For over a hundred years, the MSP area has largely turned its back on the Minnesota river bottoms. Once the center of trade and culture for both the Dakota and early white settlers, they remain largely undeveloped and secluded. As a result, many of the sites that played a role in our state’s early history have been forgotten, destroyed by industry, or reclaimed by nature and frequent floods. One of these places is Quarry Island, which lies in the middle of Gun Club Lake in Mendota Heights, just north of the 494 bridge and beneath the roar of MSP Airport runways.
Gun Club Lake is cut in half by the 494 river bridge and separated by a narrow isthmus of land from the Minnesota River. Andy Sturdevant wrote an excellent overview of the lake and its odd name, inspiring my own explorations.
Getting there: Quarry Island is part of Fort Snelling State Park but access is difficult because Union Pacific restricts crossing of its tracks. (It’s mostly under water as of this writing, so wait until the river recedes.) On foot or by bike, cross the pedestrian bridge at Highway 13 and 494 over the tracks, then find a dirt path that doubles back around the fence. This will lead you to a dirt road. Follow that road and take the right fork to a causeway leading to the island.
Quarry Island is a narrow strip of rocky land about 850 feet long and a hundred feet wide. Its name dates back to 1968 when state geologist Rudolph Hogberg discovered that the island’s unique iron fortified sandstone had been quarried in the 1830s to build part of the Faribault House in nearby Mendota, where the young Henry Sibley had taken over the increasingly exploitative fur trade with the Dakota on behalf of the American Fur Company. Iron deposits make the island’s reddish brown sandstone harder and more durable than the crumbly St. Peter sandstone found almost everywhere else in the Twin Cities.
In the 1830s, timber was in short supply but limestone was literally falling off the bluffs all around Mendota. So, like Fort Snelling across the river, most of early Mendota was built with stacked limestone rocks. But for some reason Sibley’s laborers (likely local Dakota) hauled sandstone blocks nearly two miles downriver to build the front of the Faribault House.
In a 1968 article in the Minneapolis Tribune, the author speculates that the change in material may have been due to “contractor” trouble, but it seems more likely that the stone was purposefully chosen because it was easier to shape than limestone and created a more orderly facade to greet visitors arriving from the river landing. In fact, the Faribault house blocks still clearly show tool marks after almost 200 years.
The Tribune article also describes evidence of a causeway built with the same stone from the east side of the island to the shore, which suggests the stone was quarried for more than just two walls of one house.
Indeed, when I posted about the island on a local geology Facebook page, a local amateur historian sent me a lengthy message in ALL CAPS describing how he had found Quarry Island sandstone in the ruins of several farmhouses along Highway 13 and that it had been used in the foundation of the 1880 Fort Road bridge between Saint Paul and Fort Snelling. He also alluded to a secret state archaeological survey of the island from 1982 and evidence of a pre-contact village on the shore of Gun Club Lake. When I followed up with him, he didn’t respond, so it’s impossible to evaluate his claims.
However, I did take a look at the remains of the Fort Road bridge abutment at Fort Snelling and its stones do appear similar to the stone at the Faribault house. A colorized historic photograph (above) also seems to show piers made from the same reddish brown stone, but that may have been just the imagination of the artist.
So possibly quarrying at Quarry Island might have continued through much of the nineteenth century and may have substantially reduced the elevation of the island. How much stone was removed and what would the island have looked like originally? We may never know. In any case, by 1968 the island and its history had been completely forgotten.
The really remarkable thing about the 1968 Tribune article is how much the island has changed since then. The first change was the construction of a new causeway to the island by the Metropolitan Airports Commission to create an emergency boat launch onto Gun Club Lake, which is directly beneath two of the airport’s runways. The causeway was built some time between 1968 and 1972 and is maintained to this day. This also involved clearing out a wide swath of trees right through the middle of the island.
The second big change is the return of beavers to the river bottoms and a very recent increase in the lake’s water levels as a result. In 1968, the Tribune describes a murky slog through marshland to find the island. The article’s accompanying map depicts the northern half of Gun Club Lake as entirely marsh. Today, the island is entirely surrounded by open water.
Browsing old aerial photos and satellite images, it appears that lake levels rose dramatically in about 2018. Directly across the lake, beavers have built multiple dams across the outlet to the Minnesota River. They also have several lodges on the lake, including a brand new one on the island itself.
The modern presence of beavers in the Twin Cities is remarkable considering they were hunted to near extinction in Minnesota through centuries of fur trade. It seems likely there are more beavers living here now than at any time since the 18th century. A DNR agent I met this spring on the island explained that the DNR leaves the beavers alone as much as possible but they do remove their dams if they threaten state trails along the river.
Beavers however are no match for spring flooding. Around May 17th, the Minnesota river crested the network of dams and flooded all of Gun Club Lake. Half of Quarry Island and all of its causeway are now underwater. In flood years, it’s truly amazing how quickly river levels can change.
The DNR has also been working on eradicating envasive species on the island like garlic mustard and buckthorn, which was extremely thick throughout the island until it was cleared last year.
Wildlife is in abundance around Quarry Island and the area is well known among local birders. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the island with my parents, both ardent birders. We saw a great blue heron, a bald eagle, a turkey vulture, nesting geese, ducks, yellow rump warblers, a ruby-crowned kinglet, a cowbird, a palm warbler, a showy egret, a widgeon, coots, blue winged teals, and a huge flock of tree swallows with a few barn swallows mixed in.
It’s not surprising that the island and lake attract a wide array of wildlife. Despite the proximity of 494 and airplanes flying low overhead, the area is remarkably wild with few human visitors. The wetlands between Highway 13 and the lake are special too, a kind of peat bog known as the Quarry Island Fen. Here’s a technical definition of a fen:
“The Minnesota River corridor, just upstream of the confluence with the Mississippi River, is a unique habitat consisting of calcareous fens, intersected with small trout streams. Flora and fauna of the fens and streams rely on groundwater input to maintain water levels and provide cool water. The abundance of dissolved minerals, particularly calcium carbonate, causes the water to be more alkaline (higher pH), a typical signature of streams and wetlands with a significant groundwater influence. This calcium-rich environment supports highly diverse and unique rare plant species.”
–From a 2019 Lower Minnesota Watershed District report
The trout stream in this case is a short stream emerging from a culvert about a quarter mile uphill from the lake. After crossing the Union Pacific tracks, it cuts through the peat of the fen, leaving great chunks scattered in the stream bed. Fens are extremely fragile and take hundreds of years to develop. Many have been lost to farming. The Quarry Island fen has been damaged by development and the construction of 494 but it remains an interesting and unique landscape.
Exploring Quarry Island over the past few years has created a great many more questions than answers regarding both its past and present. Despite frequent floods, much of Minnesota’s history took place in these low river bottoms. For hundreds of years, the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers were the main trade routes for our entire region. Now we cruise past on bridges built high above the tree tops. Quarry Island gives us a chance to view our region from a fresh perspective and reconnect with our human and natural history.
All photos by the author except as noted.