A SHORT HISTORY OF 
INDIAN MOUNDS PARK

Prepared for the August 17, 1996 
Neighborhood Pride Celebration

Written by Steve Trimble
 

Last update: 7/2/2000
 
It must have been a magnificent sight that greeted the first visitors. Groups of hunters surely stood thousands of years ago in what it today's Indian Mounds Park. Fed by the melting glaciers, the waters of the ancient River Warren reached from bluff to bluff. Nearby, there was a gigantic waterfall, the ancestor of the modern St. Anthony Falls. 

These "Paleo-Indians," as they have been called, followed large animals that fed in the lush fields south of the waterfall, around 12,000 years ago. Mammoth, caribou, bison, giant beaver and other swimming rodents provided food and clothing for these first travelers through the area. Around 2,000 years ago, the mound builders came north, following the path of today's Mississippi River. Collectively referred to as "the Hopewell culture," these people were not just hunters following the herds. They planted and traded and had a developed a society with leaders and religious beliefs. They placed their dead along great river routes, burying them with a variety of artifacts.

Centuries later the Dakota, originally northern Minnesota woodland dwellers, came to the site. Arriving prior to the mid-1600's, they lived for almost two hundred years in a village on the river, underneath the mounds. They stayed in Kaposia, as it was called, for much of the year, but they did wander from their permanent home to hunt or go sugaring. 

After a treaty in 1763, England laid claim to the area and Jonathan Carver was sent out to explore. He arrived in the late fall of 1766 and wrote about the area in his journal. "This day arrived to the great stone cave called by the Naudowessee Waukon Teebee, or in English the house of the spirits." He later named it Carver's Cave and it became a famous early tourist attraction. 

"Near the cave is the burying place of the Nadowessee," said Carver, using his named for the Dakota. He found out that one of their leaders had recently died and went to see the grave" in the mounds. Carver found it almost impossible to describe "all the hieroglyphicks and significant marks of regard and distintion this people had paid to the memory of this deceased grandee..."    - 

After the Revolutionary War, the United States took control over the land containing today's Mounds Park. An American explorer named Schoolcraft came and visited Kaposia in 1820. He described it as "a band... consisting of about two hundred souls, who plant on the adjoining plain and cultivate cucumber and pumpkin." With the treaty of 1837, they left the mounds and moved across the river. 

Among the first European settlers in the area were French- Indian voyageurs who mostly lived off the land. One man named Isaac LaBissioniere and his family lived south of Indian Mounds Park, near today's Warner Road. At the time there was no official survey, so they just put up a sign that said the land had been had claimed. 

"Why work," La Bissionaire was once quoted as saying. "No body had to work by Jimminy. The morning I got out, I shoot the duck, the quail, the prairie chicken! The family they tire themselves of the birds, I go over on Dayton's Bluff, near Mouseau's and I bring back the fine deer!" 

Farmers came in the late 1830's and 1840's. A newspaper editor visited the area and commented that "some twenty mounds, extending a mile from Mr. Evans' along past Mr. Weld's are a subject of wonder and admiration... their ancient and inscrutable origin, baffle even conjecture. The present race of Indians know as little of them as ourselves." 

Weld said that he planned to excavate some of the mounds to see what was inside, but there is no evidence that he ever did. The early farmers were soon replaced with scattered mansions as St. Paul expanded. 

The burial sites were first excavated in 1856 by minister and educator Edward Neill. In 1879 a better-trained Theodore Lewis began a lengthy project of digging. He found grave compartments with remains and funeral offerings of shell, bear's teeth and copper arrowheads. 

In 1878 the Willow Brook state fish hatchery was opened below the bluffs of today's Mounds Park. Many people visited this landmark, which even had a small wildlife museum, going down a steep, zigzagging road.

The 1880's brought a population boom in St. Paul and the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood. People began expressing the need to preserve some of the remaining open space. An 1887 state law allowed the creation of a Board of Park Commissioners for St. Paul that could issue bonds to purchase or improve park land. 

$30,000 was dedicated to the Indian Mounds Area. At the outset, things did not go well.The park board talked of the "rapacity of real estate speculators." It was hard to find willing sellers and only 17 acres, much of it steep hillside, had been procured by 1892. A paper said the area needed district police surveillance... as there is a strong disposition by some people passing through the park to indulge in the wanton destruction of plantings and other property." 

1896 the city finally began making improvements and started out grading the area. Unfortunately, 11 mounds were removed as part of the landscaping. "By the end of this season the surface improvements ... will be completed" a report stated. "When reclothed with trees and grass it will be a beautiful spot-what there is of it." 

Most visitors came by streetcar, as was the case in all the larger city parks. The line traveled on Earl Street to Thorn and then turned around. "As one of the chief points of interest to visitors in the city," an 1897 report said, "it is important that it shall be reached by a more direct and attractive approach" This led to a long effort to extend Hoffman avenue, as Mounds Boulevard was then named. 

Finally, a 1900 law allowed the purchase of more lands and the park was expanded to 82 acres. It now went east and south to the borders of the fish hatchery. Between 1904 and 1907 several hundred trees and shrubs were planted and an "ornamental" Hoffman Avenue entrance completed. 

The Mounds Park Sanitarium was an important new addition along the northern edge of the park. Constructed in 1906 with the strong support of Baptist churches, it was one of the first general service hospitals that also handled patients with psychological and emotional problems. 

In 1914, the brick pavilion was built at the end of Earl. The $12,000 structure was "designed to serve the public as a refreshment stand, a concert pavilion and comfort station, all of which were for a number of years requested by the public to be provided for the park," 

Quite a few minor changes and improvements were made to Mounds Park in the late 'teens and twenties. Various facilities were put in the park--a ski slide, a refectory house, tennis courts a warming house, six horseshoe courts. The nearby state forest reserve on the east was added to the official park acreage. 

One of the more colorful additions of the era was a captured World War One German artillery piece placed on stone blocks north of Mounds and west of Earl. In 1923 the mounds were built up with topsoil and seeded to grass in an attempt to have them "put back in their original shape." 

Many of the changes were prompted by the increase in automobile traffic. In 1923, for instance, Mounds Boulevard was paved all the way up to Earl. A new Fish Hatchery road was added in 1926 and Johnson Parkway was paved. 

The end of the decade saw the construction of an area landmark - the navigation beacon. It was part of a network that helped pilots find their way at night as they delivered air mail. Built in 1929, the 110 foot high beacon with its rotating light is the only one of its kind remaining in the country. 

Things remained static during the Depression and War years. The commissioner of parks did make a study of the facilities and noted there was now a warming house and a ski slide, a refectory and 2 tennis courts. He bemoaned the absence of baseball or kittenball diamonds, a wading pool or even sandboxes.

The 1980's saw the first major park restoration in many years. Using state and federal "Great River Road" funds, the city made improvements, such as restoration of the pavilion and removal of the road behind the mounds. The last two houses on the west side of Mounds Blvd. were removed. 

Picnic tables and rest rooms and a new children's play area were built across from the mounds. The Community Council also led a successful effort to place decorative fences around the mounds to protect them from visitors. 

The 1980's also saw the first a of a series of neighborhood festivals in the park. They died out after a few summers, but this year a revival has begun. There is also a revival of the park. Partly as a response to the increase of joggers and bikers, major new trails and beautification of the bluff line has begun. The waterfall is gone, but travelers still come to view with awe the beauty and majesty of Mounds Park. 


A Novel Look at Mounds Park

"Grover Mudd... staggered across Plum Street and Cherry Street and into Indian Mound Park... Before him stood the largest mound in the park. Tears streamed down his face with the rain.... The ghostly mound loomed before him like a mountain. Children used it as a place to play. A swath of mud rolled over the top. Grover stopped on the grave and dropped. 

Grover wormed his way to the top of the mound and rested there on all fours like a wounded animal... He fell backward and tumbled down the mound, and face down at the bottom he beat his fist into the mud.... A torrent of rain swept over the park. And Grover Mudd cried himself sick at the foot of the ancient Indian graves. 

From Steve Thayer's novel St. Mudd



"What would you figure? Wouldn't you think you were in? A dark night for her, brooding and thinking and telling it to the first man she saw. Wanting to sit by the beacon. What the hell, she know you didn't go to Mounds Park for charades.... I turned off the parkway and eased up to the retaining wall which looked south to Pig's Eye... 

There wasn't another car in the parking space and I let the bumpers touch the wall before I pulled the emergency brake. I found some music on the radio, held the lever and pushed the seat back, than sat watching her, she with her head on the cushion, the kerchief off her hair now, her face in profile as she looked down at the airport and the string of lights bordering the field." 

From Norman Katkov's novel Eagle at My Eyes