Parking Lots and a Rail Yard Then, Parks Now

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the author’s blog, Saint Paul by Bike: Every Block of Every Street.

July 29, 2023

Macalester-Groveland, Lexington-Hamline, North End, Payne-Phalen

22.7 miles

The stumps of ash trees litter boulevards throughout every St. Paul neighborhood as the emerald ash borer claimed thousands of trees. On one block of Macalester Street, the stumps were transformed into platforms for flower art with words of inspiration.

Ash stumps along the 300 block of Macalester were enhanced with hand-painted flowers and uplifting comments.
A close-up of one of the decorative flowers placed on the stump of an ash tree on Macalester Street.

Lexington-Hamline

The northwest entrance to Midway Peace Park off Griggs Street and St. Anthony Avenue.

A long-desired park is open in the Lexington-Hamline neighborhood thanks to a true grassroots effort. The endeavor to create the much-needed 3-acre Midway Peace Park began about 10 years before its November 2020 opening.

Midway Peace Park playground.
A sculpture next to the Midway Peace Park playground. Gordon Parks High School is in the background on the left.

In either 2009 or 2011 (depending upon the source cited) students at Gordon Parks High School approached the nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL) about the lack of recreational spaces in the neighborhood. Students presented the idea of converting some underused, fenced-in lots just south of the school from an eyesore into a public green space. These lots were relics of University Avenue’s days as a hub of automobile dealers and related businesses. Residents of the nearby Skyline Tower, area District Council members and other neighbors joined the Gordon Parks students to advocate for the new park.

According to Trust for Public Land, more than 3,500 people live within a half mile of Midway Peace Park, including about 1,000 at Skyline Tower, an affordable housing community just west across Griggs Avenue.

One of two playgrounds at Midway Peace Park.
One of the playgrounds at Midway Peace Park. Skyline Tower, home to about 1,000 people, is in the background.
The upper and lower playgrounds are connected by a slide.

By 2015, TPL was leading meetings with Midway residents, other supporters and the City of Saint Paul to make suggestions for features in the proposed park. Those conversations resulted in plans for a park with two playgrounds, a large grass athletic field, walking paths, benches, a basketball court and more.

Plenty of open land at the park for visitors to use in a less formal way.
Plenty of open land at the park for visitors to use in a less formal way.

At about the same time, TPL was negotiating with the three different owners of the nearly vacant lots and raising funds to buy them. A year later, TPL had purchased the five acres and handed it over to the city.

The StarTribune newspaper touted the official opening of Midway Peace Park on June 15, 2021.
The StarTribune newspaper touted the formal opening of Midway Peace Park on June 15, 2021. Construction of the park began in August 2019 and was ready for use in fall 2020. Newspapers.com
A 2009 aerial view of the part of Lexington-Hamline neighborhood. Gordon Parks High School is at the top and 1, 2, 3 are the three empty lots purchased for Midway Peace Park.A 2022 aerial view of the part of Lexington-Hamline neighborhood. Gordon Parks High School is at the top and Midway Peace Park is surrounded by the blue line.
Left: A 2009 aerial view of part of the Lexington-Hamline neighborhood. Gordon Parks High School is at the top, and 1, 2 and 3 are three empty lots purchased for Midway Peace Park. Right: In 2022, Midway Peace Park, surrounded by the blue line, is complete. Gordon Parks High School is at the top. Ramsey County GIS

Of course, the land now home to Midway Peace Park has a protracted and meandering history. It goes back to long before the Native Dakota people hunted and lived in the area. I hope to cover at least part of that history in a future post.

The City of Saint Paul was founded in 1851. At that time, land in and around what is Midway Peace Park was far from the burgeoning frontier city, about two miles outside city limits. The few roads that came out that far were likely one-time or still-used wagon trails.

St. Paul was contained and had very little in the way of buildings when it was incorporated in 1851. Courtesy New York Public Library

Just a few years later, however, prosperous people from St. Paul and beyond were gobbling up much of this land and platting it, even though it remained outside of St. Paul proper.

A half-mile horse race track was built about four blocks south of the future Midway Peace Park in the 1860s. Midway Park, as it was called, held more than the popular harness races, playing host to six Minnesota State Fairs, beginning in 1871. The rivalry between St. Paul and Minneapolis was contentious and public even then, as evidenced by a note in the History of the Minnesota State Agricultural Society: From Its Organization in 1854 to the Annual Meeting of 1910.

The Minnesota Agricultural Society report for 1854 to 1910 played up the rivalry between Saint Paul and Minneapolis.
The Minnesota Agricultural Society report for 1854 to 1910 played up the rivalry between St. Paul and Minneapolis. Google Books

In 1881 Norman W. Kittson — former fur trader, steamboat and railroad line owner, territorial legislator and St. Paul mayor — was one of those who bought acres of land between Lexington Parkway and Snelling Avenue and between University and St. Anthony avenues.

Norman W. Kittson, circa 1880. Minnesota Historical Society
Norman W. Kittson, circa 1880. Minnesota Historical Society

The land included the horse racing track, which Kittson expanded. He also dramatically improved other facilities, adding an elaborate stable with stalls for 64 horses and quarters for trainers, at a cost of $60,000 (nearly $2 million in 2024 dollars). Kittsondale was reputed to be among the best horse racing facilities in the country.

Norman W. Kittson purchased much of the land south of University Avenue and north of St. Anthony Avenue, between Lexington Parkway and Snelling Avenue. His horse racing track, called Midway Park, but commonly known as Kittsondale, was included on the 1886 plat map. University of Minnesota Borchert Map Library
The Kittsondale Track and State Fair grounds circa 1871. Minnesota Historical Society
The Kittsondale Track and State Fair grounds circa 1871. Minnesota Historical Society
An advertisement in the May 18, 1885 St. Paul Daily Globe for Midway Park Stallions and three of Norman Kittson's horses. Minnesota Historical Society
An advertisement in the May 18, 1885 St. Paul Daily Globe for Midway Park Stallions and three of Norman Kittson’s best horses. Minnesota Historical Society
Jockeys often wore colors that represented the owners of the horse they rode. Those whom Kittson employed dressed in green and blue vertical stripes, according to the 1884 American Racing Colors catalog.
Jockeys often wore colors that represented the owners of the horse they rode. Those whom Kittson employed dressed in green and blue vertical stripes, according to the 1884 American Racing Colors catalog. Library of Congress

Kittson’s death in 1888 led to the slow decline of Kittsondale. His will called for splitting his properties equally among his 11 children. Horse races and other events, including cricket, baseball and shooting contests, continued until about 1910. But gradually, the land was broken into smaller parcels and sold.

The May 20, 1881 edition of the Saint Paul Daily Globe printed details of Kittson's will. Minnesota Historical Society
The May 20, 1881 edition of the St. Paul Daily Globe printed details of Kittson’s will. Each of his 11 children received an equal sized piece of property. Minnesota Historical Society
The Kittsondale Stables from the St. Paul Globe newspaper, August 18, 1895. Newspapers.com
The Kittsondale Stables from the St. Paul Globe newspaper, August 18, 1895. Newspapers.com

Remnants of Kittsondale remained for decades. The last of the once-grand buildings was demolished in 1942, making way for a new car lot.

The former Kittsondale stables survived until 1942
The former Kittsondale stables survived until 1942, although they had ceased to serve their original purpose decades earlier. The April 27, 1942 Minneapolis Tribune reported on the demolition and replacement by a car lot. Newspapers.com

With the opening of Midway Peace Park, part of the Kittsondale is again a place for recreation and leisure. Instead of a playground for the wealthy, as it was before the turn of the last century, all are welcome to enjoy the offerings of the park.

Rice Street Area of the North End

People are creative with how and where they store belongings. An example is the canoe stashed atop a garage at 1061 Rice Street at Cook.

The canoe is out of the way, and probably fairly safe from theft.
The canoe is out of the way, and probably fairly safe from theft on top of the building on Cook Avenue and Rice Street.

Construction of the new North End Community Center was in progress along Rice Street, between Lawson and Cook avenues. The North End lags behind other neighborhoods in recreational facilities, so the new center will provide residents with significantly more and better opportunities. Fitness and dance spaces, a gymnasium, community meeting rooms and a community kitchen are among the features of the new 25,000-square-foot community center.

An elevator shaft or stairwell rises along Rice Street. Wellstone Elementary is in the background.
Construction of the North End Community Center and field improvements were moving along.
An artificial turf field, playground, sepak takra and badminton courts, picnic areas, and open fields will be built on open parkland west of the new building.

The design and construction materials are energy-efficient and include geothermal heating and cooling, underground stormwater management and a solar photovoltaic system.

The completion of the community center will improve the look and density of the immediate area of Rice Street. Perhaps it will attract new businesses to two former bank properties at 1020 and 1030 Rice that now sit vacant.

1020 Rice Street is one of two former banks at the corner of Rice and Lawson.
1020 Rice Street is one of two former banks at the corner of Rice and Lawson.
1030 Rice Street also sat empty.
1030 Rice Street also sat empty.

Trout Brook Nature Sanctuary

The Rose Avenue entrance to the Trout Brook Nature Sanctuary

Trout Brook Sanctuary is a park on the very eastern side of the North End, sandwiched between two sets of railroad tracks on the east and Agate Street on the west. This was my second time here. Similar to the Midway area I visited earlier on this ride, Dakota people for decades gathered food and other resources in this valley and used Trout Brook for north-south travel. The infamous 1837 treaty between the Dakota and U.S. government forced them off Trout Brook, and in fact, all their land east of the Mississippi. That treaty opened up the land to settlers and later, the railroads.

Edmund Rice circa 1880. Public domain
Edmund Rice circa 1880. Public domain

Among the earliest European-Americans to move to Trout Brook was Edmund Rice. In 1849 Rice purchased 45 acres of rolling, tree-lined hills and later built a mansion on a hill there. He and his wife Anna, raised 11 children at their Trout Brook estate.

The Edmund and Anna Rice house at Trout Brook circa 1860. Minnesota Historical Society
The Edmund and Anna Rice house at Trout Brook circa 1860. Minnesota Historical Society

Others besides Rice saw the appeal of Trout Brook. Two of them — Mr. Nobles in 1851 and William Lindeke not long after — built grain mills, which used the brook for power. In 1852 and 1853, a door and blind factory and a foundry and machine shop, respectively, were the next to spring up, according to Henry A. Castle in History of St. Paul and Vicinity Volume One.

The Rice mansion stood until 1887, when Rice sold it to the Northern Pacific Railroad, which had it demolished, according to historian Greg Brick’s Historic Waters of the Capitol Region Watershed District, Ramsey County, Minnesota.

Railroads were the next industry to remake Trout Brook beginning in the 1860s, and they did it in a way that rendered the area unrecognizable. The Trout Brook valley, with its gradual slope, was the best route to run railroad tracks from Downtown St. Paul to northern and western destinations.

1882 edition of Donnelley's Atlas of Saint Paul makes clear that railroads have taken over the Trout Brook valley.
The 1892 edition of Donnelley’s Atlas of St. Paul leaves no doubt that railroads have taken over the Trout Brook valley. Several tracks run through the valley, and a Northern Pacific roundhouse and freight yards sit on large pieces of land. Trout Brook itself is no longer shown, having been diverted underground. The southern part of the valley is platted as “Edmund Rice’s Trout Brook Addition.” U of M Borchert Map Library

As much as 10 feet of fill was piled into the valley and graded to create more space and a lesser grade for rails. Trout Brook itself was an impediment so it was diverted underground into the sewer system.

Hundreds of trains, pulled by cacophonous and dirty steam engines, rumbled through Trout Brook valley day and night. People living in the area let it be known they did not appreciate the tumult. The St. Paul Daily Globe responded sharply in its December 10, 1879 edition:

“One of the most agreeable things the Globe has had to record for some time is this row about the whistles and bells and constantly moving trains. It shows an immense business in progress, and we trust the noise and multitude of trains will increase.”

The piece continued, “St. Paul is bound to be a city and noise is one of the incidents thereto.”

Trout Brook railroad yards were still extremely busy in 1945.
The Trout Brook railroad yards were still extremely busy in 1945. Hundreds of rail cars waited for cargo. U of M Borchert Map Library

The dominance of railroads faded gradually beginning after the end of World War II. With Amtrak taking over passenger train service from about 20 railroads in 1971, railroads began abandoning miles of underused track. The Soo Line’s tracks along the western side of Trout Brook Valley were vacated in the late ‘70s.

Along the western part of the park relics of long-abandoned Soo Line railroad remain.
Along the western part of the park rusting rails are relics of the long-abandoned Soo Line Railroad lines.
Two damaged glass insulators and a broken cable cling to a forsaken electric pole
Two damaged glass insulators and a broken cable cling to a forsaken utility pole, perhaps a metaphor for passenger trains that used to run nearby.

The newly vacated space in the valley drew interest from other noisy and polluting businesses. Proposals for a school bus garage, a storage site for surplus sand, gravel and construction equipment, and a burn facility for disposal of contaminated soil were all rejected by neighbors who met with, lobbied, cajoled and persuaded local officials to convert the land into a nature preserve. The city finally agreed, and purchased the 42-acre Trout Brook land in 2001. All told, neighbors committed more than 20 years of effort to the sanctuary. The opening ceremony for the Trout Brook Nature Sanctuary was held on May 30, 2015.

Gravel and asphalt paths zigzag through fields, prairie and bushes
Gravel and asphalt paths zigzag through fields, prairie and bushes, which are home to various insects and birds.
Decorative bridges over Trout Brook provide a touch of artistry.
Decorative bridges over Trout Brook provide a touch of artistry. The brook was brought back to the surface — after more than 100 years — when the nature sanctuary was built.
A retention pond at the north end of the sanctuary.
A retention pond at the north end of the sanctuary. The calls of Red Wing Blackbirds were plentiful here.
A homeless camp tucked under trees on the northeast edge of the sanctuary.
A homeless camp tucked under trees on the northeast edge of the sanctuary, an increasingly common sight at metro-area parks.
BNSF and CP Rail trains pass by frequently along the east side of the sanctuary.
Even with the majority of railroad tracks gone, BNSF and CP Rail trains pass by frequently along the east side of the sanctuary.
An imaginative bench for children of all ages.
An imaginative bench for children of all ages.

The foresight and effort of the zealous neighbors who fought for the creation of Trout Brook Nature Sanctuary will always be a model to those who want to fight developers or city hall.

On to Payne-Phalen

Interstate 35E, north of I-94, is the border of the North End and Payne-Phalen. I crossed from the North End along Arlington Avenue. I paused for a look at the rolling green hills of Arlington Arkwright Park’s athletic fields, which stand at the intersection of those two streets.

The 20-acre Arlington Arkwright Park has a baseball field, soccer pitch, tennis, basketball and pickleball courts.
The 20-acre Arlington Arkwright Park has a baseball field, soccer pitch, tennis, basketball and pickleball courts.
The Arlington Arkwright baseball field.
The Arlington Arkwright baseball field.
Desoto Street runs along the eastern side of Arlington Arkwright Park.
Desoto Street runs along the eastern side of Arlington Arkwright Park. These split-level homes on Burr Street were all built in 1957.

Jessie Street

As is often the case, I did not plan my route before jumping on my bike. I turned south onto Jessie Street only because Ivy Street East ended there. It was opportune that I unwittingly ventured onto Jessie Street, which, as it turns out, was named after Edmund Rice’s second daughter. That’s something I learned only as I researched and wrote this post. (Thanks to the 2006 book The Street Where You Live by Don Empson.)

Two of the homes on the 1200 block of Jessie Street.
Two of the homes on the 1200 block of Jessie Street.

Jessie Street is a north-south residential thoroughfare that traverses much of the Payne-Phalen neighborhood. A healthy canopy of trees line the boulevards on both sides of the 1200 and 1100 blocks. The nicely maintained homes are older — most completed between 1885 and 1925 — and larger than I expected. Still, the stylish, grand red brick Queen Anne house on the northwest corner of Jessie and Jessamine avenues was unexpected and quickly brought me to a stop to gawk.

The magnificent home at the northwest corner of Jessamine Avenue East and Jessie Street. was built in 1889. This is the east side of the home which faces Jessie Street.

So many details fought for my attention: the two towers reaching above the main roofline, the sprawling porch and medley of brick, stone and wood on the exterior.

It happened that Jennifer, one of the residents of 543 Jessamine Avenue East, stepped outside and we began talking. Jennifer, her parents, Barbara and Steven, her four children and “many” cats live there.

Jennifer stands in front of the red brick Queen Anne-style home her parents own
Jennifer stands in front of the red brick Queen Anne-style home her parents own at 543 Jessamine Ave. E.

As Jennifer explained, Steven, an artist, had a strong interest in studying under a well-known Minneapolis artist, so he moved the family from Marshall, Minnesota to St. Paul. “He actually wanted to study with a particular artist, Richard Lack, and he wanted to get training in the French Academy style of drawing, which is charcoal drawing. Very detailed,” she said.

For years, her dad painted and occasionally created charcoal drawings.

Steven and Barbara rented a house near Cook Avenue and Earl Street in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood upon moving to St. Paul. In 1986, their landlord decided to sell the house, which forced them to begin the quest for a home of their own. They found the 1888 Queen Anne beauty at 543 Jessamine Ave. and have lived there since.

Jennifer recalled moving day 1986 very clearly. Her high school friend Amy was over helping. “We were sitting at the second landing, we were giggling about something. Who knows? We were 16. And out of the corner of my eye, there was movement and I was like, ‘What on earth?’ A bat was flying above our head. So we come out, it must’ve looked so funny, but we came screaming out of the house.”

Jennifer said she’s had “about 15” similar experiences with bats. Another memorable encounter occurred when a cousin was visiting. “The room that’s right up there,” she said pointing toward a second-story window, “has a really tall ceiling and then there’s a skylight. That was my room.

“And I woke up from sleep. Sure enough, there was a bat flying above me, and I come screaming out the door. The bat was following behind me and my cousin couldn’t stop laughing. I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish there was video of this,’ because I mean, even to me, that must have been so funny.”

The regular visits from bats forced Steven into action. “My dad had to find all of these nooks and crannies where bats were coming in. So, that still makes me laugh.”

The porch wraps around part of the front and more than half of the east side.
The porch is a dream come true for people who like the outdoors. It wraps around part of the front and more than half of the east side.

Much of the knowledge that Jennifer and her folks have about the history of the house came from a previous resident, who stopped by. “My dad found out a lot of information from the woman who had grown up at this house.”

Jennifer was told by other sources their house was haunted. “My friends who lived in the neighborhood before I moved in had insisted there was a ghost in the house.”

That belief may have come about as a result of a tragic accident that claimed the life of a boy in the basement coal chute. “My understanding from, again, the woman who had come to visit and talk to my dad, that there had been a whole system of pulleys to move the coal along. And apparently one of the sons had climbed up and gotten entangled in that.”

Like most old homes, 543 Jessamine needed renovations. “So when my parents bought it, they did a lot. They fixed this [the front porch] so that it was an open porch again.” The home had been split into a duplex in the 1970s so Steven and Barbara returned it to a single-family home.

The six-sided turret on the east side of the house.
The six-sided turret on the east side of the house.
This tower in the front of the house reaches to the third floor.
This tower in the front of the house reaches to the third floor. Note the intricate details, including the variety of smooth, curved and rough bricks.

Another trait the home shares with so many other older structures is a lack of insulation, aside from newspaper. “It makes it a very drafty house,” she said. “It’s pretty cold.” With one exception: “The third floor gets very hot because of all the drafts down below. It makes all the heat rise so it’s very hot in the winter on the third floor.”

Outdoors, Barbara and Steven added gardens and other landscaping, which won awards.

The front, or Jessamine Avenue side of 543 Jessamine
The Jessamine Avenue side of the house that Jennifer, her children and her parents share. Jennifer’s parents put in all the boulders along the sidewalk as part of landscaping they did years ago.
A hitching post from the days of horses remains in front of the house in the boulevard along Jessamine Avenue.
A hitching post from the days of horses remains in front of the house in the boulevard along Jessamine Avenue.
All the sculptures on the lawn and in the gardens at 543 Jessamine where made by Steven.
All the sculptures on the lawn and in the gardens at 543 Jessamine were crafted by Steven.

The yard is filled with dozens of rangy, intriguingly abstract metal sculptures. Jennifer told me they were works her dad created over the years. “He wanted to branch out into sculpture. So he taught himself how to weld, and he has a large collection of scrap metal. Matter of fact, all the guys around who collect scrap metal, they know my dad.”

The iron art adds interest to nearly all of the yard.
The iron art adds interest to nearly all of the yard.

Some of the sculptures spin, twist, bend or otherwise move in the wind. Others were designed to be stationary.

Steven's iron, welding materials and tools are kept in the area behind the fence.
Steven’s iron, welding materials and tools are kept in the area behind the fence.

Jennifer turned wistful as she talked about her parents and the future. “When their time comes and they’re no longer with me, that’s going to be really interesting.” She continued, “I’d like to stay in this house. It needs a lot of work. But I’d be sad if I had to leave it. It’s beautiful. I’d like to be able to fix up all the things that need to be fixed, for sure.”

An Art House

Still in Payne-Phalen but south and a bit east, I bumped into an offbeat tapestry featuring a dog next to a model of a church. The 6-by-8-foot photographic fabric seemingly replaced the sign in front of the building at Case Avenue and Edgerton Street.

Belladona is a work by Adam Beris.
The Artboard as it’s called, features a rotating display that changes every two months. Belladona is a work by Adam Beris.

The structure at 580 Case Ave. E. has been Case | Edgerton Studios since 2022. The Studio website indicates the former Arlington Hills Presbyterian Church building is being remodeled into a space that will include classrooms, studios and other spaces for artists.

580 Case was an Apostolic Church between its time as Arlington Hills Presbyterian Church and Case | Edgerton Studios. Google Maps
Arlington Hills Presbyterian Church was built in 1900.
There was little else in the neighborhood when Arlington Hills Presbyterian Church was built in 1900. Ramsey County Historical Society

As an old-home lover, Jennifer’s stories brought vitality to 543 Jessamine. My fluke visits to the relatively new Midway Peace Park and Trout Brook Nature Sanctuary — both of which were created from years of determined efforts by neighborhood residents — prove that grassroots organizing sometimes can beat the odds. 

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 SaintPaulByBike.com.