West End, Downtown, West Side
September 1, 2021
When it comes to bike rides for the blog (which I call “Official” rides), regular readers know I do the majority of my biking on St. Paul streets. (The word ‘street’ is in the subtitle of the blog, after all.) I’m not averse to dedicated bike paths. I actually love them, especially on those crazy busy streets where it is dangerous to ride on the road. Think the Sam Morgan Trail next to Shepard Road in Highland Park or the Fish Hatchery Trail along Warner Road and Highway 61 on the East Side.
In late July 2021, stories appeared in several local media outlets about a newly completed bike trail on the West Side. The buzz about this particular trail, the Robert Piram Regional Trail, seemed to be considerably louder than usual. Although it took just over a month to do so, the chatter about the Robert Piram Trail sparked a trip to investigate it. But first I had the ride there.
Jefferson Avenue is one of the major east-west thoroughfares I frequent on rides to the West End, West Side, Downtown/Lowertown and Battle Creek/Highwood neighborhoods. The home and yard of 687 Jefferson have been tricked out with novel, entertaining decorations for as long as I can remember. Today I belatedly interrupted the trek to shoot a few photos.
Like you, I have questions galore for the folks living at 687 Jefferson. I hoped they’d notice me feverishly photographing and come out to talk, but alas, no luck there. Another time I’ll risk the wrath of the skeletons by knocking on the door.
Migrating from the West End through Downtown to the West Side, I stopped to consider the prodigious signage at Wabasha Street at Plato Boulevard.
I got on the Robert Piram Regional Trail (which runs along the north side of Plato Boulevard here) by taking a right and riding toward Harriet Island Park and the Piram’s west trailhead.
Heading back east, the scenery along the trail was a mix of interesting old repurposed brick warehouses, spiritless light industrial buildings and bland office structures.
The east-west section of the trail, between Dr. Justus Ohage Boulevard in Harriet Island Park and East Lafayette Frontage Road, is slightly longer than a mile. The trail ends its flirtation with Plato Boulevard at East Lafayette Frontage Road where it turns to the south.
The addition of the Piram Trail to this area is a vast improvement in several ways. Most importantly, safety is dramatically enhanced for bikers and walkers. The trail is a designated place for them to avoid the hectic northbound Highway 52 frontage road/freeway on-ramp where cars zip past at 40 or 50 miles per hour and sometimes faster. Travelers, especially commuters, between Downtown St. Paul and South St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights and other Dakota County communities, now enjoy a safe, smooth well-publicized route.
Still, this is not the most attractive part of St. Paul with the noise and bustle of the Lafayette Freeway (Highway 52) and frontage road just to the west, and more tedious industrial warehouses and lightly used parking lots to the east.
Chester Street, an atrophying road that provides access to the Riverview Business Plaza and a couple warehouses, is basically a north-south street that connects the east Lafayette Frontage Road to Plato Boulevard.
Continuing south, the Lafayette Freeway Frontage Road and freeway on-ramp entrance is a third of a mile south, at Eaton Street. Here the Robert Piram Trail turns east and quickly enters St. Paul Downtown Airport (Holman Field) property. This is where the scenery morphs from dull to utterly engaging. Whether your preference is ponds, the Mississippi River, boardwalks, woods, heavy industry, flora, airplanes, trains, fauna, remnants of days gone by or a smorgasbord of those, you’ll find it along the enthralling last mile or so of the Robert Piram Regional Trail.
Right off the bat, there’s the unusual massive flood gates, which work in tandem with the levy behind Chester Street and other parts of the $50 million flood abatement system, to reduce the chance of a Mississippi River flood closing airport runways.
Several other airport structures, including the State Patrol flight office, came into view to the east, while, to the west, a pond teeming with insects and birds – ducks, green herons and red-winged blackbirds – flitting around.
I continued south, away from the airport, crossed the first of two boardwalks and paused. Glancing back from where I came, two hangars and an aircraft tail stood in plain (sorry) sight.
Moving ahead, I was pleasantly surprised by the almost instantaneous transformation in the terrain.
Onward to the south, the path continues its undulating route through the forest and across the second boardwalk.
On the far side of the boardwalk another transformation occurs as the forest gives way to a glade.
Beyond the marsh it becomes forest again, but with a difference. Several unusual concrete structures five feet wide and three or so feet tall rise as if growing from the forest floor. I jumped off the bike to scrutinize them with the hope of uncovering their one-time purpose.
Two larger vertical structures are in the same vicinity but off to the south, or right. The concrete tower (immediately below) is on the edge of the woods. The fancier brick assemblage is about 20 feet south, on the edge of a marshy area.
Riding on, it’s a replay of the frequently changing scenery. The trail dips into the forest for a short run before it emerges along Barge Channel Road, a throughway busy with scrap metal recyclers, a Mississippi River barge loading dock, a chemical distributor and the intensely unpopular police department impound lot, the destination for many a towed vehicle.
By this point I should have expected to wander back into the woods, which is exactly what happened.
At this point I could see a clearing ahead. It happened to be a bridge over several busy Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The St. Paul-South St. Paul border passes through this immediate area.
The Robert Piram Trail comes to an end about a quarter mile farther south, where it meets Kaposia Landing in South St. Paul. I expeditiously talked myself out of continuing to Kaposia Landing and instead turned back north on the trail, retracing my route. One thing became clear – why there’s so much interest in the trail.
The exploration of the Robert Piram Regional Trail, especially the southern mile or so, fascinated me on many levels. So many refreshing changes in surroundings, sounds, even smells, elicited more questions than I had prior to the ride. Among them: Who is Robert Piram? What were the low-slung concrete structures? What is the rusting vehicle and why was it left to languish? How was this unusual route selected? Who is behind this exceptional trail?
It took another month, a respectable amount of research and another ride here, but I got the scoop. And I’ll share it in a future post.
All photos are by the author.