Field Notes: Urban Sanctuary
Just yards from downtown St. Paul's roaring traffic and rumbling freight trains, spring-fed streams run along limestone rocks and native grasses peek through soil. A forgotten corner of the city, somehow untouched by 150 years of development? Not quite. For years this 27-acre parcel at the foot of Dayton's Bluff had been a dump, strewn with discarded couches, household appliances, and construction debris. Scrub brush, buckthorn, and Siberian elm grew in the soil, contaminated with petroleum and compacted from years as a railroad yard.
Two years ago, after years of community activism, that began to change. Bulldozers and backhoes, along with hundreds of volunteers, began transforming the terrain into a nature reserve. They removed 50 tons of garbage, 100 tons of old railroad ties, and 7,500 tons of petroleum-soaked soil. Moreover, workers moved 20,000 tons of soil around on the site and hauled in another 25,000 tons to cover contaminated areas.
The resulting Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary now provides a continuous natural area along the river from Indian Mounds Regional Park to Swede Hollow Park. Named for the late East Side congressman who helped secure early funding for the land acquisition, the project owes much of its success to neighbors who realized back in 1997 that the site could be something more than a dump.
Construction of a new 11/2-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail, scheduled to begin later this year, will link the existing Bruce Vento Regional Trail (currently terminating at Payne Avenue and East Seventh Street) to the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, Indian Mounds Regional Park, and the Lowertown neighborhood in downtown St. Paul.
"Support for this project has been great. It's come from local residents, private companies, city of St. Paul, Minnesota DNR, and federal agencies," says Dennis Thompson, a member of the Lower Phalen Creek Project steering committee. The project is an umbrella organization for 25 public and private partners involved in the park's creation.
The project received $810,000 through the DNR Metro Greenways program to purchase a conservation easement for much of the area. It also received DNR grants to restore native plants. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service granted a combined $1.6 million for environmental cleanup and land acquisition.
In all, $5.7 million of the park's $6.2-million cost has been raised from government and private sources. The Lower Phalen Creek Project is working with the city and other partners to raise the remaining $600,000 for more ecological restoration, a park entrance, and interpretive signs.
The sanctuary abounds with natural, historical, and cultural significance. One of its most important cultural features is Carver's Cave, named after British explorer Jonathan Carver, who wrote about meeting several American Indian tribes there in 1766. The cave has been sealed since 1977.
The North Star Brewery used another cave on the site for storage. The brewery, built in the 1850s near Dayton's Bluff by Jacob Schmidt, moved after a fire destroyed the building around 1900.
"Reclaiming this site is a great accomplishment for neighbors, government, and corporations," says project manager Sarah Clark. "It's a crown jewel for the Lower Phalen Creek Project." The sanctuary will hold a grand opening ceremony May 21.
For more information, go to phalencreekor call 651-771-1152, ext. 132.