Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Three Creeks in One - A Meandering Mirror of the Past

by Sage Passi

The "looking glass" of the new Frost Avenue Bridge over Keller Creek

Keller Creek, Gervais Creek, Phalen Creek ... One creek or three?

I often think of these three creeks as one flowing stream reflecting character names from the past.

The 1848 land survey map below shows a creek flowing through what is now called the Phalen Chain of Lakes. Lake names have been added to the map. Keller Lake is missing, Kohlman is identified as a wetland and Spoon is far south and really small. These bodies of water were originally large marshy areas connected by creeks. They occasionally held more water some years and dried up in others. They didn’t officially become lakes until they were dredged much later. The creeks are intimately connected to these lakes and their southern channel flowed directly into the Mississippi River. 

The story begins here with Keller Creek but the history of Gervais and Phalen Creeks will be told in a future article. Like the tenacious cat sitting by my keyboard staring up at me, they have had many lives and have a persistent habit of calling attention to themselves now and again.


Chain of Lakes Map - 1848

Given a creek with a split personality like this one, there’s got to be more to the story than meets the eye. Clues about Keller Creek are best discovered by strolling along its gnarly shoreline on a spring day with someone like Bob Jensen, the President of Maplewood Area Historical Society, who has a passion for the meandering “past life” of this shape-shifting channel.

Keller Creek has been altered many times with many
changes made to the nearby land and water bodies.

I met Bob in a parking lot at Keller Regional Park on one of those early balmy spring days when I’d have been amiss not to step out into the sunshine and set off on some fanciful expedition. For several weeks, Bob had been e-mailing me an array of old black and white photos, detailed chronologies, newspaper articles and newsletters. It was time to put a face and a place to those photos.

My last experience on Keller Creek was several years ago when I
led Farnsworth students on a tour about Dakota life in this area. I'll
tell the story of their connection to this area in the next installment.

Memorial Tree Groves by the Creek

Bob walks and kayaks Keller Creek quite often. He lives near this stretch of the creek, just west of Highway 61 and has been collecting stories and memorabilia about it for years. Joining us that day on our hike was Nicole DeGruzman, the Executive Director of the Maplewood Area Historical Society. She was getting her bearings for a walking tour guide she is writing about the memorial tree groves planted along the creek from 1927-1932 by a group of community-minded women.  

Maplewood Area Historical Society has been working with the University of Minnesota’s Forestry Department to determine if any of those trees still exist and locate the markers that identify each of the groves. Their research efforts will be brought to the public light during an Arbor Day celebration on Saturday May 16. CLICK HERE for details for that event titled The Case of the Missing Groves -- Who (or What) Done It? It’s billed as an event for families, history buffs, tree lovers, and wanna-be detectives.

As we strolled along the creek, Bob helped us get acquainted with the location of several of these memorial groves. There are big rocks (erratics) positioned in various places along the creek and in other locations that mark the efforts of the Minnesota Federation of Women’s Clubs to establish municipal forests in several plots of Keller Park to promote conservation and reforestation.

One of those areas, on the slope where the Frost Avenue Bridge crosses Keller Creek, was planted to celebrate the bicentennial of George Washington’s birthday of February 22, 1732. The photo below shows the unveiling of the large rock with a brass plaque. The three children were direct descendants of Augustine Washington, a half-brother of George Washington. Mrs. C.N. Akers, (far right) was the great-granddaughter of a chaplain who served in Washington’s army at Valley Forge. She helped lead the tree-planting committee along with Mrs. Russell E. Van Kirk (third from the right). (Information provided by Bob Jensen). At the Arbor Day celebration in May, this grove will be replanted and the rock returned to this location. The rock was found in the woods near the trail and brought to the public works office.

The George Washington Memorial Grove planting by a Minnesota Women's Club
was celebrated by the unveiling of a large rock marker in 1931.

Deciphering Keller Creek's Past
Bob Jensen stands near the Frost Avenue Bridge over Keller
Creek. The sign explains some of the changes that have
happened in this area in the past 150 years.
At our first stop along the trail, Bob, Nicole and I linger at a recently installed sign below the new Frost Avenue Bridge. Underneath one arch of the bridge, the creek still flows south to Round and Phalen Lakes. Under the other arch, where only a sidewalk now remains, a road once passed. Who built it and what happened to it? The story itself is a winding tale that can be traced back to the 1800’s when the city and park planners first started envisioning changes to this waterway.
Jensen’s Maple Leaves newsletter article for the Maplewood Area Historical Society from December 2012 outlines a sequence of actions that are connected to Keller Creek’s history.

“In 1869 the Minnesota legislature authorized the private St. Paul Water Company to construct open channels between Lake Gervais, Spoon Lake and Phalen Lake to improve the flow so water could be diverted from the south end of Phalen for drinking water for the city of St. Paul.”

Lake Phalen provided drinking water for the City of St. Paul from 1869 to 1913. Channels between the lakes in the chain were proposed to increase the flow of water for the drinking water supply.
Maplewood Area Historical Society

“By 1879 tourist guides were promoting Lake Phalen as a popular recreation area that included excursions around the lake on privately operated steam launches. By 1894 St. Paul was making plans to extend the park to include Spoon and Gervais Lakes, increasing the possibility for launches to travel the entire chain. They wanted to develop the Phalen Chain of lakes into “the most unique and beautiful aquatic park possessed by any considerable city in inland America.” (Board of Park Commissioners’ Annual Report 1895).

Maps like this one from 1900 highlighted proposed roads around the perimeter of these lakes and channels between the lakes that would connect these "jewels" in the Phalen Chain of Lakes.
 1897  Minnesota Historical Society

Note: The name Keller Lake was not applied to the lake until 1923, when the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners changed the name to recognize the contributions of Herbert P. Keller to its creation.
A local newspaper from this time period wrote, “Spoon (Keller) Lake between Lakes Phalen and Gervais, was a lake only in name. In fact it was what is known as a slough, too much water to make a meadow and not enough for boating. At high water, there was just enough of a channel, weed-grown though it was, for expert canoeists or rowboat-men to work their way through from Lake Phalen to Lake Gervais.”
Did this “slough,” as this derogatory term refers to it, look something like this back then?

Arrowhead and other emergent plants surround and line a waterway.
Is this what Keller Creek looked like in its earlier days?

Make Way for the Boats - Linking of the Lakes

As time went on, the land directly around Lake Phalen was “condemned” by the city so they could incorporate it into Phalen Park. By 1902 dredging began in Lake Phalen with a coal-fired dredge. In 1904 the St. Paul Park Board ran into opposition to their Linking of Lakes Project and had to appeal to Ramsey County’s authority to acquire more land outside the city limits. In 1909 the dredging of the canal north of Lake Phalen was begun but then delayed for the next few years while the project was turned over to the county and they could secure more land.

This early twentieth century dredge was used to clear and widen the channel through
the marshy area between Lake Phalen and "Spoon Lake".

Minnesota Historical Society


By 1913 the county had completed .75 of a mile of Keller Boulevard and dredged 1800 feet of channel connecting Phalen Lake with Spoon lake, making the channel an extra 14 feet wide. The next year dredging began in the location where Lake Keller is now and continued for several more years. In 1923 Spoon Lake was renamed Keller Lake in honor of Herbert P. Keller who initially introduced the linking of the lakes project. What had once been marshy land with water flowing through it was recreated into a shallow lake with several islands. Channels that had been dredged connected it to the lakes to the north and south of it.

Launches, first steam powered and then eventually gasoline-powered, operated by the Park Department continued to provide cruises that navigated up and down the channel through the Phalen Chain of Lakes into the 1930’s.

A Keller launch boat carries passengers through the Phalen Chain of Lakes in 1927
under the Highway 1 Bridge and along the creek. Low water prevented this in previous years.

Minnesota Historical Society

As we passed under the arch of the new Frost Avenue Bridge and then beneath an older version of it that still remains, Jensen reminded me that the path we were walking on was once the road that connected these lakes. I tried to visualize one of those model T Fords bouncing along happily as it traveled on this same promenade between the lakes that we were now exploring on foot. Frost Avenue was not fully surveyed until 1906 and became a major street in 1926 when it was first paved. The bridge over the creek on Frost Avenue provided access to the Gladstone area from Highway 61. 
Remember the famous Tourist Cabins located just down the road? Driving around the lakes then, like now, was a favorite pastime both for the community and visitors traveling from a distance.


Making the drive around the Phalen Chain of Lakes
 Minnesota Historical Society

Bridges, Dams and a Waterfall

There have been a number of different bridges built over the creek beside the Frost Avenue bridge including one built by the Wisconsin Central Railway in 1906. A WPA dam was built on the creek in 1937 and later rebuilt by the Watershed District in 1991 as part of a regional flood control project.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) is seen here constructing a dam across Keller Creek.
Two hundred yards north of this spot, the old Highway 61 Bridge can be seen in the background.

Photo St. Paul Daily News - 1938 - Minnesota Historical Society

The WPA dam was rebuilt by the Watershed District
in 1991 to help regulate lake levels
and prevent flooding downstream.

Honeymoon Falls was constructed southwest of the intersection of Highway 61 and Keller Creek Boulevard in 1932. Water was pumped from an artesian well, cascaded over a rock ledge and flowed beneath a parking lot to Keller Creek to ensure an adequate water level for the excursion launches. It was removed in 1974 along with the parking lot and creekside roadway.

Honeymoon Falls was created to raise the water level in the creek. It was removed in 1974.

 Crossing the 45th Parallel

Keller Creek crosses the 45th parallel.
Is this a marker stone that marks the spot?

As we completed our journey up the creek, Bob pointed out a large stone located about five hundred yards south of the bridge where Highway 61 goes over the creek in Keller Park. He speculates that this is the marker stone for the 45th parallel. If it is indeed that, Keller Creek has the distinction of crossing a point halfway between the North Pole and the Equator. The creek shares this honor with several other scenic locations across the U.S. including Yellowstone National Park and Egg Harbor in Door County. 

The Restoration of Keller Creek circa 2015
A stretch of  Keller Creek that will be restored in 2015

Below the hill where the erratic stands is the upper stretch of the creek where the Watershed District is beginning a four year project of restoring Keller Creek. The first segment of the project involves the ecological restoration of over 31,000 square feet of shoreline that includes 1) a wooded slope, 2) a remnant patch of sedge and a few native wetland forbs, 3) an extensive wet meadow fringe, 4) a shrub prairie thicket, 5) an herbaceous edge and 6) a shrub-prairie edge.

Segment A (in yellow) on this restoration map is the area on the east side
of Keller Creek that will be done in 2015.

Twelve classrooms from St. Paul, North St. Paul and Maplewood will help transform its shoreline into a haven for birds, butterflies, and other creatures by planting native prairie and wet meadow species along its banks. See the March issue of the Ripple Effect for a short introductory article about this project.

Watch for future issues with more detail about this project in coming months. Once again Keller Creek is is becoming a shape-shifter and getting a face-lift, this time in the 21st century. 

Check out the history of its sister creeks, Gervais and Phalen, in next month's issue.

Keller Creek channel widens out as it flows down
toward Round and Phalen Lakes.

Thank you to Bob Jensen, President of the Maplewood Area Historical Society, for his awesome help in providing resources for this story.


  1. Well done, Sage! A wonderful example of drawing meaning from a small sampling of our city's domain. Keep it up!