June 26, 2015 19.96 miles (but I’m saying 20 miles)
Macalester-Groveland, Summit-University, St. Anthony Park, Hamline-Midway
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.