MISS Throwback: Harriet Island

Katharine Baldwin, Volunteer, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
MISS Throwback is a collaborative project in honor of the NPS Centennial. We asked volunteers to write about the last 100 years of the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities. This project was coordinated by Ranger Kathy and Centennial Volunteer Ambassador Quinn.
Harriet Island In the late 1800s, Harriet Island was envisioned as the center of the green, interconnected city of St. Paul. The land had been given to the citizens of St. Paul in 1899 by the city’s Commissioner of Health, Dr. Justus Ohage, who believed that "cleanliness and healthy outdoor exercise" were "absolutely necessary to the maintenance of good public health". With this dedication, the land was developed into a recreational area, complete with a playground, band pavilion, zoo, and public baths. The public baths alone drew over 15,000 people per year in the 1910s, and the city hosted celebrations every Fourth of July. During these events, the city would give each child “a small basket containing sandwiches, doughnuts, an orange, candy, a package of cracker-jacks, a paper napkin, and a paper drinking cup”, creating the vision of an inclusive, interconnected city.

Harriet Island on Fourth of July, St. Paul (1904)

Photo Credit: Minnesota Historical Society

Despite the promise and popularity of the waterfront, sewage in the river was worsening as the population grew. The city’s first sewers had been installed between 1890 and 1900 to improve public health, but they fed directly into the Mississippi river, detracting from the public health of those near the river. At this point, steamboats were used to transport supplies up and down the Mississippi River, and economic prospects led to the building of the St. Anthony lock and dam in Minneapolis 1917. Despite the good intentions, water quality worsened as human waste collected in thick rafts due to controlled water flow, particularly in the spring, when the waste was usually flushed out. Furthermore, the Minneapolis flour mills began dumping flour dust into the river, creating “dough balls” that added to the stench and pollution. “By the early 1920s, three million cubic yards of sewage and scum fouled the river” and, after periods of major flooding, people living in the river bottoms were given typhoid shots before being allowed to return to their homes.

The number of people choosing to spend time along the river dropped and in the 1920s the park fell into disuse. The city put effort into improving the island at the end of the decade; a road was built around the island and some trees and shrubs were planted, but the onset of the depression prevented further development. By 1935, the park was in such disarray that Dr. Ohage threatened to take it back. In 1938 St. Paul built its first wastewater treatment plant downstream of Harriet Island, which removed the stinking mats of floating sewage from the river and within four months, fish returned to the river. Water quality steadily improved until the 1950s, when the growing population exceeded the treatment plant’s limits and a second wastewater treatment plant was built in 1966. Further improvements were made as federal grant money from the 1972 Clean Water Act funded advances in infrastructure.

The topography of the Harriet Island was altered throughout the years surrounding 1950 with the filling of the channel between Harriet Island and the southern bank. Connecting the island to the shore removed the need for maintenance on the bridge and prevented sewage from stagnating in the channel. The time period also corresponds to the dredging of the river; the Mississippi had been dredged to 9 feet from St. Paul to New Orleans by the 1920s, and Small Boat Harbor, on the south side of Harriet Island was completed in 1949. All this sediment needed a depository, and the channel between Harriet Island and the shore was a convenient location.

Filling in the channel did not increase the popularity of the park. Steamboat captain William D. Bowell describes the area in 1969: “Harriet Island was an uninviting place… Only one poorly maintained road led onto the island. It dipped under the Wabasha Street Bridge, ran past a wooden walkway to Raspberry Island (then called Navy Island) and a graveyard of abandoned boats, and ended in a parking lot that was a rutted expanse of gravel”. Nonetheless, the Captain began giving steamboat tours that ran from the island in 1970, which brought more people to the area. These tours continue today.

In addition to Captain Bowell, politicians’ interest developed in restoring the “urban ecology” and providing natural oases within the city. The hope was that the river’s proximity to the cities would make it a popular destination, and therefore feed Minnesota’s tourism industry, at that point the state’s second largest industry, as opposed to the dying river transport industry. Several steps were made towards reviving the area. In 1976, Governor Wendell Anderson signed a “Critical Area” designation for the riverfront in the Twin Cities that would develop or modify land-use plans to block undesirable commercial and industrial development. Further interest developed when the possibility of federal government funding for a National Park surfaced in the 1980s. Minnesota’s representative Bruce Vento declared, “For too long the federal government has neglected to integrate the recreational uses of the Mississippi with necessary commercial uses. We want to take advantage of all the opportunities the river has to offer”. Yet economic forces remained at play, forcing a balance of the ecological and economic healths of the Upper Mississippi; the Upper Mississippi River Management Act of 1986 states, “To ensure the coordinated development and enhancement of the Upper Mississippi River system, it is hereby declared to be the intent of Congress to recognize that system as a nationally significant ecosystem and a nationally significant commercial navigation system”. The land around the river would be turned into parkland, but the river itself would remain a waterway controlled by dams.

The government approved funding for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in 1988. The park planned to build an interpretive center and boat launch on Harriet Island, and the Army Corps of Engineers began a project to protect the floodplain area by building a dike from Harriet Island to the Lafayette Bridge. Once all of the planned recreational sites were completed, the river was expected to draw 4.1 million visitors each year, who would invest $29 million in metro area businesses. The interpretive center on Harriet Island was never built, but today the National Park draws just over 110,000 visitors each year and the affiliated local and regional parks draw 7.9 million visitors per year.

The attention that the National Park brought to the river raised awareness about pollution, and by 1998, the river was the cleanest it had been in 50 years. Even so, barges and agriculture continued to add pollutants to the water, and a proposed metal shredding plant just downstream of downtown St. Paul caused residents concern. Citizens proclaimed: “Pollution from industry, city streets and farms still threatens the drinking water supplies of 18 million people… While once there were 150 native fish species, today there are only 30”. Their efforts encouraged sustainable development of the industries along the river, although they did not prevent the building of the metal shredder.

The residents of St. Paul also led to the major renovation of Harriet Island in 2000. With the goal to reestablish the Harriet Island as the city’s gathering place, a “River Walk paved with stepping stones funded by local families, a restored 1941 pavilion designed by Minnesota's first African-American architect, Clarence Wigington, and a terraced plaza leading directly down to the river” were built on the island. In 2002, the steel framed performing arts pavilion was finished with inspiration from the open lattice steel frame bridges that once spanned the river. Today the island is used year round as a boat landing and gathering place, but it hasn’t yet returned to the community center is was at the beginning of the 20th century. References Bowell, Wm. D. 1921. Ol’ Man River. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press. “Corps Facts: St. Paul Small Boat Harbor.” 2012. US Army Corp of Engineers - St. Paul District. Public Affairs FS 30. Retrieved from http://www.mvp.usace.army.mil. “‘Critical Area’ designation for 80 miles of Mississippi riverfront in the Twin Cities.” October 19, 1976. St. Paul Pioneer Press: 14. Ecological Status and Trends of the Upper Mississippi River System 1998: A Report of the UMRR Long Term Resource Monitoring Program Element. 1998. USGS. Retrieved from http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/reports_publications/status_and_trends.html. Hammel, Bette. 2001. "A renaissance on the river in Saint Paul." Architectural Record 189(9): 65-66. Accessed December 6, 2015. Retrieved from Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals, EBSCOhost. Hanmer, Lee F. 1912. “Progress of the Sane Fourth.” The Journal of Education. Trustees of Boston University 75(19): 515-516. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42822192. “Harriet Island.” (n.d.). Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. National Park Service. US Department of the Interior. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/miss/planyourvisit/harrisla.htm. Martin, Frank Edgerton. April, 2001. “Saint Paul’s New Riverfront.” Urban Land: 56-61. Mill City Museum. 704 S 2nd St, Minneapolis, MN 55401. April 2, 2016. “Mississippi Feature: Pollution.” 2001. Center for Global Environmental Education. Hamline University. Retrieved from http://cgee.hamline.edu/rivers/Resources/Feature/feat7.htm. Minneapolis-Saint Paul Sanitary District. 1958. Pollution and Recovery Characteristics of the Mississippi River for the Period 1926-1955. Sanitary Engineering Report 110 S. “Mississippi Recreation.” August 14, 1986. Minneapolis Star Tribune: B4. Nelson, Paul. 2016. “Harriet Island.” Saint Paul Historical. Retrieved from http://saintpaulhistorical.com/items/show/126. Schmidt, Andrew J. 2002. “Pleasure and Recreation for the People: Planning St. Paul’s Como Park.” In Minnesota History. Minnesota Historical Society Press 58(1): 40-58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20188302.pdf. State of the Park Report for Mississippi National River and Recreation Area: Visitor Experience. 2016. National Park Service. US Department of the Interior. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/stateoftheparks/miss/visitorexperience/visitorexperience.cfm. Thomma, Steven. September 16, 1987. “Mississippi Protection Bill Approved.” St. Paul Pioneer Press: 9A. “100+ Years of Water Quality Improvements in the Twin Cities: A chronology of significant events affecting water quality in the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities metropolitan area 1900-2007” [Pamphlet]. 2007. Metropolitan Council Environmental Services. Retrieved from http://www.metrocouncil.org/.