For decades, Hidden Falls has been a nearly inaccessible trickle dripping out of a culvert behind the Ford Plant in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. Bounded by a tight curve in the Mississippi River Boulevard (MRB), the falls offered visitors two options: a steep climb down crumbling limestone stairs or a rocky hike up from the Hidden Falls Park picnic pavilion.
This month, with the opening of a new tunnel and walkway under MRB, a new viewing platform and the partial daylighting of Hidden Falls Creek, the falls are ready to be discovered by many more visitors.
Originally, Hidden Falls Creek was fed by a natural spring located near Cleveland Avenue and Ford Parkway. The creek above the falls was buried into a culvert sometime in the past century during the development of Highland Park. Now, the falls are connected to a whole new source of water via the Highland Bridge development’s massive stormwater management system, creating a consistent flow of water over the falls.
Hidden Falls’ new stream and its headwaters pond, referred to as the “central water feature”, is now fed by filtered stormwater from the entire Highland Bridge site. The Capitol Region Watershed District describes it this way:
“Hidden underground, a series of five large concrete chambers will store stormwater runoff. The water will then pass through filters before feeding the central water feature. The storage capacity will provide consistent water flow in the central water feature and reduce erosion downstream.”Capitol Region Watershed District
Views of the Highland Bridge central water feature, which opened to the public in early August 2022.
In short, a greater and more consistent volume of much cleaner water will now be flowing over the falls. The Capitol Region Watershed District’s website offers a fascinating gallery of the construction work and design renderings of the project.
The original Hidden Falls Creek itself, however, has only been daylighted about 40 yards upstream and still flows out of a culvert just above the tunnel under MRB. The rest of the new creek bed was excavated for the central water feature.
The stages of construction help explain how all everything came together:
The indomitable geologist Dr. Greg Brick, who first recommended daylighting Hidden Falls Creek back in 2008, points out that the newly created creek bed, freshly cut through the limestone bedrock, has exposed numerous fossils. By design, the new creek invites this type of exploration. As part of the new Uŋčí Makhá Park, visitors are invited via a stairway to explore the new creek bed.
But fossils aren’t the only hidden history to ponder here. Although the Highland Bridge development is brand new, the land near the falls was once the site of the earliest European settlement in Saint Paul. Known as Rumtown or Sintomonee, it was the highest navigable steamboat landing on the Mississippi and located just across the river from Fort Snelling yet ostensibly outside its jurisdiction. In 1839, however, fort officials claimed jurisdiction over Rumtown and burnt down its homes. The settlers relocated further downriver and founded the City of St. Paul.
But, writes Donald Empson in The Street Where You Live, if the settlement had been successful, “St. Paul could be called Sintomonee, the downtown would be in what is now Highland Park.” And, because Hidden Falls is so much closer to Saint Anthony Falls, the Twin Cities might have become “Only one city instead of two.”
For more insight into the geology of Hidden Falls, including fascinating details about the nearby discovery of a giant beaver skeleton (nominated to be Minnesota’s state fossil!), I recommend Dr. Brick’s 2021 video tour of the site. I also highly recommend a visit to Hidden Falls and Uŋčí Makhá Parks, the newest and oldest parts of our city.
All photos by the author
Nice article Dan!
Thanks for sharing the pics and the write-up, Dan. You encouraged us to go check out the new parks at Highland Bridge, and we really enjoyed it!