Monday, May 12, 2014

Mystery of the Month - May

By Sage Passi

The former Phalen Creek valley - now Heritage Park.


What happened to Phalen Creek? 

The tale of this hidden stream lurks beneath the surface, sometimes emerging, then vanishing underground while bringing along with it a cast of characters.

Tunnel Vision – Inside the History of Phalen Creek

Phalen Creek (1910).  Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
If you've lived on the east side of St. Paul for eighty plus years and done things like take the street car to White Bear Lake or witness the building of the tunnel that replaced the trout stream that ran through the Phalen Creek valley a hundred years ago, then step right up. You are my kind of person. I’d like to interview you. I've always had a fascination with making the invisible visible. Call me a reverse magician, if you will. John Emkovikis, a long time resident of the East Side of St. Paul, I am told, is one of those people who could bring those buried stories out into the open. I was encouraged to meet this walking “history channel” by Kathy Sidles, another east-sider who is an advocate for the preservation and protection of the green corridor that connects the Phalen Chain of Lakes with the Mississippi River flood plain downstream. But, like the creek he is elusive (at least for the moment) so I’ll have to be patient and rely upon some other sources of information. Thank goodness for Google……

Kathy Sidles pitches the protection of the green corridors along Bruce Vento
Trail to L'Etoile du Nord fifth-graders as they explore the old pathway of Phalen Creek.

Kathy, this spring, while helping kids pick up trash in the ravine that used to host this old winding Phalen Creek, told me about this friend of hers who has some first-hand stories about this now “invisible” creek that ran from the south end of Lake Phalen to the river.

“Ask him about the swimmer who was catching fish in his pants,”... Kathy challenged me. 

I asked our local GTN filmmaker Chuck Turning if he would help me interview John. But my phone calls to John this weekend didn't get me anywhere yet, so this journalistic rendezvous is has been put on my short bucket list. When Chuck and I collect John’s stories, if that comes to pass, we’ll certainly bring them to light. In the meantime, I've had to delve into some other resources.

“What happens to the water when it leaves Phalen Lake?” is a question I often pose to groups of students when we are exploring the watershed’s pathways. The answer to Phalen Creek’s story lies buried somewhere in the layers of geography, geology and the history of St. Paul’s development over the past hundred and fifty years.

Phalen Creek, for many years was a spring fed stream that rumbled out of the lake, through a ravine and valley (known as Swede Hollow today), through a mile wide gap in the white sandstone cliffs above the Mississippi River and then down through a wetland to the river below. Surrounded by trees and wetlands, it served as a corridor for songbirds and other wildlife. In the 1800’s the local Dakota, who lived in valleys near the river, traveled this creek from the Mississippi River on their way up to Lake Phalen and then to Lake Gervais and Gervais Creek where they had their summer hunting and fishing grounds. In the early eighteen forties they told Benjamin Gervais, the French Canadian voyageur, about this route. He had a claim near Fort Snelling, was looking for more land and they told him to follow the creek up north from the Mississippi River to a place where he could start a farm and build a mill.

Much earlier, according to Steve Trimble, who published an article for the Minnesota Historical Society in Saint Paul Historical says that, “When Father Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan priest and explorer was paddling up the Mississippi in 1680, his group met a Dakota war party who detained him and beached his canoe at the creek’s confluence with the Mississippi River. He is usually considered the first European person to visit Phalen Creek.”

Phalen Creek, named after the nefarious Edward Phalen , a trapper who had a land claim on the creek and was accused of perjury, murder and left town), was heralded by various other names including McCloud Creek and Mill Creek. In 1844 Phalen sold his claim to William Dugas, who built Saint Paul's first saw and grist mill there. Horace Winchell, a local geologist documented many mills located at one time along its stretch.

In the creek’s ravine, later known as Swede Hollow, immigrants arriving first from Sweden in the 1850’s, then from Italy, Poland and eventually Mexico settled along its banks. While these residents drew their drinking water from artesian wells, they used the creek for washing, watering their small gardens and put their outhouses on stilts across the stream.

Outhouses sat on stilts above Phalen Creek that ran through Swede Hollow.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Here’s a quote from a former resident of Swede Hollow, Nels M. Hokanson,
“In Swede Hollow residents instituted cleanup days…Women and boys raked the garbage strewn alleys. Later…the boys waded in the creek to keep the mass of refuse in the center until it disappeared in the tunnel. When the day was over, Swede Hollow was neater and cleaner than it had been in a long time.”

I’m glad to say we have a different approach today to keep this refuse out of the storm sewers that have replaced what was once known as Phalen Creek.

Clean-ups 2014 style.  French Immersion fifth-graders pick up trash along
the Bruce Vento Trail, in the ravine of the old Phalen Creek

The water that would have traveled along this route is now piped through a sewer or directed to the soil below by BMPs (Best Management Practices) such as the rain gardens and pervious pavement in Heritage Park and other points along the way.

French Immersion fifth-graders test out the
pervious parking lot in Heritage Park in St. Paul,
created in the former Phalen Creek valley.
To decipher more of Phalen Creek’s history, tracing the creek’s route backwards from the river to the lake and looking at its geological past is helpful.

Phalen Creek bypassed these white cliffs and ran through a gap in the hills to the Mississippi River.

Author, geologist, historian and urban speleologist (cave scientist) Greg Brick describes the creek’s history in his book, Subterranean Twin Cities.
“Geologists surmise that this gap, where the creek found its way to the river, was carved by a preglacial precursor of the Mississippi, flowing down from the north. The Mississippi has changed course several times in the past million years or so and has only lately carved its present gorge. The topographic depression left by the previous river became the place of post glacial drainage. Phalen Creek ran through the gap, together with its largest tributary, Trout Brook.

“The Mississippi floodplain is a muddy place and was even more so before engineers tamed the river. Imagine a stream of water from the surrounding uplands directed down on top of all that mud, and you get an idea of what the early Trout Brook-Phalen Creek delta was like. No wonder it was described as a “bottomless bog” in Josiah B. Chaney’s classic Early Bridges and Changes of the Land and Water Surface in the City of St. Paul.” -Greg, Brick, Subterranean Twin Cities

Here are some other facts about the creek that emerged from perusing Friend’s of the Mississippi River Field Guide.
A train coming from the south of Fort Snelling, 1890.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
“The Phalen Creek and Trout Brook streams flowed into what was a cove of the river in high water. Boats could penetrate to where Third Street is now in high water, but in low water it was an impenetrable marsh. Back in the mid to late 1800’s the railroads, anxious to expand their reach, were looking for a way to build railway yards in this delta. In the 1860's, trestles were run across this marshy area and between the line of sandbars along the river's shore. The land between these tracks and the firm shore was filled. The bluff between the upper and lower landings was blasted back to allow railroad construction and Dayton's Bluff was cut back. Later construction of Shepard and Warner Roads finished filling the marsh.” FMR’s Mississippi River Field Guide

Brick, in Subterranean Twin Cities goes on to say, 

“Bridging the streams would have required expensive stone-arch culverts. So instead, in one of the most dramatic cut and fill jobs in municipal history, Baptist Hill, a mound of glacial debris fifty feet high, formerly located where Mears Park is today was carted eastward after the Civil War under the direction of city engineer David La Curtice and dumped to fill the creek’s delta wetland. In the process, Phalen Creek and Trout Brook were left at their original lower level- already well on their way to becoming subterranean.”

In 1893 city engineer George Wilson undertook the task of putting the lower reaches of these two streams underground. This became known as the Canal Street sewer. An article published by Wilson in Engineering News in 1894 describes intricate details of the underground sewer such as Platteville Limestone rubble-masonry walls, granite floor and “gargoyles, curiously wrought iron spouts that vomit water in the tunnel.” Construction of this sewer system continued into the twentieth century. So meanwhile what happened to the rest of the creek?

A section of Phalen Creek open sewer between Third Street and East
Sixth St. being enclosed, St. Paul, 1936.  Photo Courtesy of the
Minnesota Historical Society.
The Phalen outlet on the southwest shore
of the lake during high-water.
Unless you are a student of watershed maps you might not know about Lake Phalen’s rather innocuous outlet at its southwest corner where the creek once exited the lake. Today there is a larger outlet and pipe system that carries this water into the Beltline Interceptor and into the Mississippi River. This large network of sewer pipes holds some of the secrets of the creek’s transformation. The Belt Line tunnel, constructed in the 1920’s to capture storm sewer run-off from the East Side of St. Paul, is almost 5 miles long. It was named after the Twin City Belt Railway. The Beltline Interceptor extends from the outlets of Lake Phalen and Beaver Lake to the Mississippi River. It is an important part of the District's drainage infrastructure - it not only collects a large percentage of stormwater runoff from St. Paul's east side, but also conveys runoff from the entire Phalen Chain of Lakes Subwatershed and the Beaver Lake Subwatershed to the Mississippi River. Large sections of the Beltline Interceptor are cast-in-place concrete “horseshoe” pipe, with heights of 7, 8, 9, and 12 feet, and buried up to 30 feet underground. Its velocity can be quite intense. The design discharge for the beltline is 2,000 cubic feet per second.

So why did the creek get put underground?

One answer lies in what was happening during major storms in Lowertown in downtown St. Paul. During especially heavy rains Lowertown used to flood very badly. Brick explains,

“The problem was focused at the meeting of the waters, the junction of Trout Brook with Phalen Creek. Water couldn’t get through the tunnels fast enough and backed up into the adjacent streets. When the waters of Como Lake got plugged into the Trout Brook system, a new difficulty must have been created: a much greater volume of water was channeled into Lowertown during rainstorms. To compensate, Lake Phalen was unplugged from its natural watershed by walling off the old tunnel at Ocean Street, and Phalen Creek was made to drain into a wholly new tunnel, the Beltline tunnel which runs mostly under Johnson Parkway and discharges to the Mississippi River near the former St. Paul Fish Hatchery." 

Brick  refers to the two now mostly underground streams, Trout Brook and Phalen Creek on the east side of St. Paul as the Urban Nile or the Industrial Mesopotamia. They are not the most flattering nicknames. In his book, he describes his wet-suit journeys through the underground sewer systems that now replace the creek’s above ground journey. Sometimes harrowing, always fascinating, his tales get at the underbelly of Phalen Creek’s meandering story.  The size of the area that drains stormwater through this system is the prompt for many of the Watershed Districts efforts to clean the water upstream before it enters this maze of pipes. 

If you’d like to learn more about Phalen Creek’s underground history, Brick’s book is a fascinating read. Then take a jaunt through Swede Hollow where the creek is day-lighted and finish this visit off with a trip to Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary where the creek once flowed.

You won’t be disappointed.

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