“The brook was thrown / Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone.”—Robert Frost, A Brook in the City
The name “Cascade Street” first appears on a St. Paul real estate plat dated 1854. Two years later, the eponymous “Cascade Creek” itself appears on a neighboring plat. The name Cascade was intriguing to me, suggesting the presence of a defunct waterfall somewhere.
As I delved into the subject, with the assistance of Charlie Evans of St. Paul Public Works, I found that the story of the stream could be divided into five periods based on the attitudes towards it over the years. Variations of this 5-act play apply to many other urban streams until, as one day could happen, they are deliberately daylighted by city engineers and the cycle begins anew.
1. Tourist Landmark (1850s)
I was delighted to find references to the cascade (waterfall) in early Midwestern travel literature. E.S. Seymour, after visiting nearby Fountain Cave, reported in his 1850 book, Sketches of Minnesota, that “A short distance below the cave there’s a little creek or rivulet, that leaps over a succession of cascades, making, in all a fall of about eighty feet.” William Gates Le Duc, in his Minnesota Year Book for 1852, informed travelers that “Between St. Paul and Fort Snelling may be seen a beautiful cascade, that tumbles through a rocky defile, one mile above the town.” The most elaborate description was by Elizabeth Ellet, who wrote in her 1853 book, Summer Rambles in the West:
“A miniature waterfall flashes through the depths of a narrow dell, making thirteen successive shoots in a winding course, each falling into a lovely basin several feet in depth, which serves for a bathing place, curtained by a drapery of woods. This little cascade is closely embowered in foliage of vivid green, and its picturesque beauty makes up for the want of grandeur. It is a lovely spot to spend a summer morning or afternoon.”
But it’s not until the end of the decade, in the August, 1860, issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine that the “CASCADE NEAR ST. PAUL” is depicted in all its glory by Manton Marble in an article about the Red River oxcart trail. Unfortunately, the Harper engraving does not convey any reliable geological details. However, a stereoscopic view of “Fountain Cascade” from about 1875 by W. H. Illingworth, in which an outcrop of Platteville limestone can be seen, allows us to say that the waterfall ledge was formed by this hard rock layer, which caps the soft, underlying St. Peter sandstone in the Mississippi River gorge. Fountain Cascade was likely named from its proximity to Fountain Cave (Fig. 1).
The full length of Cascade Creek is depicted on historical maps such as Bennett’s map of 1867 and the map accompanying Winchell’s 1877 report on the Geology of Ramsey County (Fig. 2). The stream is depicted flowing north from a wetland near what is now Cretin-Derham Hall, then eastwards through a ravine in the northeast quarter of Section 10, now occupied by a portion of Ayd Mill Road. The stream continued eastwards along the line of what is today Jefferson Avenue, crossing Fort Street, with the namesake cascade located at the boundary between the blue (limestone) and yellow (sandstone) colors on the map, flowing across the river bottoms to enter the Mississippi near the foot of Western Avenue.
One caveat when dealing with these stream depictions, however, is to realize that the Fort Road wetlands probably manifested an anastomosing network of stream drainage. So individual named streams cannot always be traced with absolute certainty. Cascade Creek, for example, sometimes got confused with Fountain Creek—a nearby stream that fed water into the historic Fountain Cave—and perhaps their waters really did blend together at various times and places.
We were able to follow the obscure thread of Cascade Creek in other old records. An 1878 real estate plat, Stinson & Ramsey’s Subdivision (Fig. 3a) depicts the creek flowing around the Melchior Funk Brewery at Cascade and Colborne streets, heading towards a “HOLLOW” on the 1891 Rascher Insurance Atlas (Fig. 3b). But by 1923, the Milwaukee Road had spanned the ravine with a wooden trestle and it became a neighborhood dump, obliterating any remaining scenic values. The waterfall’s literary appeal had lasted about a decade.
In 1860, German immigrant John Ayd (1799-1867) built the first and only gristmill in Reserve Township along Cascade Creek, roughly at its midpoint, where the stream left the Decorah Shale Highlands and descended to the Mississippi River terrace. Stream flow was greatly augmented at this point by the Decorah Edge springs. This line of springs—poetically termed the “Diamond Necklace” –wraps around the city at the 890-foot elevation, following the edge of the greenish Decorah Shale bedrock (Fig. 4). The stream was dammed to form a millpond about one acre in size, equivalent to three Olympic-sized swimming pools. This roughly triangular lakelet was about 400 feet on its two longer sides and 200 feet wide along the dam side. While no depth is available, the millpond was reportedly used as a swimming hole by the local boys. From the millpond, which was perched between two elevations, water ran through a flume to the mill itself, located some distance downhill. The Ayd farm was far enough from city bustle at this time to convey the feeling of “a rural island.”
The 100-acre Ayd farm was subdivided in 1863 (Fig. 5) and the Ayd Mill, upon being sold to Charles Kramerath in 1866, became the Reserve Flouring Mills, named after the township. Kramerath overhauled the mill, and because the abundant springs supplied cold water, was able to stock the millpond with “300 salmon trout,” creating a “pleasure resort” for St. Paul fishermen.
But the miller’s hard work went for naught because the water, it seems, was too abundant. “The marshy, springy character of the soil made it always difficult for heavily laden teams to reach the door of the mill, and this difficulty was a main reason for abandoning the enterprise,” according to the St. Anthony Hill Graphic, July 12, 1889.
The Milwaukee Road’s “Shortline,” connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul, slashed through the Cascade Creek ravine, becoming fully operational by 1880. Meanwhile, the Cretin-Derham wetlands, and the properties along Cascade Creek, were rapidly developed in the late nineteenth century. Cascade Creek began disappearing from most maps after about 1880.
Knowing that John Ayd dammed a portion of Cascade Creek to create his millpond, you would assume that once the upstream supply disappeared (because of development) the millpond would vanish, too. Even after Cascade Creek had disappeared from ordinary maps, however, we noticed that the millpond continued to be shown on engineering plats as late as 1912. Spring flow itself was apparently great enough to maintain the one-acre millpond, without continuous surface water input, for the next 32 years.
3. The Ridgewood Park Interlude (1880s, 1890s)
The “eruption of springs” (as it was called) at the old Ayd Mill property began to attract wider attention. The City concluded that it would make a nice public park, to be named after the Ridgewood Park Addition to St. Paul. In “A Pretty Park Site,” the Pioneer Press, July 25, 1889, reported that the proposed park “contains 94.14 acres and includes a portion of the bluff and the old well known Ayd place with the old picturesque stone mill…and the Ayd mansion.” The location was convenient, “600 feet west of the Ridgewood Park station on the Milwaukee short line.” “The Ridgewood Park site,” it continued, “possesses the advantage over most of the park sites in the city of having within itself a good supply of pure water from copious springs…. In the western portion of the site is a small lake fed by springs, and the eastern portion of the tract is full of springs, the surplus water of which may easily be drained into a sewer” (Fig. 6).
In this brief newspaper clipping we see in a nutshell the City’s historically ambiguous relationship towards water. On the one hand, the “copious springs” are a valuable asset to the proposed park, yet on the other, something that might need to be “drained into a sewer.”
Many years later an elusive Mr. Kern recalled in “When St. Paul Was Young,” one of those charming little history columns in the St. Paul Shopper, October 29, 1942, that when he was young, in 1885, “The boys used the millpond as a swimming hole and being fed by springs was ice cold.” (So much for today’s demand for heated swimming pools!)
With these strengths, St. Paul began acquiring land for the park, despite a few controversial aspects. While the old stone mill was “to be converted into a ruined castle,” others mocked this medieval notion, which had originated with an Englishman. The derelict mill was demolished about 1890, however, so the issue had to rest on other features, such as the scenic view and the “mineral springs.” But the depression of 1893 undercut potential funding for park development. “The Jefferson-Lexington-Pleasant estates might have become another mineral water oasis,” it was later said. Ridgewood Park might be considered in some vague sense a precursor of the Ayd Mill “linear park” idea of later times.
4. Nuisance (1900s, 1910s)
As the neighborhood became more developed, paved over, and settled, efforts were made to tap off the waters into catch basins. As early as 1889 a sandrock tunnel was dug through the St. Peter Sandstone bedrock under Jefferson Avenue, from West 7th to Victoria, where some catch basins were added just a block east of the intersection at Victoria to drain the land around Ayd’s Mill. Ten years later, a drainage ditch on Pleasant Avenue received overflow from the millpond. This did not completely solve the problem, however, as the very existence of the millpond on the 1912 drainage plan indicates (Fig. 7). The plat shows an “open ditch being constructed” along the line of Jefferson Avenue, which at that time did not reach as far west as the millpond. The ditch connected directly with the sandrock tunnels, and only after 1912 does the millpond fade from city history. By the time of a 1923 aerial photo, not only is the millpond gone, but there appears to be a structure built where it had once been.
5. Out of Sight Out of Mind (1920s-Present)
The final act in the Cascade drama takes us farther afield. Norman Kittson (1814-1888) was a famous fur trader in the early history of Minnesota. He built a huge mansion on the site where the St. Paul Cathedral now stands. Retiring from business, he built horse stables in the Midway area of St. Paul, and in Erdenheim, Pennsylvania. The St. Paul stables were known as Kittsondale.
Midway, as a place name, made its appearance at least as early as 1885, when “Midway Heights” was platted—midway between Minneapolis and St. Paul, of course. The same symmetry came into play when the sewer drainage of the area was laid out. Although there had been small diameter sewers in that neighborhood for years it was not until the late 1920s that the large-bore “Kittsondale tunnels” as they are called in Public Works documents, were built. Basically, two mirror-image tunnels, draining sewage in opposite directions, were driven through the St. Peter Sandstone. Kittsondale East drained sewage from Midway toward the east, with an outfall on the Mississippi near Bay Street, while Kittsondale West drained to the west, with an outfall near the Marshall Avenue Bridge. Kittsondale East was much larger than the narrow Jefferson sandrock described above, and lined with concrete.
The Kittsondale tunnels are distinguished from all other tunnels under the Twin Cities by their curious architecture. They contain subterranean stairways along their course, descending more than a hundred feet into the Earth and described as a “stairway to the abyss” in a 1998 historical study. Strangely enough, these stairways were not intended for human beings. What, then, was their purpose?
Stairways, or “flight sewers,” as engineers call them, are occasionally used where a sharp drop is necessary. Ordinary shafts can also serve this function but are plagued with problems of waterfall erosion at the bottom. The Kittsondale stairways served to convey large volumes of water from the Decorah Shale Highlands of St. Paul down to the level of the Mississippi. Later, an “impact dissipater”—looking sort of like a hunk of steel Swiss Cheese, complete with holes—would be built at the bottom of a shaft, if such a situation arose. But in recent years there has been a trend towards using a simple steel plate laid flat on the bottom of the shaft to absorb the falling water’s impact.
While flight sewers are not uncommon, even in the Twin Cities, what makes the Kittsondales so special is that they contain spiral stairways. Starting about 1930, rain falling in what had been the Cascade Creek watershed was drained to the East Kittsondale tunnel. A spiral stairway—a man-made cascade of sorts—had thus replaced the old, natural waterfall at the river bluffs. This “new” Cascade Creek joins the Mississippi three-quarters of a mile upstream from where it originally did, based on the old maps.
Blueprints of the Ayd Mill spiral suggest a subterranean Tower of Pisa (Fig. 8). The spiral has vertical dimensions of more than a hundred feet and is 20 feet in diameter. The stairway was “cast in monolith” (as a single mass of concrete) in 1929. Together with the outfall tunnel to the river it cost more than half a million dollars. The spiral consists of seven whorls of stairs wrapping around a hollow core, reminiscent of Mrs. Ellet’s “successive shoots in a winding course.” The spiral is now almost a century old—time enough for the growth of mineral deposits mimicking those found in natural limestone caves. The stairs, accordingly, are coated with a thick, orange flowstone, lime minerals having been dissolved from the upstream concrete and redeposited here. Unfortunately, these photogenic spirals have become a deadly attraction for urban explorers in our own day.
While the construction of Interstate 35E through the former Ayd farm drastically changed the local landscape, most notably with the demolition of the old mill house (987 Jefferson Avenue) in 1966, the altered hydrological regime had already been established a generation earlier.
Springs are found widely through St. Paul and it was always known that springs fed the Cascade system. The problem is to explain the apparent excess spring flow. Detailed mapping by the Minnesota Geological Survey, published as Geologic Atlas of Ramsey County in 1992, finally gave some insight as to why the Ayd farm had been so special in the first place. While springs are present for miles along the Decorah Edge (as explained above) the reason they are so abundant in this particular location is that it’s an alluvial fan—the only one in Ramsey County—saturated with groundwater, and situated at a triple junction of glacial meltways (Fig. 9).
But how much “apparent excess” water? While a catch basin at Chatsworth and Pleasant is shown taking overflow from the spring-fed pond in the 1912 drainage plan, no overall flow rate for the mill is given. However, a 1912 stormwater sewer contract for Jefferson Avenue depicts a proposed “OPEN DITCH” to take surface storm flow on the property (Fig. 10). Assuming this Jefferson flume was running at a depth of 2 feet (as depicted) with a velocity of 2 feet per second (typical for sewers) we can calculate the flow:
Q = cross-sectional area X flow velocity,
12 sq ft X 2 ft/sec = 24 cubic feet per second = 10,772 gallons per minute (GPM)
Compared with individual springs along the “Diamond Necklace,” which have an average flow rate of less than one GPM, this is an enormous figure. It does not directly represent spring flow, however, merely stormwater that would likely otherwise have recharged the sediments composing the alluvial fan, and thus indirectly contributed to spring flow. Usually only a fraction of rainfall translates into groundwater recharge. But it gives you a feeling for the amount of water passing through the system. While this flume no longer exists, a tile drainage system alongside Ayd Mill Road collects water nowadays, delivering it to the Kittsondale tunnel. Nonetheless, several springs were visible in front yards along Jefferson Avenue during our site inspection on July 5, 2022.
Given that it was a long-held, widely-accepted notion in folk hydrology, that most spring water originated from below, rather than from percolating rainwater as now universally recognized, it was a satisfying resolution to the hydrological enigma of Cascade Creek, which somehow seemed to gain water out of nowhere. The stream augmented itself by flowing across the alluvial fan, which was fed by a convergence of glacial drainageways.
From 1854, when the name “Cascade Street” first appeared on a real estate plat, until 1940, when it was renamed, becoming the eastern end of Palace Avenue, the erasure of the creek was complete, taking less than a century. But the water is still there, far below your feet.
Brick, G.A. (1997) Along the Great Wall: Mapping the Springs of the Twin Cities. Minnesota Ground Water Association Newsletter 16(1): 1-7
Brick, G.A. (1998) Stairway to the Abyss: The Diverting Story of Cascade Creek. Ramsey County History 33(1): 4-8, 27
Brick, G.A. (2009) Subterranean Twin Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Empson, D.L. (1974) John Ayd’s Grist Mill—And Reserve Township History. Ramsey County History 11(2):3-7
Empson, D.L. (2006) The Street Where You Live: A Guide to the Place Names of St. Paul. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Patterson, C.J. (1992) Surficial Geology. Geologic Atlas of Ramsey County, Minnesota. County Atlas Series, Atlas C-7, Plate 3. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Geological Survey