Hidden, but Not Really

June 26, 2015 19.96 miles (but I’m saying 20 miles)

Macalester-Groveland, Summit-University, St. Anthony Park, Hamline-Midway

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When you mention Summit Avenue, most people think of the eastern part of the Avenue, home to the mansions built for industrialists like the Hills, Weyerhaeusers, and Ordways. Summit became the place favored to live by Saint Paul’s most prosperous in the late 1880s. The expansion of industry in Lowertown, and the accompanying noise and pollution, prompted the exodus. The development of Summit Avenue started on the east end, just outside of Downtown and gradually moved west.

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The western portion of Summit Avenue features a boulevard lined with mature trees separating the east and west bound lanes. It gives a more leisurely feeling to the neighborhood.

Summit west of Snelling Avenue has a much different atmosphere than the eastern portion – with the grass and tree-lined boulevard dividing the lanes it feels less formal and hurried. Though the homes are newer, you’ll find many beautiful and historical residences.

The August M.P. Cowley Cottage

The August M.P. Cowley Cottage at 1994 West Summit.

For example, take the A.M.P Cowley House at 1994 West Summit, built for the August Cowley family in 1913. Cowley worked as an “industrialist” when his Summit Avenue home was built. According to the July 29, 1913 edition of the Construction News publication, Cowley spent $8,000 to have his cottage built.

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MacQueen Equipment at 595 Aldine Street.

There is a brick building with several large garage doors on the southwest corner of Thomas and Aldine. The only signage is a distinct yellow and black banner baring the name ‘MacQueen Equipment’. No doubt neighbors know about MacQueen, but many, including me, either have no idea or haven’t considered it. This first-rate summer day was the perfect time to find out for myself.

Not being a shrinking violet, I stepped through the front door and revealed why I was there. General Manager Mike Hawkins led me back outside to talk about the business.

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MacQueen Equipment General Manager Mike Hawkins.

He explained that MacQueen is much like an auto dealership, but for municipal equipment. MacQueen, he said, sells and services new and used street sweepers, snow plows, garbage trucks, and sewer vacuum trucks, most often to government agencies.

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This lot behind MacQueen’s headquarters building is where much of the used equipment is parked. Garbage trucks, street sweepers, and a sewer vacuum are on the lot, waiting on buyers.

“The City of Saint Paul is one of many municipal customers and the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport is one of our biggest customers. We’ll sell the big tractors to them as well that go down the runways. We can put either a blower or broom on the front of that or a plow.” Hawkins added, “We also sell snow blowers that are used mostly for the D.O.T. (Department of Transportation) but in some cases, cities will have them too.”

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A MacQueen mechanic prepares a new snow plow for deployment at Twin Cities International Airport.

MacQueen Equipment was founded in 1961 by Jack MacQueen and has been at 595 Aldine Street for decades. However the company will be leaving in 2016. “We’ve been at this location for close to 50 years and we’ve simply outgrown it. We’re hiring more people; we don’t have anywhere to put them.”

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Colorful sweeper brushes are stacked in a corner of the back lot.

MacQueen’s new home will be on the East Side, in the Beacon Bluff Industrial Park. The 40,000 square foot building will have 14 bays. “The additional bays,” said Hawkins, “will help us get more of our customers’ work in and out efficiently.”

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By the nature of their job, street sweepers require regular maintenance. A mechanic cleans some brushes inside one of the service bays.

“These bays,” he said pointing toward the garages, “are much smaller and as the equipment gets bigger it’s very difficult for our guys to get underneath it. With this new shop we’ll have much higher bays so they can lift up the equipment and get underneath it, as well as more space in between each bay.”

Efficiency will come in other ways, too. Hawkins said features of the LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Program will be used in the new building.

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Winter is nearly six months away but June is a great time to prepare snow removal equipment. Several MacQueen mechanics refurbish an industrial snow blower.

All but two mechanics have worked at MacQueen for 10 years or more. “The majority of our guys have been here from 10 to 25 years. It’s a pretty loyal business. People don’t like to leave, which says a little about our management and the company itself.”

Even with the low turnover, Hawkins told me the plan is to hire some 10 employees. However, it has been difficult finding qualified mechanics. That led the company to partner with an area school. “We’re working with the Dakota County Technical College to create a new program with them to get some young people coming up out of school.”

MacQueen Equipment is supposed to move to the new East Side headquarters by April 2016. I’ll have an update when a ride takes me to Beacon Bluff Industrial Park.

Hamline-Midway

With the interview and photos at MacQueen Equipment complete, I rode north to Pierce Butler Route. This unusual east-west road parallels the BNSF railroad tracks, which are just to the north. Pierce Butler Route, which runs primarily through industrial parts of the Midway between Prior Avenue and Dale Street, is named after the first (of three) U.S. Supreme Court Justices from Saint Paul.

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Supreme Court Associate Justice Pierce Butler served on the high court from 1923 until he died in 1939.

On the western-most end of Pierce Butler Route, a thicket of trees conceals a good-sized pond that I learned about by looking at maps.

Behind this thicket of trees and bushes is large pond. The foliage is so thick that the pond isn’t visible until you get within 10 feet of it.

Behind this thicket of trees and bushes is large pond. The foliage is so thick that the pond isn’t visible until you get within 10 feet of it.

Labeled as Great Northern Pond on the official Saint Paul city map, the pond's name comes from the nearby railroad once owned by James J. Hill. That railroad is now part of the BNSF. According to “The Street Where You Live” by Don Empson, Great Northern Pond now drains into the storm sewer system and then into the Mississippi River.

Labeled as Great Northern Pond on the official Saint Paul city map, the pond’s name comes from the nearby railroad once owned by James J. Hill. That railroad is now part of the BNSF. According to “The Street Where You Live” by Don Empson, Great Northern Pond now drains into the storm sewer system and then into the Mississippi River.

The secluded Great Northern Pond is also nearly impossible to see from the Ramsey County compost site though the northern third juts into the pond.

The size and seclusion of the Great Northern Pond is apparent in the screen grab from Google Earth.

The size and seclusion of the Great Northern Pond is apparent in the screen grab from Google Earth.

 

The main entrance to the former headquarters of Koppers Coke is at 1000 Hamline Avenue.

The main entrance to the former headquarters of Koppers Coke is at 1000 Hamline Avenue.

A mile east on Pierce Butler Route at Hamline Avenue, I stopped at an unconventional three-plus story brick building in the midst of major renovation. The structure at 1000 Hamline Avenue North was constructed in 1917 as the Saint Paul office of the Minnesota By-Product Coke Company (later Koppers Coke.) This building is all that is left of the 38 acre facility that, from 1917 until 1979, turned coal into coke. (Coke, a pure fuel used in blast furnaces primarily for making steel, is created by heating coal to 212 to 752 degrees Fahrenheit in special furnaces.)

A steam engine sits idle at Koppers Coke in August 1961. Photo by Douglas Bailey

A steam engine sits idle at Koppers Coke in August 1961. Photo by Douglas Bailey

Several of the structures at Koppers Coke in April 1978, about a year before they were torn down.

Several of the structures at Koppers Coke in April 1978, about a year before they were torn down. Photo by Steve Plattner

The coking process creates highly polluting coal tar and distillates (including creosote) as by-products. In fact, storage, disposal, leaks and spills over the 82 years of production led the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to place the Koppers Coke site on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL).

Koppers demo 11-79 photo by Hall, Henry Benbrooke

By November of 1979, Koppers Coke had shut down and the structures were in various states of demolition. Photo by Henry Benbrook Hall. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

All of the old Koppers land is now part of Energy Park. Kemp’s headquarters building occupies at least some of the area in the photo above.

St. Anthony Park

Hamline Avenue is interrupted several dozen feet north of the old Koppers building by a valley through which the BNSF Railroad tracks run. There is a convenient pedestrian/bike bridge that I used to cross over the tracks and down to Energy Park. I was there to pick up a couple of private streets I’d missed on previous visits.

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Private roads usually display signs significantly different than Saint Paul’s public street signs. Carling Drive is between Energy Park Drive and the BNSF tracks.

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The Burlington is one of several apartment and condo complexes in the Bandana Square area given names tied to the Northern Pacific Railroad’s shops once located here. The name comes from James J. Hill’s Burlington Route Railroad.

 

Como Avenue is an east-west street that is parallel to, but north of, the same BNSF tracks that Pierce Butler Route runs along. Hints of the State Fair, still two months off, are frequently seen in this area.

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These doughnut stands are parked in a lot at Como and Winston Street.

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The CW television station for the Twin Cities is across the street, on the southwest corner of Como and Winston.

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And behind the TV station are satellite dishes and a microwave tower that plainly stood out nicely against the indigo blue sky.

Continuing west on Como, the light industrial make up south of Como Avenue unexpectedly turns residential. Bounded by Fifield Street on the east, those ever-present BNSF tracks on the south and the heavily-traveled Raymond Avenue to the west, several dozen homes and apartment buildings create a very distinct and charming neighborhood.

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Priscilla Street, like the others nearby, is lined with mature trees and nicely kept homes.

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Priscilla Street is only one block long, though it is a lengthy block, comparable to at least two average blocks.

As Priscilla Street angles south toward the railroad tracks, homes are replaced by thick woods (above). About a tenth of a mile farther, Priscilla makes a sharp right turn and becomes Gibbs. In front of 1114 Gibbs, unexpectedly sat an Irish phone booth amidst an attractively landscaped garden. What a fun yard decoration that must spur lots of comments.

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The stone path from Gibbs Street to the Irish phone booth.

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The book resting on the bench is “So You Think You’re Irish” by Margaret Kelleher.

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Right across Gibbs Avenue is Alden Square Park, a one-third acre triangular shaped spit of land. The park is named after John and Priscilla Alden. As you probably guessed, the aforementioned Priscilla Street got its name from Mrs. Alden, according to Don Empson’s ‘The Street Where You Live.’

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The finest feature of the park is a beautiful wood gazebo, which is open to all comers.


Riding south toward University Avenue I traversed the Raymond Avenue bridge and crossed over the Midway rail yard. Then I turned west on Robbins Street to get in position to take a couple of railroad pictures. It’s a great spot to get into the yard with a minimum of obstacles. Be warned–it is illegal to walk onto railroad property and the railroads have clamped down on violators.

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Looking east at the undulating tracks of the Midway rail yard. The pillar on the left is one of the supports for the Raymond Avenue bridge.

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Two Twin Cities & Western locomotives roll through the dusty air while hauling some cars out of the rail yard.

Mattresses were among the many products that have been manufactured in Saint Paul. The former United States Bedding Company/King Koil Mattress factory at 550-558 Vandalia Avenue (immediately north of I-94) is where I next stopped. Detailed information about the building was difficult to find but Ramsey County records say the first and largest portion was built in 1918, with additions in 1927 and 1948.

Russian immigrant Samuel Bronstien founded United States Bedding in 1898, according to the King Koil website. (http://www.kingkoil.com/about-us/). Bronstien and six family members first made mattresses in their Saint Paul home. Business grew, so production was relocated to a true factory. Sometime between 1920 and 1930, United States Bedding Company moved to the Vandalia Avenue building. In the ‘30s, the King Koil name was coined as the United States Bedding brand name.

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King Koil was introduced as the brand name for United States Bedding during the 1930s. This logo was part of the rebranding. Courtesy of Comfort Solutions

Following the departure of King Koil from Saint Paul, the hulking brick warehouse slowly decayed while many tenants, including a high school for recording arts and an HVAC company, came and went. Other small companies and non-profits hung in at 550 Vandalia because of the low rent and favorable location between I-94 and University Avenue.

The King Koil factory is the largest of several buildings in the complex purchased in 2012 by First & First LLC for more than $3 million. Renovation of the buildings into Vandalia Tower has attracted some interesting new tenants such as Lake Monster Brewing and Saint Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN).

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Several renderings of Vandalia Tower hang inside. This is the Vandalia Avenue side looking north, the most familiar part of the building.

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This rendering looks Northeast toward the southwest at what was likely the back of the complex. Vandalia Avenue runs along the upper right corner.

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A closer view of the courtyard to the east of the main building. Lake Monster Brewing is in the building with the red roof, behind the water tower.

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This is how the area looks as of this ride. Extensive work needs to be done to the buildings and grounds to make the architectural drawings a reality. Once completed, this will be one of the toughest seats to get when the weather is magnificent in Saint Paul.

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The lobby and some of the tenants of Vandalia Tower. Note the tall ceilings and polished concrete floors.

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A renovated first-floor hallway in the main building.

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Another part of the first floor. I wonder what Samuel Bronstien would say about the look and function of his former factory?

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Looking up the ladder toward the top of the water tower. I resisted the urge to climb up to take a few pictures.

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The water tower was manufactured by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Works. This plate detailing the manufacture of the water tower is still legible through cracked paint and rust more than nine decades after it was built. The plaque says “Chicago Bridge and Iron Works Builders; Chicago, ILL”

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This building is being transformed into Lake Monster Brewing.

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Some signs of renovation of the Lake Monster space.

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Evidence of the complete disregard for the former King Koil Mattress factory is still visible throughout. Here the unchecked foliage has covered all the windows of the Lake Monster premises. The numerous patterns and colors caused by the frosted glass led me to take about 20 pictures.

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Unfortunately, only the lower half of the King Koil mascot remains visible. I’m hoping for restoration of the sign, which is one of those details that would elevate the project.

King Koil signs

My hope is that the ‘office’ sign also figures into the renovation plan.

 

In the six months since I took this ride, the renovation of Vandalia Tower has continued at a steady pace. Independent Filmmaker Project Minnesota (IFP Minnesota) opened in early 2015, Lake Monster Brewing began serving its beer in December, and many small businesses such as Bootstrap Coffee Roasters, artists, and photographers are successfully doing business there. Once the courtyard is completed and nice weather arrives, the former mattress factory will hum like never before.

Click here for a map of the June 26, 2015 ride.

 


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7 Responses to Hidden, but Not Really

  1. Joe January 22, 2016 at 8:48 am #

    Great article. Thanks for sharing your trip.

    • Wolfie Browender
      Wolfie Browender January 22, 2016 at 9:27 am #

      Joe, you are welcome. Thank YOU for reading and commenting.

      Wolfie

      [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  2. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele January 22, 2016 at 11:27 am #

    That CW studio you photograph was the KTCA / Twin Cities Public Television studio until they moved to their Lowertown studio in the late 80s.

    • Wolfie Browender
      Wolfie Browender January 22, 2016 at 11:59 am #

      Matt, thanks for adding that. I remember when KTCA/KTCI was there but my posts are so long already that I chose not to mention that.
      I appreciate you reading and commenting.
      Wolfie

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  3. paddy January 22, 2016 at 12:03 pm #

    Fun article.

    I’ve driven by MacQueen for years and had no idea what they did.

    I join you in hoping the restore the King Coil sign. I can it see as clear as a bell in my mind from 35 years ago as a kid on the way to McDonalds.

    Thanks

    • Wolfie Browender
      Wolfie Browender January 22, 2016 at 1:44 pm #

      Thank you Paddy. I’m a big kid so getting to see all the cool trucks at MacQueen made my week. I’m really happy to see that, not only are they’re doing so well that they need to expand, but they’re moving to the East Side.

      Wolfie

      [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  4. Kyle January 22, 2016 at 6:18 pm #

    My father worked for the Chicago Bridge and Iron Co (CB&I) for his whole career and it’s great to see those old reminders of their original work. Today, CBI is a huge multi-national with offices all over the world and they still build water towers – in fact, the modern water towers that look like a ball on a tee are a CBI design and for many years CBI built every water tower of that design in the country. Water towers of this design cost about $2.5M dollars to build and almost $50,000 to fill up with water.