkway to Marshall Street, undertaken in the late fall of 1917, were completed in 1918, but because of insufficient funds to pave that section, a cinder surfacing was provided in 1919, and, with the City Council vacating Thirty-third Avenue Northeast between Marshall Street and Fifth Avenue [sic], St. Anthony Parkway between Camden Place and Columbia Park was opened to traffic. By 1921, grading operations were progressing through Columbia Park.

A much more extensive account, however, is provided in “The Saint Anthony Parkway Bridge in the Context of the Grand Rounds, Minneapolis,” Charlene K. Roise, October 2000, researched and compiled in connection with engineering evaluations regarding the feasibility of renovating the existing St. Anthony Parkway Bridge or building a new one.

“A circumferential park and parkway system for Minneapolis was initially conceived by landscape architect Horace W. S. Cleveland in 1883. the scale of the plan had grown significantly by 1891, when the system was christened “The Grand Rounds.” . . . Linking [Columbia Park] to the rest of the system proved to be a lengthy process. It was not until 1912 that a park board planning study delineated the route for the Grand Rounds through north and northeast Minneapolis. At the same time, plans for upgrading Columbia Park –as well as Glenwood (Theodore Wirth) Park—were prepared. Both parks were considered key elements in the expansion of the Grand Rounds. The board’s 1912 annual report observed that at Columbia Park ‘there are no difficulties in providing inexpensive parkway connections between the west and east sides of the park, and it would seem as if the ‘Grand Rounds’ should enter from the west at Thirty-third Avenue.” In 1913, the board’s report urged that “an overhead crossing over the railroad tracks on 33rd Avenue . . .  should be secured as soon as possible.

Ms. Roise wrote that “ a section from Columbia Park east to Division Street Northeast [Central Avenue] was designated ‘Saint Anthony Boulevard’ in December 1913.” A year later, park commissioners gave the same name to Thirty-third Avenue Northeast between Columbia Park and Marshall Street, and shortly thereafter for the stretch of parkway from Marshall to the Mississippi River bridge at Camden.

What is particularly striking is a vision for a broad layout for what is now a modest two-lane segment between University Avenue and Marshall Street. The park board

acknowledged that ‘the adjoining lands will undoubtedly be used for industrial purposes requiring heavy traffic accommodations.’ To separate leisure and industrial traffic, the plans called for a 160-foot right-of-way with a series of parallel lanes. The thirty-two-foot-wide central road for the Grand Rounds was flanked by twenty-foot ‘planting spaces’ lined with trees to screen trucks and other vehicles on adjacent twenty-four-foot ‘traffic roads.’ Eight-foot planting spaces, also tree-filled, divided the traffic roads from eight-foot sidewalks. Finally, four-foot planting spaces buffered the sidewalks from adjacent private property.

The completion of this section of the Grand Rounds was celebrated with a parade in September 1924: it was the first east-west route north of Lowry Avenue.

St. Anthony Parkway Bridge

While the bridge that conveys St. Anthony Parkway across the many sets of tracks between Main Street and California Street might seem small by recent standards, it is quite a lot larger than the first, erected in 1910-11. Again, Ms. Roise provides details:

The 566-foot bridge, consisting of four Howe trusses with pile trestle approaches, had a narrow eighteen-foot roadway and a single six-foot walk. . . . The structure . . .  was a temporary expedient: the city required the railroad to construct a permanent bridge with an eighty-foot roadway after five years. In exchange for the railroad’s cooperation with the bridge, the city vacated a number of streets to facilitate the development of a new Northern Pacific terminal at another location. The city also built an approach to the bridge on California Street, a 143-foot timber trestle and a 160-foot earth embankment.

Replacing the temporary bridge took some time. In 1916, the park board began urging the railroad to follow through. In March 1925, the Northern Pacific Railroad submitted plans for a new bridge to the park board, which had anticipated a ‘modern concrete structure.’ What Minneapolis got instead was another through-truss design.

In his article, “Historic Bridges of Hennepin County” (Hennepin History, Fall 2009), Denis Gardner had this to say:

The plight of the St. Anthony Parkway Bridge echos that of Long Meadow [the old Cedar Avenue span in Bloomington] . . .  Not part of the National Register, it certainly is eligible. Also like Long Meadow Bridge, it is formed of five truss spans, though its design differs . . . The Warren [through truss] design is apparent in the distinctive triangular configuration at each side of the bridge. . . .. Unlike the state highway department, the railroads welcomed Warren through trusses because of their economy and stiffness. . . . Railroads rarely built highway trusses in Minnesota, so the St. Anthony Parkway Bridge is unique for both its Warren through-truss design and its construction by the railroad.

As of fall 2013, plans and design work to remove and replace the bridge are moving ahead; a web site for bridge-lovers includes a page on this bridge.

Columbia Park Bridge

The graceful arched steel bridge that spans the railroad line bisecting the golf course is mentioned in a recent book by Mr. Gardner: Wood + Concrete + Stone + Steel: Minnesota’s Historic Bridges.

Columbia Park Bridge
[Bridge No.93844]
Pedestrian trail over trackage of Soo Line  Railway, Columbia Park, Minneapolis
Gillette-Herzog Manufacturing Company of Minneapolis constructed this steel ribbed, lattice arch in 1896.

Photo by Lotte Melman

Mr. Gardner also discussed the bridge at greater length in his article for Hennepin History:

Completed in 1896, the roughly 100-foot-long Columbia Park Bridge carries golf carts and pedestrians over the tracks of the Soo Line Railway. The Minneapolis Park Board acquired the land making up Columbia Park  in 1892. The board putt forth a modest plan to develop the area with a series of boulevards and a carriage bridge over the Soo Line right-of-way. In 1894, the board rejected initial bids on bridge construction, but the next year new bids were submitted and a contract was awarded to Gillette-Herzog Manufacturing Company of Minneapolis for a steel, ribbed-arch bridge. The firm completed the bridge by the end of the year.  . . . In 1926, with the Columbia Park  Bridge in need of maintenance, the park board and the railroad debated who was responsible for the bridge upkeep.

“Eventually, both parties agreed to contribute to the bridge’s care. In 1958, the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic. In 1976, though the bridge was rehabilitated, it remained open only to pedestrians and golf carts. The Columbia Park Bridge, considered but not part of the National Register, is one of only two steel, ribbed-arch bridges in Minnesota to support highway traffic but now employed only for pedestrian use.” [The other is the Minnesota Soldiers Home Bridge over Minnehaha Creek near Minnehaha Falls.]

The Thing in the Woods

A mysterious concrete relic lies in the band of woods just west of the railroad tracks between the Columbia Park Bridge and the railroad overpass over St. Anthony Parkway. Does anyone know its purpose and period of use?