Rondo, Downtown, West Side (West Side Flats)
July 19, 2014
Traces of history are all around us. Finding them can be a matter of unintentionally stumbling upon something or by consciously searching out plaques or markers. One can also be in the right place when a significant event occurs. The most deliberate and methodical approach is through researching a specific incident, place or time and visiting. Today’s ride featured examples of all these.
My first stop of the day, Central Avenue and Chatsworth Street, is the same intersection I visited on July 4th. Today, I came to experience a bit of the annual Rondo Days parade, which snakes its way east to the Rondo Education Center off Dale Street. Rondo Days celebrates the old Rondo neighborhood.
From Central and Chatsworth, I rode south, back over I-94 via the Chatsworth Avenue bike bridge and then west a couple of blocks to Oxford Community Center, officially at 270 North Lexington Parkway.
Oxford Community Center consists of Great River Water Park and Jimmy Lee Recreation Center, which is more than a building. Great River Water Park was known as Oxford Community Pool until a 2009 remodeling and expansion. Back then, the neighboring rec center and adjacent softball fields were named Jimmy Lee Rec Center and Fields, respectively.
Jimmy Lee moved to Saint Paul in the early 1920s and before long, became a part of the Rondo neighborhood. He worked at the Hallie Q. Brown Center and was an avid baseball player. Lee got a chance to umpire softball games for the City of Saint Paul and later, added officiating at basketball and baseball games. Lee was the first African American to ump a Big Ten baseball game and eventually was inducted into the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame. (1)
In 2013 the softball fields were converted to a wonderful modern football/soccer/softball complex with accouterments such as artificial turf, a scoreboard and bleachers. Stacy Robinson was honored posthumously when the facility was rededicated in his name.
Stacy Robinson won two Super Bowls as a wide receiver for the New York Giants. Robinson played ball on the Jimmy Lee fields and graduated from Saint Paul Central High School. He was another of the elite athletes born in Saint Paul, in the same company as Dave and Steve Winfield, Jack Morris and Paul Molitor. Robinson was an executive with the NFL Players Association after retiring from playing. He died of multiple melanoma , a type of blood cancer, in May 2012.
This building, now the Natural Sound Studios, opened as the Selby Theater in 1912. It was Saint Paul’s first theater designed exclusively for movies (2) and sits at 989 Selby.
The West Side Flats (south of Downtown)
All of Saint Paul’s West Side, including the West Side Flats, were part of Dakota County at one time. That changed in 1874 when the West Side was annexed from West Saint Paul by the City of Saint Paul, and at the same time became part of Ramsey County. (4)
It’s almost impossible to believe from the way it looks now, but for a century this area hummed with the industrial activity of American Hoist and Derrick. American, or “The Hoist”, as the company was sometimes called, built heavy equipment primarily for the construction and mining industries.
The story of American Hoist and Derrick is all too familiar to Saint Paul-a manufacturing giant for decades, with thousands of good paying jobs, gradually succumbs to the changing economics that lured those jobs, and eventually the company itself, to the southern US. North Carolina to be exact, in 1985.
Oliver T. Crosby and Frank J. Johnson started American’s predecessor, the Franklin Manufacturing Company, in 1882 to maintain and repair logging and iron ore mining equipment, (5) Ten years and two name changes later, the company bore the American Hoist and Derrick moniker. The Panama Canal and Mount Rushmore are two well-known projects that used American Hoist equipment.
I biked along several roads that crisscrossed much of the former American Hoist and Derrick land and I saw no telltale signs of the one-time industrial giant. No dilapidated buildings, no rusting equipment pieces hidden in the scrub-covered earth.
Still, not all of the old factory site sits idle and covered in weeds. The U.S. Bank West Side Flats Operations Center and parking ramp occupy some property between Robert Street and Livingston Avenue.
The vertical-lift Rail Bridge, while not built for American Hoist, has bisected the former company’s land since being put up for the Chicago Great Western Railroad in 1913. Now called the St. Paul Union Pacific Vertical-lift Rail Bridge, it handles about 10 freight trains each day. The neighboring Robert Street Bridge, constructed in 1926, had to be carefully designed and built over and around the vertical-lift bridge.
One very nice improvement to the acreage is a riverwalk (and boat docks) along the southern bank of the Mississippi.
There is a large area east of Robert Street, between the river and Plato Boulevard, that is nearly all industrial. The River Park Plaza building, just east of Robert Street, is one of the few non-industrial tenants on the West Side Flats. It’s likely you’ve never traveled to this corner of the West Side unless you’ve visited either Comcast or the Saint Paul Downtown Airport, Holman Field. The Saint Paul Pioneer Press newspaper owns a couple of facilities in the area that I visited on the ride. I am unable to determine exactly what the Twin Cities Newspaper Service at 220 Fillmore Street does or did.
Some of the heavy industry located in the area is a metal casting company and a barge maintenance corporation.
Coincidentally, less than half a mile from the former plant site, an American Hoist & Derrick model 5299 crawler crane in the company’s iconic yellow, black and white paint scheme is part of the construction of the new Lafayette Freeway bridge. In the background a freshly poured bridge supports is encased in a concrete form.
The industrial nature of the West Side Flats is due to the nearly annual spring deluge of water from the Mississippi River. Because of the propensity to flood, as early as the 1850s, the Flats became the place in Saint Paul where the newest immigrants settled. First the French, and then the Italians and Irish moved here. Next it was Eastern European Jews in the 1880s. As they moved on, Mexican and other immigrants from Latin America moved in. Members of each group formed strong bonds within its respective group despite, or perhaps because of the poverty in which they lived.
Many years the floods were an inconvenience, but occasionally they devastated the West Side Flats. The ruinous flood of the spring of 1952 convinced City officials to permanently relocate residents from the Flats. More than 2,600 residents of the Flats and the Upper Levee neighborhoods were evacuated. Amphibious military vehicles trudged to homes, rescuing not only people, but chickens, dogs, cows, and furniture that was stored in a downtown warehouse.(7)
It wasn’t until the end of the decade that the City began clearing the Flats of homes and it took nearly 10 years to complete the work of obliterating the West Side Flats into the Riverview Industrial Park.
Alabama Street turns to gravel here and ceases to be an official road, according to several maps. Road or not, it serves as a holding area for old railroad ties.
This is the other Pioneer Press facility on the West Side. It was the newspaper’s printing plant until February 2014 when the Pioneer Press turned production over to the Minneapolis StarTribune. At the time of this writing, the building at 1 Ridder Court (named after long-time PP publisher Bernard Ridder) remains for sale. Price $3.4 million.)
Remnants of the newspaper’s printing presses sat in a large, vibrant, gooey heap just outside the building. Ignoring the ecological questions this raises, the ink-slathered hoses created exotic designs which kept my camera and me busy for more than 15 minutes.
I got back on my bike and noticed to my displeasure that I came away with a magenta souvenir. The bottoms and a bit of the sides of both shoes, my bike pedals and some of the frame were coated to one degree or another with magenta printer ink. I learned quickly it is not water-based.
I rode to the east a short distance and headed onto Saint Paul Downtown Airport property, more commonly known as Holman Field.
Most people give Holman Field barely a thought, if that. Yet, the assemblage of history here surprised me.
The City of Saint Paul opened the Saint Paul Municipal Airport in 1926 with a single grass runway.
Two asphalt runways replaced the grass landing strip in 1928, only two years later.
In 1930, Northwest Airways (later Northwest Airlines) built a hanger at Saint Paul Municipal and moved its operations there, where it remained for the next 30 years.
In response to a critical need for indoor workspace to shield planes and workers from the weather, two new hangers, dubbed “Riverside,” were built on the eastern edge of Holman Field property.
The City of Saint Paul still owns the largest parcel of airport land, about 383 acres of 576 total. Although commercial airlines no longer serve Holman Field, it has an airport code-‘STP.’ That code is the three letter designation that represents the name of airports on tickets and baggage.
Prior to the construction of this floodwall, the airport was forced to cease operations for days or weeks almost yearly. Years with heavy flooding left Holman Field closed for upwards of 80 days, a huge impediment to customers and the National Guard company stationed here.
Further south along Bayfield Street is a memorial to “Speed” Holman.
The last stop on this ride was the Brown and Bigelow plant at 345 Plato Boulevard East.
Brown and Bigelow is best known for the calendars it’s published for nearly 100 years. In 1925, the company started printing calendars for the Boy Scouts of America. The illustrator of many was Norman Rockwell. Today some of the best known and most valuable are the “Dogs Playing Poker”, Norman Rockwell Boy Scout and pinup calendars. Playing cards and greeting cards are other products that have been made by Brown and Bigelow.
Brown and Bigelow’s continues to print calendars under the HotLine Products banner today but Its main business is distribution and sales of promotional products.
A couple of final thoughts about today’s ride, the link to the route map and footnotes:
- History happens everywhere but Rondo and the West Side Flats have experienced more important and disruptive events than most.
- The details of the days gone by at the Saint Paul Downtown Airfield/Holman Field touch upon the prescient days of flight beyond Minnesota.
- The riverwalk just south of the Mississippi and the Holman Airfield Floodwall Overlook are worthy of more time.
1. Twin Cities Daily Planet website; February 20, 2013 by Charles Hallman Originally published in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder
2. “Tour Saint Paul Selby Avenue” by Historic Saint Paul
3. “Twin Cities Picture Show: A Century of Moviegoing,” By Dave Kenney
4. National Park Service National River and Recreation website http://www.nps.gov/miss/planyourvisit/kapoindi.htm
5. Ramsey County Historical Society
6. AOL Crane History; http://www.aolcrane.com/cranehistory.html
7. National Park Service National River & Recreation Area Minnesota website
8. Accentuating the Positive: The Role of Northwest Airline’s Modification Center in WW II by Johannes R. Allert