August 16, 2021 Frogtown, Payne-Phalen, Dayton’s Bluff, Downtown: 18.2 Miles
In his 1967 hit, “There Is a Mountain,” Donovan sang, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain…” Williams Hill, about a mile east of the Capitol, might be St. Paul’s manifestation of that tune. More on that after a stop in Frogtown.
Thomas Avenue in Frogtown is flanked almost exclusively by houses. At Avon Street, Ryan Park interrupts the homes, and the magnificent Church of St. Agnes (and its school) provide another full block gap between Kent and Mackubin Streets. A block further east, this time on the south side of the street, the homes give way to a school. With no recollection of having seen this building before, I slowly cruised past trying to determine its name. Not until I rode about three-quarters of the way around the block – on Edmund Avenue – did I see a sign proclaiming it Jackson Elementary School.
The damage interstate highways have done to St. Paul is indisputable. The tragic effect I-94 had (and continues to have) upon the Rondo neighborhood is well-documented. I-35E, while significantly less fractious, also caused great disruptions to neighborhoods and the layout of St. Paul’s streetscape. Mississippi Street, for example, was a main north-south artery in and out of downtown St. Paul. It ran uninterrupted from Grove Street to St. Paul’s northern border at Larpenteur Avenue. Now, Mississippi Street is little more than the 35E frontage road, haphazardly starting and stopping from Case Avenue north to Larpenteur. On the southern end, between Phalen Boulevard and Grove, it’s a decaying and underused road to nowhere.
Olive Street immediately north of University Avenue is the entrance to the Williams Hill Business Center and it’s where Gary Horn and I met on his lunch break. Gary posted a comment on the blog about my previous trip to Williams Hill in September of 2019. He agreed to talk about his years growing up on the East Side and his recollections of Williams Hill back when it was a hill.
Gary began his story when his parents met in college. “My mother was in nursing at Hamline University, and Hamline University had a foreign exchange program where they brought students from Germany over; these were carpenters. It was a work study program where they came from Germany to do their carpentry thing at Hamline University. So they met socially at Hamline University.”
Gary lived at 910 Arkwright Street, between York and Sims Avenues, from the early to late 1960s. “Back in those days, kids could roam pretty freely around the East Side. And one of the things we’d love to do is to come down York Avenue to the bridge up over the railroad tracks so we could watch the trains and try to hop the trains.”
Gary and his friends spent a bundle of time playing at an empty lot at Cayuga and Arkwright, about a block from his home. “It was an undeveloped block with sumac bushes and a large sandy area that appeared to be used as as sort of quarry for sand. It was a very large bank of sand (to a kid) and we played in it quite a bit. It had a wild, remote feeling for being so close to home.”
And he added, “When we played at the vacant lot, we would see scruffy-looking men walking on Whitall (Street). At the time, Poor Richards salvage yard was located at the corner of Whitall and York. I don’t know if they were yard workers or homeless men that were moving back and forth from Williams Hill.”
Gary laughed as he brought up another memory. “I think I had my first rolled up leaf cigarettes down there.”
Gary and friends also passed time scavenging for discarded bottles. “One of the things we’d like to do is gather pop bottles and turn them in for cash. I think we got a nickel a bottle. Whenever we find a bottle, we would turn it in at the Case Avenue Market or the Burr Street Grocery and get money for penny candy.”
And like many other boys of that era, Gary played some baseball. “I was on tee-ball teams at the Wilder Playground. We spent a lot of time there. We ventured occasionally onto Payne Avenue. And there was a library on Payne and Arlington, I believe, that we used to go to.”
The Horns lived about a mile from Williams Hill and Gary visited it with friends from the neighborhood or his older siblings “two or three times a summer.” In contrast to the flat topography now, there really was a substantial hill. “It was a very distinct knob of a hill. It was definitely a neighborhood landmark.”
Growing up, Gary thought of the hill with a mix of fascination and trepidation. “When we walked on Mississippi Street, there was a wooden bridge to Williams Hill that spanned some railroad tracks. You could see the ruins of homes and foundations on the hill – it was a surreal scene for a kid. We never crossed the bridge and explored the ruins. It was too scary.”
Gary recalled a specific incident at the hill that he’ll never forget. “When we were trying to work up the courage to cross the bridge, we saw a large roll of carpet. We wondered if a body was rolled up in it. My sister claimed she saw it move! We knew she was trying to scare us, but it still did!”
Gary crossed the Mississippi Street railroad bridge to Williams Hill only once, when his mom took him and his five siblings for a picnic. “There’s a picture we have of my mother having taken us for a picnic on the hill when we were really little.”
Gary and the rest of the Horn family left the Arkwright Street home in 1969. “My dad felt it was time to move out and he had an acre property out in rural Stillwater, so he moved us out there. That was his lifelong dream to build his own home…and he’d built it.”
Although he left the East Side some 50 years ago, Gary fondly recalls his exploits there and says he remains interested in Williams Hill history.
Here are some additional historical notes about Williams Hill.
- Known as Oak Hill Cemetery in the early 1850s, it was St. Paul’s first burial ground. That ceased a couple years later when Oakland Cemetery opened about a mile northwest, according to The Street Where You Live.
- About 1857, realtor Brook B. Williams began developing the hill as a residential neighborhood. The streets of Williams Hill were “once lined with comfortable two-story homes” according to a June 24, 1982, St. Paul Dispatch article by Don Ahern.
- Written accounts say as many as 60 homes were built on Williams Hill. Residents of Williams Hill included a number of successful early St. Paul residents.
- Long-vanished hill streets had names including DeBow, Olmsted, Somerset and Williams.
- Patent attorney Andrew M. Carlsen, who owned the home and boarding house at 279-281 Williams Street known as the “Swedish Castle.” (Above)
- Hardware wholesaler George L. Farwell, one of the founders of what became the OK Hardware chain, lived at the southwest corner of Grove and Olive.
- Cyrus DeCoster, 59 Grove, was a furniture manufacturer, Capital Bank board member and principal of Jefferson School.
- The hill’s heyday didn’t last long. By the early 1900s the railroads were buying land on the hill for future expansion.
- The decline of Williams Hill, sometimes called “The Badlands,” continued for decades. A 1948 article in the Minneapolis Star described “the ‘jungles’ of Williams Hill where tramps and hobos often camp in the woods or in the ruins of abandoned houses.”
- The shocking and sensational June 1949 murder of seven-year old Harlow O’Brien further diminished the reputation of Williams Hill. Harlow’s body was found under the bridge that connected Mississippi Street to Williams Hill.
The leveling of Williams Hill was completed in the 1980s. By 1992, Kaplan’s Metal Reduction, Mississippi Street Metals and concrete recycling operations of Ashbach Construction Company were the main occupants of area (January 1, 1992, St. Paul Pioneer Press). The St. Paul Port Authority already had its eye on redeveloping the 40-acre parcel to create new jobs, but it took until August 1996 for the city and Port Authority to secure and allocate the money to begin work (August 15, 1996, St. Paul Pioneer Press.) Aries Precision Sheet Metal was the first business to open in the new Williams Hill Business Center in September 1999.
Moving south from Williams Hill Business Center, the neighborhood between University Avenue on the north, East Seventh Street to the south, I-94/35E on the west and Lafayette Road to the east, is unusual. A jumble of buildings – warehouses, medical facilities and governmental structures – and parking lots, dominate the area.
James Griffin broke many barriers during his four decades with the St. Paul Police Department. He was the first African American sergeant, captain and deputy chief on the St. Paul force. Griffin was born and grew up in Rondo. He became a patrol officer in 1941 and retired in 1983. The stadium at Central High School is also named for him.
To call the history of 367 Grove Street interesting is selling it short. It was built as a factory for Ramer’s Candy about 1920. By the ’30s, George Benz and Sons Liquors were rolling out the barrels there. At one time, 3M used the building and in the mid-2000s, the it was renovated for the St. Paul Police Department. (Inside the Griffin Building, although not open to the public, is the St. Paul Police Department museum, which I toured in 2015 and blogged about.)
Several streets in the neighborhood just south of Williams Hill Business Center bear the names of trees. Pine, Balsam and Grove (OK, not a species, but a group of trees) were all named in the early 1850s, while Olive and Spruce were named in 1872, according to Don Empson’s The Street Where You Live.
The place billed as “Historic Lafayette Park” at the corner of Pine and Grove Streets is wishful thinking. There is nothing historic or park-like about this spot. It consists of a triangular parking lot edged by a couple of slices of grass. Strangely, Lafayette Park and the elaborate fountain depicted on the sign stood at least two blocks to the east of where the sign is.
Anchor Paper’s buildings take up the entire block bounded by ninth, tenth, Pine and Broadway Streets.
The restored former Great Northern Railroad warehouse at eighth and Pine Streets looks much like it did when it was built in 1917. Today it is an office building.
By far the most attractive and unexpected building is Schurmeier Lofts condominiums and apartments at 330 Ninth Street East. Built in 1885 for the Schurmeier Wagon Company, the exterior and what little I could see inside were stunningly restored.
On the way home I rode on the Capital City Bikeway on Jackson Street for the first time. At the intersection with Seventh Place East I hit the brakes for an unexpected site. Renovation of Ramsey County’s Metro Square building revealed the beautiful decorative reliefs from when it was the Emporium department store. The left half of the building, which remained covered with glass panels, is scheduled for renovation in 2022.
A project manager for Ramsey County told me the damage to the original building facade was too great to be economically feasible to refurbish it. It’s intriguing to consider what other secrets will be revealed when the renovation work resumes later this year.
Below is the map of this enlightening trip.