Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary: A Natural Gem in the Heart of Saint Paul

A boy holds a flat of native grasses on a shoreline of a pond.

2008 Lower Phalen Creek Project

by Sarah Clark

Take a ten-minute walk east from Saint Paul, Minnesota’s bustling downtown and you will find an unexpected oasis of nature. With towering bluffs, spring-fed wetlands and restored prairies, the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary offers an escape from the concrete and glass of the city. It’s also a place that tells the story of a changing Minnesota.

Once a verdant marsh where Phalen Creek and Trout Brook met and joined the Mississippi River, the sanctuary land has been a sacred place for indigenous people, the site of Minnesota’s early rail and brewing operations and an abandoned eyesore littered with garbage. Now a city park created through years of effort by community members and a host of partners, the sanctuary is coming full circle back to nature.

Local teenagers, many of them from Hmong immigrant families, are helping restore the land’s prairie and oak woodland habitat. Downtown office workers flock to the park during their lunch hour and it’s common to catch site of a bald eagle soaring overhead or a great blue heron taking flight from one of the sanctuary wetlands.

The transformation of this land in the Mississippi River corridor has captured national attention as a model for communities working together to reclaim and restore nature in the city. The project won the 2005 “Take Pride in America” award for public/private partnerships. Landscape Architecture magazine and a new textbook on “brownfields” reclamation hold it up as a case study for other cities. Most recently, the sanctuary was one of three Saint Paul projects winning the HGTV “Change the World Start at Home” contest.

At the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, the stories of Minnesota’s past, present and future are on display.

The Carving of a River Corridor
The rugged limestone and sandstone bluffs on the sanctuary date back more than 450 million years. This stone was revealed some 12,000 years ago when the glaciers that long covered Minnesota retreated and the River Warren carved out the Minnesota and Mississippi River valleys. Early American Indians followed the return of plants and animals to this area, and likely came here to hunt the wooly mammoth, giant beaver and other game that lived here in ancient times.

People living near the sanctuary twelve thousand years ago would have looked out over one of the largest waterfalls in North America with approximately five times the flow of today’s Niagra Falls. As the rush of water washed away the sandstone and undermined the limestone along the river, it receded and carved the distinctive gorge that stretches to downtown Minneapolis.

The first remnants of human activity here date back some two thousand years, when American Indians built mounds on the river bluffs, employing burial practices typical of the Hopewell Culture that once influenced much of the eastern United States. Several of the ancient mounds remain on the river bluffs above the sanctuary in Indian Mounds Park.

Dakota Life along Wakpa Tanka
Dakota people lived along the Mississippi River — known as Wakpa Tanka — for hundreds of years. They called the land that is now the sanctuary Imiza-Ska, the place with the white cliffs. Located midway between three Dakota tribes, the sanctuary land was a common meeting place for trade.

A sacred and mysterious cave, Wakan Tipi (spirit house) also drew people to the land.

Snakes and other images were carved into the cave wall and ceiling and pure water flowed from deep within. It is said that several young Dakota paddled deep into the cave, and witnessed strange sounds and flickering lights. This experience likely dissuaded others from going into the cave and gave it the name Wakan Tipi, but on occasion some others have entered and today some Dakota still consider this a very sacred place.

The seasonal village of Kaposia existed in two locations downstream, near Pigs Eye Lake. Mdewakanton Dakota resided in Kaposia mainly during the warmer months of the year, when they fished from the river, foraged for plants and hunted for rabbit, fowl, deer and buffalo from the surrounding area. After the first hard frost the band would separate and spend the winter in sheltered creek valleys.

Though French traders had come to the area decades before, the British arriving after 1763 brought more intensive contact with the European world. In 1766 the English colonist Jonathan Carver visited Wakan Tipi and etched the British coat-of-arms into the cave wall. The cave soon became known as Carver’s Cave.

As American expansion grew during the 1830s the most dramatic and damaging changes to Dakota life took place. In 1837 the Dakota ceded their lands east of the Mississippi River — a total of 35 million acres. Fourteen years later the Mdewakanton Dakota ceded their lands west of the Mississippi for reservations up the Minnesota River.

The Birth of Saint Paul Brings Changes to the Land
After the Dakota were forced to leave, European immigrants took over the land and began building the industries linked to their own culture.

In 1855, the North Star Brewery began production on the site and a cave in the bluff was expanded for storing beer. In 1884, Jacob Schmidt began what would become an extensive brewing empire when he bought half the company. By 1893 owned all of it.

Railroads began filling in the mouth of Phalen Creek in 1868 and soon the once marshy area became solid earth. The outer atrium of Wakan Tipi, which was thought to house the petroglyphs, was removed to make way for expanding rail operations.

Twenty years later, Irish immigrants settled in Connemara Patch, a small shantytown adjacent to the railroad tracks near the Third Street Bridge. Like Swede Hollow Park, northwest of the sanctuary area, Connemara Patch became home for waves of immigrants from many countries.

By the 1920s Rail operations in the area reached their peak. The land was covered with multiple sets of trains and rail-related buildings that included machine shops, repair shops, and oil and gas storage areas.

As rail use decreased in the 1970s, the land was largely abandoned by the railroad and most buildings and tracks were removed over the next decade. American Indian organizations protested when the City opened Wakan Tipi, and a steel gate was placed over the cave mouth. Soil tumbling down the bluff soon obscured the cave entrance. The neglected land became covered in trash and used as an illegal dumping ground for old appliances and construction debris.

Despite its neglected state, however, neighbors saw its potential.

The Reclamation Begins
Saint Paul’s East Side neighborhoods had a long-held goal of connecting their communities to the Mississippi River. Though very nearby, a tangle of railroads, highways and transportation rights-of-way had made it impossible to bike or walk from these core city neighborhoods to the Mississippi — or downtown. Friends of Swede Hollow and other East Side community members saw the abandoned sanctuary land as a great opportunity to restore nature and achieve this sought-after connection. When they joined with the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation to form the non-profit Lower Phalen Creek Project in 1997, their efforts began in earnest.

Community leaders spent thousands of hours of volunteer time advocating, planning and raising funds to secure and clean up the land. With help from the Trust for Public Land, National Park Service and others, the land was purchased and conveyed to the City of Saint Paul in 2002. The park was named after the late Congressman Bruce Vento who lived in this area and was an early supporter of the park effort.

Still littered with trash and contaminated by more than a century of industrial activity, the land was not yet a ready for public use. In 2003, hundreds of volunteers pitched in to remove more than 50 tons of trash from the land. Project partners achieved funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to remove contaminated soil and make sure the site was safe for families and children. The site was graded and planting work began in 2004.

In 2005 The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary opened to the public.

Preserving Nature and History
As the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary was being restored, project partners worked to protect its cultural resources, including remnants of its industrial history. Across the sanctuary, you can find signs of the rail and brewing operations that once existed here. Five linear railroad pads, once used for train maintenance, are now unique features of the park. You can see the cave that once stored beer, and look for the outline of the old North Star Brewery Foundation, which was identified through remote sensing and outlined in gravel by volunteers during “Change The World” week.

The mouth of Wakan Tipi remains covered by a steel gate, but you can view the cave mouth across a wetland that was created to capture the spring water that still flows from deep within the cave.

Nearly a mile of walking and biking paths take visitors through areas of increasingly vibrant habitat. Volunteers and interns from the Community Design Center of Minnesota’s East Side Youth Conservation Corps, many children of Hmong immigrant families, have planted nearly 2,000 trees on the land since the park’s opening. Wetlands are being carefully restored and the sanctuary’s prairies are now filled with colorful flowers.

While it has come a long way, the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary is still a work in progress. A vacant brick building at the entrance to the park on East Fourth Street and Commercial Street — one of the remaining signs of blight in the area — was purchased in July 2008 for future use as an interpretive center. Creating the center will require more acquisition and extensive soil clean-up, planning and fundraising. A direct pedestrian/bicycle trail connection to the Mississippi River is also on the ‘to do” list for the park. With $1.2 million in federal money secured for the project, initial engineering and full cost analysis has begun.

The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary is a place where Saint Paul’s past, present and future combine. As you stand next to the wetland at Wakan Tipi and face the bluff, you can take a look back in time to the powerful geologic forces that carved this valley. If you turn around, you can see the downtown Saint Paul skyline. Looking beyond, at the Mississippi River corridor, you can take in the view of the majestic river that explains why this area has been important to people and cultures for thousands of years.

Visiting the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary
The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary is located near the intersection of East Fourth Street and Commercial Street, just east of Saint Paul's Lowertown/ neighborhood at the foot of Dayton's Bluff. The Kellogg Bridge runs along the northwest boundary of the sanctuary, which lies below it.

From the Lowertown district of downtown Saint Paul, begin at the corner of East Fifth Street and Broadway (across the street from the northeast edge of the Saint Paul Farmers' Market.) Head east on Fifth Street then turn right on John Street and left on East Fourth Street to the sanctuary. You can drive this route — or bike or walk along the beautiful new Bruce Vento Regional Trail extension, an off road trail along Fourth Street.

If you are coming from the west, take the Mounds Boulevard exit off of Interstate 94, turn right, crossing Kellogg/East Third Street. Stay right, and take a sharp right turn on Commercial Street then go down the hill to the first intersection (Fourth Street).

From the east, take the Mounds Boulevard exit off I-94 and turn left before making a quick right turn on Commercial Street and following the directions above.

An off-road bicycle/pedestrian trail along Commercial Street provides great bicycle access from the trail network along Mounds Bluff.


Media Contacts and Resources

John Anfinson, Chief of Resource Management, (651) 293-8432.
A boy and a woman walks through a grassy area. A rocky bluff rises in the background.

Please credit: 2008 Lower Phalen Creek Project

Enjoying a Walk
Nature is enjoyed by those of all ages. Hiking and walking in natural environments stimulates curiousity and is healthy exercise. Having green space nearby is important for quality of life.

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