Coldwater Spring: Rebirth of a Historic Landmark
By Joel Schettler
For many years, an abandoned site located between Minnehaha Park and Fort Snelling contained the remains of a cultural and historic landmark important to the development of the military site and the Twin Cities. I’m sure few people even knew the site was there, let alone what it contained. It’s called Coldwater Spring, an abundant source of clean water that drew settlers throughout the region’s history. The 29-acre site has been restored, and reopened September 1, 2012 as part of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, an urban national park.
Perhaps in a moment of hyperbole, one might call this little-known landmark the birthplace of Minnesota. Long before our state was even known as the Minnesota Territory, the Dakota and Ojibwe visited the site. Work on the nearby Fort Snelling, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, began in the early 1800s, which is largely responsible for the development of the city of Minneapolis. Coldwater Spring attracted some of the state’s first European settlers in 1837. Traders and trappers also used the site for a camp, as squatters quickly located near the military reserve. Eventually the site would include stables, blacksmiths, and a nearby farmstead. Over the years, the location has been used as a trading post, farmland, reservoir, and even the St. Louis Hotel, which operated during the early 1850s.
By the late 1870s, Fort Snelling had grown to become a major military post. The spring had to provide a reliable source of water, and the Army began to build the modern waterworks on the nearby Coldwater Springs site, which would eventually include several buildings, including those to house fuel and the pump house. The construction also included the springhouse and the reservoir, the remains of which can be seen at the site today. During the 1920s, the U.S. Army began to draw its water supply from the city of St. Paul, leaving the Coldwater Waterworks to fall into disrepair. Until this fall, the Coldwater site had been closed to the public.
In 2010, the National Park Service began to manage the property, and they soon drew up plans to renovate the area into a national park and recreation area. In fact, Coldwater Spring is the largest piece of National Park Service land within the 72-mile Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. The restored landscape will include wetland as well as areas resembling an oak savanna and prairies. As part of the development, the National Park Service also will restore the historic springhouse, Coldwater Creek, and the historic Coldwater Reserve.
Restoration work at the site continues, but visitors are welcome to walk the trails at this historic landmark. Coldwater Spring is just south of Minnehaha Park in south Minneapolis. From Highway 55, take 54th Street east to Minnehaha Park Drive; take this road south to the site’s parking area.