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Posts Tagged ‘East River Road bike trail’

As I write this, it is Memorial Day, the “real” Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, as it was originally known.  First observed in 1868, Decoration Day was celebrated on May 30 and began as a day of remembrance dedicated to the men who fell during the Civil War.

As a child, I was always invited over to see the old lady who lived next door to get my birthday bouquet on Decoration Day.  She was allowed to call it that; she must have been born just after the Civil War and her grandfather was born when George Washington was president.  I believe she had a photograph of the 8th Regiment of Wisconsin Volunteers in her house, a photo that included their mascot, Old Abe, a bald eagle, which sticks in my memory.  We shoveled her walk for her and that’s when I learned to call the bit of walk that goes from the sidewalk to the street in front of a house the horse block. She even had a hitching post there, though no horse. And no, I’m not that old, but she was.

Anyway, after World War I, Memorial Day became a day on which to remember all war dead.  And as we know, it marks the unofficial beginning of summer, and therefore biking weather.  (OK, I know lots of people were riding all winter, but I don’t like to ride in rain or wind.)  As the weather has permitted in this very wet May, I’ve been out biking again and I recently ran across a World War I memorial in St. Paul.

This simple but dignified memorial stands tall looking out across the Mississippi River near the University of St. Thomas campus. It is a beautiful spot, out of the way or traffic, and there is a pleasant park there that seemed to be enjoyed by numerous bikers, walkers, and students. All in all, a peaceful place to contemplate the river (or the memorial), read a book, and just enjoy the surroundings.

St. Paul World War I memorial overlooking Mississippi River

That brings me to another World War I war memorial, a far more extensive one (and one that can also be reached by Minneapolis’s wonderful system of bike paths.)

Last year (June 11, 2011, to be exact), Hennepin County rededicated Victory Memorial Drive, the largest World War I war memorial in the country. I often find memorials of all kinds to be uninspired and uninspiring, but this is a living memorial: an elm tree was planted for every soldier or nurse from Hennepin County who died in the war, a total of 568. In addition, there is a monument that rises above the drive at the corner Victory Memorial Drive and 45thAvenue North in Minneapolis.

Part of the line of trees and markers that make up Victory Memorial Drive.

The memorial’s history is tied up with the history of parks in Minneapolis and two men who planned and developed an enviable park system: Charles Loring and Theodore Wirth. Loring had been president of the park board and had wanted to build a memorial to American soldiers and sailors consisting of trees planted along Minneapolis parkways, even before the Great War. In 1919, Theodore Wirth, Minneapolis’s far-sighted park superintendent, suggested planting rows of elm trees along what was then Camden-Glenwood Parkway. He described the idea in the 1918 Annual Report:

In formal gardening there is nothing more beautiful than long parallel rows of stately trees. If planted far enough apart to permit each tree to become a fully developed specimen, they will in time become giants of strength and beauty. What better or more noble symbol of the strength and character of our victorious soldiers could be chosen to serve as a memorial to the fallen heroes and noble defenders of our liberty? Glenwood-Camden Parkway, between Lowry Avenue and Camden Park, a distance of three miles, lends itself well for the creation of such a Memorial Drive.

Loring agreed to pay for the trees and deposited $50,000 for their perpetual care. Victory Memorial Drive was dedicated on June 11, 1921, possibly a record time for the completion of a significant memorial.

The trees have been replaced more than once. The first variety of elms couldn’t stand up to Minnesota’s winters and were replaced in 1925. Many were killed off in the 1970s by Dutch Elm disease, so there is now a variety of species represented.

The original wooden crosses for each soldier were also replaced. On the tenth anniversary of the end of the war in 1928, bronze crosses and stars of David, each with the name of a soldier, were installed.

Bronze plaque for Leo Leonard Levin. Not all the Hennepin County soldiers were Norwegian Lutherans.

For me the most powerful detail of the memorial is in the stonework that leads to the wall with the original plaques listing all the names. If you look carefully, you can see the profile of a soldier cut into the stone. For me this evokes the image of nameless troops – French, British, American – going “over the top” of the trenches in France and facing the brutal reality of warfare.

Detail of Victory Memorial Drive stone work. Note the soldier profiles cut into the stone.

We are quickly approaching the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the carnage of 1914-1918. I hope that the observances of such a somber anniversary will include a nuanced telling of the many stories of World War I: bravery, yes, but also the folly of leaders and their belief that the war would be “over by Christmas”, the loss of civil liberties at home, the ghastly damage of nerve gas and shell shock, and the individual stories of the men who fought and the people here at home. We need to understand World War I in order to understand many of the conflicts that still persist in the world to this day.  It would be nice if we could remember and acknowledge the mistaken assumptions and cruel waste of past conflicts as we remember those who were lost and killed.

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Fall is here and once again the Twin Cities are being blessed with absolutely perfect weather for biking and exploring. I don’t believe there is a better time of year to be in Minnesota, now that the humid days of summer are past and the leaves are glowing with color – from bright yellows to oranges to deep reds to burnished browns. The trees change from one day to the next, first just the edges of the leaves near the crown licked by flame, then more and more as if the fire is slowly spreading downwards until the tree is finally ablaze. It lasts such a short time, but it makes up for winter. If we are lucky, the fall will stretch on…and on…and on! 

The east side of the Mississippi River from the Lake Street Bridge, late September 2011.

There is so much to see on days like this, things that are easy to miss if you are driving along at sixty miles an hour, but reach out and grab you when you’re on a bicycle. Take the Mississippi River, for example. The closest many people get to the river is to drive over it on one of the many bridges in the metro area, bridges from which it is almost impossible to see the water or the river banks. But the river is a treasure and was critical to the early residents of what became Minnesota. It is easy for us to become disconnected from our natural surroundings, even when we still rely on them to supply our needs, but two hundred and more years ago, the river was central to life in this area.

Looking down at the Mississippi River just below Fort Snelling from the overlook on the east side of the river, late September 2011.

For a superb view of the mighty Mississippi, visit the overlook over the old bridge abutment on the east side of the river just south of Highway 5 on the East River Road bike path.

The overlook on the East River Road bike trail just south of Highway 5 (West 7th Street).

Not only do you have a good view of the rivers and the fort, some very informative panels on area geology and history, and some surprisingly comfortable fake boulders to rest on, there is no question about where you are!

Part of one of the attractive and informative metal panels at the overlook. This bit shows the location of Dakota communities and other important places along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.

Yes, indeed. In case there is any doubt, you know where you are! Actually, this shows your position in relation to the rivers, which are shown in tan paving stones along the overlook.

And directly across the river from you sits Historic Fort Snelling on the west bank of the Mississippi. Built out of the very limestone bluff it sat on, the fort controlled the major communication routes of the time – the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers below.

View of Historic Fort Snelling from the east side of the Mississippi River. The fort is almost invisible with all the trees in the foreground.

But a modern photo can’t really convey the imposing presence of this limestone edifice in 1820s Minnesota. Today’s lush tree cover and the predominance of highways and bridges in the area disguise the fort’s dominance in what was then an oak savanna landscape with tall prairie grass and occasional trees, as seen in this Seth Eastman painting at the Minnesota Historical Society, The Prairie Back of Fort Snelling (1846-1848). Built between 1820 and 1825 under the command of Colonel Josiah Snelling, the fort was originally known as Fort St. Anthony. It was renamed Fort Snelling in honor of the colonel in 1825 on the recommendation of General Winfield Scott. (For a more complete survey of its rich history, visit the official website.

It’s hard to imagine how the fort would have appeared to both the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples and the European Americans who arrived here in what must have seemed to them an isolated and lonely place. The Round Tower was the first building completed and is now the oldest standing building in Minnesota, one of four original buildings still standing at the fort.

Restored prairie on the west side of the Round Tower give a better impression of what the 1820s landscape would have been like.

Finished in 1820, it must have been a very impressive sight as visitors approached from the prairie to the west of the fort. The fort has been modified constantly since its original construction, a fact the complicates our attempts to imagine life there in the 1820s. In 1860 the Round Tower retained some prominence in the landscape, at least in this carte-de-visite at the Minnesota Historical Society, but by 1900 the poor tower seems to have been reduced to a curiosity visited by sightseers.

And by 1938, the tower seems almost insignificant, lost in the hustle and bustle of the street running right past it (possibly West 7th Street), standing alone with no evidence of the original stone wall that surrounded the fort in this photo from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Today a visit to the fort can take you back to a rougher but seemingly less complicated time – the 1820s.  Although you have to be ready for the noise of the muskets and cannon firing, and I’m not sure that doing laundry in the 1820s was exactly uncomplicated!  In spite of this time travel quality to your visit, the fort is still located near numerous transportation routes – Highway 5, Highway 55, and of course the airport. The latter is particularly hard to ignore even within the walls of the fort as planes roar incongruously overhead with great frequency!

Traveling on two wheels is much more peaceful.

This plane seems to be flying directly over the commandant's house at Fort Snelling, the oldest house in Minnesota (1823).

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