The Largest, Hardest-to-Find Park in St. Paul

July 6, 2022

Highland Park, West End/West 7th, Downtown, Lowertown, Battle Creek

24.3 miles

Below, the map of the July 6, 2022 ride.

St. Paul is a river town. No surprise there. What may be is that our city has more shoreline and publicly owned land along the Mississippi than any other city along the 2,300-mile run of the river. Native peoples, and later, Europeans used the Mississippi in many ways — for exploration, as a path to move people, crops and later, commodities, and even as a sewer and industrial waste dump. Industrialization, however, strangled the ability to use (and the interest in using) the river as a recreational resource.

Scrap yard 1969
In 1969 a scrap yard full of steel drums occupied several acres of land along the Mississippi River and Shepard Road. Courtesy MnHS

Access to the Mississippi in St. Paul, especially since the 1990s, has gradually improved with the relocation of industry and roads. Still, much of the river remains frustratingly difficult, even impossible, to get to, so advocates keep pushing for significantly more and better connections. Three extensive and intriguing projects that would do just that are in various stages of planning right now.

One of them is why my ultimate destination this overcast day was Pig’s Eye Regional Park, the city’s largest and, paradoxically, least known and most difficult to get to park. Mary deLaittre, executive director of the Great River Passage Conservancy agreed to meet there to talk about plans for this unique, beautiful, muddled place.

Lower Landing Park

On the way to Pig’s Eye Park, I rode east on the Samuel Morgan Trail, which follows Shepard and then Warner Roads. I paused to investigate some recent improvements at Lower Landing Park, east of Downtown, on Warner Road. The enhancements were completed in advance of the Viking River Cruise visit to St. Paul.

Lower Landing sign
Among the additions to Lower Landing Park is the attractive new sign.
Lower Landing Park sitting area
A fresh and larger sitting area is another update at Lower Landing Park.

Another improvement to Lower Landing Park is the installation of 18 imaginative tile mosaics, a refreshing way to give visitors a look at some of the birds that live around the Mississippi in St. Paul. Minneapolis artist Kellie G. Hoyt created the bird mosaics.

The Industrial Zone and Pigs Eye Lake Road

Childs Road exit
This is where Childs Road exits off eastbound Warner Road. The protected bike and hiking trail is to the far right.

Continuing east, I exited Warner Road at Childs Road, meaning the end of the safety of the protected bike path. I expended little rubber on Childs Road, turning onto the aptly named Pigs Eye Lake Road in less than a quarter mile. A quirk worth noting here is that “Pig’s Eye Park” has an apostrophe but Pigs Eye Road does not, according to the official map of St. Paul.

the Cemstone concrete plant
Cement trucks paraded in and out of the Cemstone concrete plant as I rode past.

The barrage of signs at the intersection offered an omen of the multiple obstacles about to come my way. This is the entrance to an extremely active, highly industrial area, so it was me versus many large, heavy, fast-moving vehicles and other road hazards.

Barge terminal 1
The trip to Pig’s Eye Regional Park requires one to wind their way through part of the Saint Paul Port Authority’s Barge Terminal 1. It’s a challenging, maybe even harrowing, ride because of the trucks and the poor condition of the pavement.
Signs on Pig's Eye Road naming various industrial facilities
Two railroads and the city’s wood recycling center were but a whisper of hazards I had to dodge over the mile ride to Pig’s Eye Regional Park.
RR tracks along Pig's Eye road
At least half a dozen railroad tracks border each side of Pigs Eye Road — CP Rail (Canadian Pacific) to the east and Union Pacific to the west.
The Canadian Pacific locomotive maintenance building and roundhouse.
The Canadian Pacific locomotive maintenance building and roundhouse.
Truck at Shop Road and Pig's Eye Road
An empty, fast-moving forestry truck passes Shop Road (left), a private road into CP’s St. Paul Yard. The truck just dumped a load of tree limbs at the wood recycling facility.

Moving south past Shop Road and the CP Rail facilities, one encounters a gravel road to Pigs Eye Wood Recycling and Environmental Wood Supply: a dusty, raucous enterprise that grinds waste trees and clean pallets into wood chips used to fuel the heating and cooling plant for Downtown St. Paul buildings.

Truck enters the wood chipping facility
A truck kicks up dust as it brings a load of tree limbs to the wood-chipping facility.
Pigs Eye Wood Recycling and Environmental Wood Supply chipper
The Pigs Eye Wood Recycling and Environmental Wood Supply chipper chews up tree limbs, turning them into wood chips for fuel.

Several hundred feet further is a second entrance to the wood facility that doubles as the road to Pig’s Eye Regional Park. The unnamed “road” is marked with a lackluster, homemade-looking sign. But hey, at least it’s now marked, unlike when I first came here.

Pig's Eye Park entrance road
Even with the sign, it’s hard to believe this gravel road is the entrance to Pig’s Eye Park.
The sign for Pig’s Eye Park is an unintentional comment on the prominence of the park.
Potholes on the path
Potholes of many sizes, shapes and depths, dirt, gravel, even metal barrels of who-knows-what along the path to Pig’s Eye.

While closing in on the park, another fifth of a mile and a hindrance or two remained. The biggest is the pothole and gravel-laden dirt swath that inadequately serves as the road. It’s also the dumping ground for debris from Saint Paul Regional Water Services construction projects, and lies along the north side of the path.

SP Regional Water Services dump
Saint Paul Regional Water Services dumps debris—blacktop, concrete, soil, gravel, even cast iron—from water main repairs.

Pig’s Eye Regional Park

At last, Pig’s Eye Park! The landmark bridge just ahead spans Battle Creek.

Bridge over Battle Creek
Although not marked, I believe the Pig’s Eye Park property line is about where I shot this picture. The bridge spans Battle Creek.

I dismounted from my bike just as Mary deLaittre and Laura Bray, the Great River Conservancy’s other employee, parked and exited the car. The Conservancy leads advocacy and private fundraising for three large capital projects along the 17 miles of the Mississippi River within St. Paul. One is the East Side River District, of which Pig’s Eye Regional Park is a part.

“How do you bring one of the three great rivers of the world and the local community together? How do you bring the river from the edge back to the center of public life?”

Mary deLaittre, executive director Great River Passage Conservancy

Mary deLaittre and Laura Bray
Mary deLaittre, right, executive director, and Laura Bray, left, administrative and donor associate, of the Great River Passage Conservancy. Battle Creek meanders in the background.

I was most interested in the East Side River District, specifically Pig’s Eye Park, because of its relative anonymity, unconventional location and metamorphosis from Native land (the Dakota village of Kaposia) to a dump to a Superfund site, and finally, to an undeveloped park.

Kaposia by Seth Eastman. Canoes dock at a village, located on a river flat beneath the tree-covered bluffs above.
Kaposia, Little Crow’s village on the Mississippi River, as painted by Seth Eastman circa 1846-48. Courtesy MnHS

Pig’s Eye is an important and very complicated site and story, explained Mary. “You’ve got two barge terminals, water treatment facility, wood chipping facility, one of the largest rail switching yards in the region, a regional park, DNR headquarters, two Superfund sites. And then depending on who you talk to 40 to 60 percent of all migrating birds coming up from the river, come through here.” And that’s a small part of the convoluted history of this spot.

A major dilemma affecting wholesale development of the 1,200-acre Pig’s Eye Park is pollution — a large part of the park is a Superfund site. From at least 1956 (possibly decades earlier) to 1972, about 230 acres were used as a legal but unpermitted dump.

Pig's Eye landfill 1969
A variety of waste dumped in the Pig’s Eye landfill is visible in this image from 1969. Downtown is in the background. The photo was taken by a member of the environmental advocacy group Minnesota Environmental Control Citizens Association (MECCA.) This picture and many others were used to lobby to close the Pig’s Eye dump. Courtesy MECCA, MnHS

Several major corporations, a couple dozen governmental entities (including the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis) and area residents tossed refuse and hazardous and construction waste here. Mercury, PCBs, PFAS, cyanide, lead and cadmium are some of the worst pollutants that were dumped and buried in the landfill.

Pig's eye dump 2
Dozens of birds feed among the industrial, municipal and residential detritus dumped in and around Pig’s Eye Lake from about 1956 to 1972. Courtesy MECCA, MnHS

The environmental abuse continued from 1977 to 1985. The Metropolitan Council Environmental Services (MCES), operators of the nearby Pig’s Eye wastewater treatment plant, dumped ash from sewage sludge on about 31 acres of the land. Two to three feet of soil was placed over the dump but contaminants continue to leach into soil and groundwater, and construction waste and other garbage still work their way to the surface.

Landfill covered
Another photo from MECCA. Soil covers garbage and hazardous materials buried in the Pig’s Eye landfill circa 1969. Courtesy MECCA and MnHS

“It (Pig’s Eye Regional Park) is open to the public, but people are sort of discouraged from coming here because it’s very unsafe getting here. It’s very difficult. It’s an active industrial area.”

Mary deLaittre

All told, an estimated 8 million cubic yards of materials were buried, which created what remains the largest unpermitted dump in Minnesota.

Monitoring of the landfill began in 1992 and very limited cleanup started in 1999. At the direction of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), crews removed several hundred 55-gallon drums of toxic chemicals from 1999 through 2003. Other abatement efforts in the early 2000s included stabilizing contaminated soil, waste removal and covering 80 acres of polluted land with two feet of clean soil. Nevertheless, estimates are that millions, even billions of dollars more will need to be spent to completely clean up the pollution, if it is even possible.

The good news is that lawmakers in 2022 allocated funds for a task force that will determine how to clean up the landfill. The MPCA job posting for the Task Force Coordinator closed on November 14, 2022.

As to the best way to return the former landfill to its natural state, Mary told me, “We don’t know what shape or form cleanup will ever take.” One idea she mentioned is building a permeable wall that “would be like six layers deep of different materials. So when the water from flooding goes up and then the water from the [Battle] Creek and flooding goes down, it’s moving through this massive filter.

“You can’t pierce the clay and go down, so every anything you build has to float almost like when you’re building on permafrost,” added Mary.

Another critical part of the story of this land is that Pig’s Eye Park — Čhokáŋ Taŋka (the “big middle”) in the language of the Dakota — as well as thousands of acres beyond in all directions was Dakota homeland. With that in mind, Mary contacted the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) in 2016, after taking the job at the Conservancy. According to its website, the MIAC “protects the sovereignty of the 11 Minnesota tribes and ensures the well being of all American Indian citizens” in the state.

“It was very clear,” Mary stated, “that we had to work with the Dakota and local Indigenous communities to make sure their voice was heard, to integrate their ideas into the design processes, and also figure out ways, both from an economic perspective and a programmatic perspective to have them included.”

Mary added, “We’re really trying to turn the process of engagement and voice and ownership on its head and hopefully understand what the communities want to see happening here. Or, they may not want to see anything happening here. And then what does that mean in terms of community access to this location?”

The Conservancy held meetings — called “convenings” — with Native and non-Native groups and organizations. The goal of the convenings, said Mary was “so everybody could introduce themselves to one another and figure out who to work with. That is where we understood where all these gaps were around engagement.” Mary added the Conservancy has hired Full Circle Indigenous Planning + Design to increase Native community involvement in discussions “to preserve and honor indigenous culture and heritage” in the East Side River District project, including Pig’s Eye Regional Park.

Partnerships extend beyond Native groups. Convenings hosted by Great River Conservancy and the City of St. Paul included more than 20 organizations that are involved in river-related projects.

Of course, a part of Mary’s job is to give tours of the park. The most frequent reaction from visitors is surprise, she told me. “Most people that we bring down here, and we bring down people from all walks of life, never knew that this actually existed and they’re surprised at how beautiful it is.” She continued, “They’re also surprised that they’re literally surrounded on two sides by the east side of St. Paul and that the airport’s right there and that a lot of the infrastructure that supports them on a day-to-day basis or provides to the economy of St. Paul is just right here.”

After countless visits to Pig’s Eye Park, I wondered about her favorite spot. She replied that it’s the hillock just south of the bridge. “I love the prospect because you could see 360 degrees and really get an understanding of this place.”

The hilly area that Mary says is her favorite spot at Pig’s Eye Park. (This photo was taken by the author on a subsequent visit.)

There is no schedule for developing Pig’s Eye Park, Mary said. “We have $2.5 million of grant proposals out there right now for this project, $350, $400,000 for schematic design and then another almost $2 million for moving beyond schematic design into a project. But we’re totally funding dependent.” In other words, when the money is raised they’ll be able to move on the project. If you’d like to help fund Pig’s Eye Regional Park, the Great River Passage Conservancy will gladly accept a tax-deductible donation.

Upon completing our interview, Mary and Laura left and I began exploring the prairie portion of Pig’s Eye Park. What was merely background noise during our conversation became the unmistakable notes of the nearby industry. Rail cars banging as they coupled, diesel locomotives revving engines and blaring horns, the shrill blast of an air whistle from an adjacent factory and semi trucks passing by along Highway 61.

Still, the natural world of Pig’s Eye Park managed to break through and then push aside the industrial cacophony. The variety of bird calls was astounding — eagles, blue jays, chickadees, red wing blackbirds and more bantered. Bees, cicadas, crickets and katydids represented the insect contingent.

Below, a few of the sights I spotted on my hour-plus-long stroll through Pig’s Eye Park. (Click on any image to enlarge the gallery.)

With my jaunt through the beautiful and compelling Pig’s Eye Park complete, I continued the ride south on Pigs Eye Road to see where it would take me. Almost immediately the park transitions from meadow to forest, the stark difference because it wasn’t used as a dump.

Woods
This part of the park, as shot from Pig’s Eye Road, was not used as a dump, hence the woods.

Beyond the Park

To the west sits what is officially called the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant. It’s also known as the Pig’s Eye sewage treatment plant and occasionally, just Pig’s Eye.

One of the more than 15 buildings that make up the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Turns out the public section of Pigs Eye Road ends just under a half-mile south of the dirt road to Pig’s Eye Park.

Pig’s Eye Road becomes a gravel road and continues south onto restricted Metropolitan Council property.

The locked gate didn’t stop my ride, it just altered its direction. Now westbound, I entered the grounds of the wastewater treatment plant.

Riding west, I entered Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant property. This is where I started to realize how massive the plant and property are.
Street signs within treatment plant grounds named 6th Street and 5th Avenue
The treatment plant has enough buildings and streets within the secure area to necessitate street names. As you can see, functionality outweighed the creativity of those names.
Sign reads "Seat Belts Fastened?"
I like this aging sign, which looks like a relic from the ‘70s.

The Metropolitan Council is the regional policy-making body, planning agency, and provider of certain essential services in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. The wastewater treatment plant is one of those services, as is the Metro Transit bus system, which probably explains why these buses — either newly delivered or decommissioned — are parked here.

parked Metro Transit buses
A couple dozen Metro Transit buses sat within a fenced parking lot on treatment plant property.

Based upon the reaction — really, lack of reaction — from wastewater treatment plant security (or anyone else), the unnamed streets around the plant on which I road must be public.

Road through treatment plant land
The road through treatment plant land wound between buildings secured by tall fences.
Building under construction at treatment plant
A building that appeared to be under construction. With the population of the Twin Cities area also growing, sewage treatment capacity has to grow as well.
Pipes! Lots of pipes.
Pipes. Lots of pipes.

The Return Trip

The Mississippi and Downtown
I made a last stop along Warner Road to take in Downtown. The teal bar is the freshly painted railing along the Mississippi River bike/walking path.

Be aware that getting to Pig’s Eye Regional Park is challenging via vehicle and dangerous on a bike. Furthermore, it has no amenities — no running water, bathrooms, benches, official trails, or trash cans. Still, Pig’s Eye Regional Park is an unpolished gem. Yes, it’s absolutely worth a visit. A stroll around the meadow is relaxing, even peaceful, if you let the sounds of nature overcome the industrial racket. The woods to the south offer the same peace in a distinctly different atmosphere. Pig’s Eye Park is also the rare spot in St. Paul where solitude is almost guaranteed.

Wolfie Browender

About Wolfie Browender

Wolfie Browender has lived in Saint Paul with his wife, Sue, since 1986. He is proud to live in Minnesota's Capitol City. Wolfie is a native of the Milwaukee, WI area. The father of two adult daughters, Wolfie bikes for fun and exercise. You can follow his travels throughout Saint Paul on his blog Saint Paul By Bike-Every Block of Every Street at https://saintpaulbybike.com.

10 thoughts on “The Largest, Hardest-to-Find Park in St. Paul

  1. ROGER GOERKE

    That is a very thorough route description of the Pig’s Eye Regional park and surrounding areas. I heartily agree with the decision to leave said park unimproved and give nature a chance to heal the land over time, provided that the toxic waste has been appropriately removed or neutralized.
    For grammatical purposes I believe that it should be spelled Pig’s Eye universally because the apostrophe indicates singular possessive form. Clearly only one pig owns the eye and I am sure that Pig’s Eye Pete would agree, if he was still alive.
    On an interesting side bar, Tacoma Washington has a state park located downstream from their water treatment facility and that is how they chose to deal with the public riverfront land surrounding such facilities. Needless to say, but that state park is less than ideal for human enjoyment of nature, as well could be said for Pig’s Eye Regional park.

    Reply
    1. ROGER GOERKE

      Correction to my own comment. The state park mentioned above is downstream from Spokane (on the Spokane river). My mistake.

      Reply
  2. David Czaia

    Love this article. I found this place on Google Maps when I was looking for new parks to visit but I was intimidated by how difficult it seemed to access. This is exactly what I needed.

    Reply
  3. John Wilson

    Wow! I just did a Google Street View of Warner Road! It is way nicer than when I walked from Newport to Saint Paul in the middle of the night once in 1989 or so. There was no park, and the sidewalk had deteriorated to rubble and had “Sidewalk Closed” signs on it. Very very nice now in comparison….

    Reply
  4. June N

    Great article. I live off of Shepard Road and has no idea about the park. really appreciated how you take the reader on a journey of discovery with great description and pictures. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Stefanie b

      Thanks for posting. I remember trying to get to Kaposia landing and getting frustrated by all the construction and undeveloped areas. Hope it gets improved soon

      Reply
  5. Melissa Wenzel

    I live in the Ward for this park, and the tension of how to fix it (and the rhetoric used) could be cut with a knife. The Army Corps of Engineers are working on building islands within the lake to support the wildlife, while there are long-term solutions being sought for the pollution. There are no easy answers. As far as this park being a formal park, I honestly don’t know what to think. Unless the entrance of the park can be moved to Red Rock Road, I don’t see how there can be any safe (and affordable) formal parkland entrances from Childs Road. Our ward has the most formal parkland of any ward in the city, and perhaps any part of Ramsey County too.

    Reply
  6. Melissa Wenzel

    Stefanie b: Kaposia Landing is super accessible now! Maybe not from Pig’s Eye Lake area, but the Robert Piram trail gets you there from other popular trails on the north or south (or west). Check out this new(ish) trail system! From the north, it goes by Holman Field, the Downtown Saint Paul airport.

    Reply
  7. LV

    There’s another point where you can walk down to Pig’s Eye Lake that birdwatchers know about. You do have to pass through an industrial area, though one that is not as busy or potentially hazardous; you actually have to briefly leave St Paul and Ramsey Co. to get there: the north end of Red Rock Rd. Not much to do but look out at the lake, the hills above, and the lagoon where another stream, Fish Creek, enters the lake, but the scenery is a pretty spectacular combination of nature and industry and it’s a great spot for migratory waterbirds and the like.

    Reply
  8. Kiki Sonnen

    Love the story and the photos and explanations! Pig’s Eye Park is beautiful. Pig’s Eye Park Friends have been hiking there once or twice a week for over a year now. There is always something to marvel at once you get into the park.

    Reply

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