The Chain of Lakes are often considered the crown jewel of the Minneapolis park system. Lake of the Isles, Bde Maka Ska, and Lake Harriet are ringed by a circuit of pedestrian walking and cycling paths known as the Grand Rounds that are traveled by millions of visitors yearly. However, the two northwesternmost lakes in this chain, Cedar Lake and Brownie Lake, are much less trafficked compared to their aquatic sisters to the southeast.
Cedar Lake in the western reaches of Minneapolis is tucked away between the Cedar-Isles-Dean, Kenwood, and Bryn Mawr neighborhoods; the lake is bordered by the Grand Rounds on its south and western shores. Although the park board owns all of the shoreline around Cedar Lake, the southeast shore of the lake is abutted by a handful of private residences that back up to the lake. This thin sliver of park land between the lake shore and the private residencies is not enough land to support an extension of the Grand Rounds through the southeastern corridor of the lake.
Brownie Lake, a smaller body of water to the northwest of Cedar Lake, is connected to Cedar Lake via a man-made culvert created in 1917 that travels underneath the North Cedar Lake bike trail. Unlike the rest of the Chain of Lakes, Brownie Lake is not on the Grand Rounds path network, nor is the lake ringed by parkways. Instead, Brownie Lake is encompassed by a dirt path that’s frequented by dog walkers, mountain bikers, and trail runners alike.
However less popular Cedar Lake and Brownie Lake are, they still share a wonderful collective history and snapshot into Minneapolis’ past.
Prior to the introduction of Euro-American settlers in this region in the early to mid 1800s, the land around Cedar Lake acted as a buffer zone between the Native American Dakota tribes to the south and the Ojibwe tribes to the north.
In this region, the Ojibwe settlements were congregated around the Rum River in and around Anoka County and to the north, whereas the Dakota settlements were mostly along the Minnesota River. Reyataotonwe, a Dakotan village that once was located on the southeastern shores of Bde Maka Ska, was squarely in the middle of this buffer zone, and was often at risk of skirmishes between the Dakota and the Ojibwe. By 1839, the villagers of Reyataotonwe had relocated to safer lands along the Minnesota River.
This area was mapped many times during larger territorial mapping projects in the 1700s, but was first accurately mapped in 1839. In the 1839 map, Cedar Lake was initially known as Lake Leavenworth, named after the first commander of Fort Snelling. A steep hill to the east of the lake called “The Devil’s Backbone” - a jagged moraine hill left behind by the last ice age - was the predecessor to the Lowry Hill neighborhood.
It wasn’t until the 1850s after the Treaty of Traverse Des Sioux that settlers could homestead to the west of the Mississippi River. With the new expansion of land suitable for homesteading, several areas of the state were surveyed for farming land. The area around Cedar Lake was considered unsuitable for farming operations due to its poor soil quality and rather marshy lands. Thus, this slice of Minneapolis remained relatively untouched during the first wave of settlement. Cedar Lake was both too far from downtown Minneapolis, and too poor of soil quality for farming to attract any permanent residents in the region. The relatively unencumbered lands surrounding the lake allowed for a small temperate forest to flourish in the area.
Cedar Lake’s Old Boundaries
It’s also noteworthy that up until the twentieth century, Cedar Lake’s boundaries were considerably different from the shoreline of today. This is because during the 1800s, the water level within Cedar Lake was nearly twelve feet higher than that of today. The land surrounding Cedar Lake was rather marshy and considered largely impassable. Cedar Lake experienced two events that considerably dropped the water level at the lake. The first event occurred over the course of several years when the water level dropped nearly seven feet due to prolonged droughts as well as extensive ice harvesting in the wintertime that exhumed over 100,000 tons of ice annually during the last decade of the 1800s through the first decade of the 1900s. Again in 1913, the water level dropped another five feet when the Cedar Lake Canal was constructed to connect Lake of the Isles to Cedar Lake. Brownie Lake to the northwest of Cedar Lake experienced a similar lowering of its water levels when a culvert was constructed to link the two lakes. With the introduction of this new connection in 1917, Brownie Lake’s water level subsequently dropped ten feet.
During the next few years between 1911 through 1914, the Park Board dredged nearly 400,000 cubic yards of soil from the bottom of Cedar Lake to deepen the lake. During this dredging project, the Park Board packed the dredged soil along the shoreline of the lake to firm its banks. With the new firmer shoreline, the Minneapolis Park Board used this as a calculated opportunity to extend a parkway and trail system along the southern and western shores of Cedar Lake.
Prior to human interference with Cedar Lake’s water levels, the lake’s boundaries once looked remarkably different to that of today. To the lake’s southwest, a bay once extended all the way to France Avenue. This bay is long gone, but a hint of this bay remains in the form of the Cedar Meadows Wetland which serves as a drainage basin and roosting place for many species of birds. To the east, Cedar Lake’s eastern bay once reached where present-day Thomas Avenue is located. This bay has also disappeared due to lowering of the lake's water levels as well as the advent of the Kenilworth Railroad Corridor. To the north, Cedar Lake’s shoreline once stretched about 200 feet further north where the waters lapped the edge of the steep hill that heads up to Bryn-Mawr. To the south, Cedar Lake’s shores once reached a small berm that now separates Cedar Lake Parkway from Cedar Lake Avenue.
To top it off, Lake of the Isles wasn’t the only lake in the chain that once boasted islands! Lake of the Isles is famed for its two islands that serve as bird sanctuaries in the center of the lake. However, Lake of the Isles once contained four distinct islands. Cedar Lake also was home to a small island off its western banks known as Louise Island. This island was small and particularly marshy with a few warped trees sprouting out of the island's uneven ground. When the water levels lowered in Cedar Lake, the island became more of a prominent marshy isthmus. The isthmus was filled in with excavated soil from the Cedar Lake Canal to create a peninsula on the western shore of the lake.
Early Development at Cedar Lake
As settling and development continued in the Minneapolis area through the 1860s, some pioneering families turned their attention towards Cedar Lake. The lake’s unfettered forests, access to water, and close proximity to the downtown area was enough motivation for a few optimistic settlers to stake property claims around Cedar Lake’s shores. These families first began to move into the area after the advent Cedar Lake Road, one of the first arterial roadways that connected downtown Minneapolis to the frontier communities by Lake Minnetonka. Cedar Lake Road passed by the northwest corner of Cedar Lake, thus making travel easy for the families who began to move in around the lake. Cedar Lake Road’s western terminus was at Minnetonka Mills, near the source of Minnehaha Creek. It was on this road that hardwood timber felled by the workers at Minnetonka Mills was shipped to Minneapolis to build the first suspension bridge across the Mississippi River.
These early years of settlement in the region also brought with it a new form of transportation - the steam-powered locomotive. Two competing rail companies, the Minneapolis & St. Louis (later to become the Great Northern Railway) and the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad company vied for property alongside Cedar Lake for their ever-expanding railroad tracks.
The St. Paul & Pacific was the first railroad company to expand tracks alongside Cedar Lake in the latter half of the 1860s. This railroad project extended the railroad track from Minneapolis to the western reaches of Minnesota. When the railroad’s expansion project reached Cedar Lake, the laborers constructed a track in the narrow corridor between Cedar Lake to the west and Lake of the Isles to the east. This area would become known as the Kenilworth Corridor. The laborers who constructed the railroad track through the Kenilworth Corridor had to construct an earthen causeway to span Cedar Lake’s eastern bay. When the St. Paul & Pacific railroad tracks rounded the southeast corner of Cedar Lake, they continued their way westward towards Lake Minnetonka and to the further western reaches of Minnesota.
Roughly 15 years after the Kenilworth Corridor was created, James J. Hill’s new railroad empire, the Great Northern Railway, sought to create a more expedited route to Lake Minnetonka. This new project, coined the Minnetonka Cutoff, resulted in a new set of double track laid on the northern shore of Cedar Lake. To build this new stretch of railroad, laborers from the Great Northern Railroad again erected an earthen causeway through the marshy northern section of Cedar Lake. Hill’s Minnetonka Cutoff was completed in 1883, the same year that Hill’s Stone Arch Bridge was completed. The purpose of the Minnetonka Cutoff was to provide a more expedited passenger and freight rail service to the Lake Minnetonka region via Minneapolis. With this new stretch of rail on the north shore of Cedar Lake, the Great Northern Railroad mostly abandoned their then-obsolete tracks through the Kenilworth Corridor. The Kenilworth Corridor tracks quickly fell under the domain of another railroad company known as the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad.
With the advent of these two railroads to the east and north of Cedar Lake came two massive railyards. In the Kenilworth Corridor, at least eleven sets of railroad tracks were laid parallel to each other. To the north of Cedar Lake laid a massive railyard known as the Cedar Lake and Linden Yards. Nearly 50 sets of railroad tracks, a railroad roundhouse, and several other support buildings were constructed during the flour milling heyday of the late 1800s through early 1900s in this area.
Hotels and Communities of Cedar Lake
During the 1870s through 1890s, Cedar Lake became somewhat of a tourist attraction for day laborers in Minneapolis. While the more wealthy residents of Minneapolis typically took off to Lake Minnetonka or White Bear Lake for weekend vacations, the middle class residents of Minneapolis retreated to the Chain of Lakes for a quick getaway.
The advent of the several railroads near Cedar Lake brought more travelers to the region with the construction of the Cedar Lake Station, followed by the Kenwood Railroad Station. With more travelers came the advent of Cedar Lake’s first hotel, the Oak Grove House.
In the 1870s, the Oak Grove House was built on the southwest shore of Cedar Lake on the same property that the Jones Harrison Senior Home now resides. The Oak Grove House was an octagon-shaped building that was in close proximity to the Cedar Lake Station that was erected on the southeast shore of Cedar Lake. The hotel operated by Mr. and Mrs. Scott was touted as a restful place with fresh air, proximity to the lake and ease of access for boating and fishing parties.
The Oak Grove House’s octagon shape was a cunning design. Octagon houses were a bonafide architectural fad during the mid 1800s, these types of homes were argued to have a stronger connection to nature with the benefits of additional light and windows adorned on all eight sides of the home. The improved air circulation was said to bolster residents with happier, healthier lives. The Oak Grove House was in operation for eight years during the 1870s.
The Oak Grove House wasn’t the only hotel in operation near Cedar Lake at this time. A second resort called Stetson’s Cedar Lake Park operated on the eastern shore of the Lake. Stetson’s was remembered by Theodore Wirth as a “rather gay place in its time, and can be remembered by many for the lively episodes which occurred there which sometimes were recounted in the newspapers.” Torn down in the 1930s, all that remains of Stetson’s Cedar Lake Park is an old limestone wall at the intersection of Park Lane and Burnham Road.
A third hotel, the Hotel Kenwood, first opened for business in 1895. Hotel Kenwood was located within the Kenilworth Corridor on the east side of the railroad tracks along with the Kenwood Depot. This hotel was a three story brick structure that stood above the surrounding treetops, which offered sweeping views of Cedar Lake. Hotel Kenwood was short lived, with a decline in business by the 1910s, the hotel was repurposed as a boarding house for the railroad laborers. By 1921, the former Hotel Kenwood was torn down.
Although Hotel Kenwood was removed, the Kenwood neighborhood continued to flourish. The Kenwood Station at 21st Street and Upton Avenue remained as a transportation feature for the nearby residents. A few times daily, a train would stop at the Kenwood Station for nearby residents to hastily make their way downtown.
Unlike Minneapolis’ typical grid pattern, Kenwood’s blocks were laid out to contour the moraine that the neighborhood was built atop of. Advertised as the “choicest place for elegant residences”, Kenwood was ready for its first residents to construct homes in 1886. Views of both Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake only raised the property value in the surrounding area. With connections to both train lines and streetcars, Kenwood offered the ultimate convenience for the wealthy residents to quickly make their way downtown. Wealthy residents from the nearby Oak Lake Addition hastily sold or abandoned their old properties to move into this more regal suburb of the city.
As more and more residents flocked to live near Cedar Lake, commercial and recreational activity soon followed. By the 1890s, Cedar Lake itself turned into a commodity with the advent of an ice harvesting business and a boat livery. An icehouse was built on the eastern shore of Cedar Lake with an accompanying rail spur so that chunks of ice could be directly loaded onto cargo trains headed to far flung metropolises such as St. Louis, Des Moines, and Memphis.
Recreation on Cedar Lake
Lake Harriet had the bandshell and ease of access via the Como-Harriet streetcar line, Bde Maka Ska had the Calhoun Bath Houses and Lyndale Hotel, and Lake of the Isles offered sweeping views of the regal properties of the Minneapolis elite. This left Cedar Lake in a peculiar juxtaposition; much of the early growth of Minneapolis had passed by Cedar Lake. The shoreline was mostly in the hands of private or railroad ownership. However, the little shoreline that remained open to the public was exploited through an abundance of activities such as swimming, boating, fishing, camping, and relaxing. On the western shore, Camp Yokoyo served as a lively gathering place, On the eastern shore, an entrepreneurial long-time resident of Cedar Lake by the name of Ed Dingley operated a small boat livery near the present-day location of Hidden Beach (dually known as Cedar Lake East Beach).
Dingley was a prominent figure around Cedar Lake. A carpenter by trade, Dingley had built a boathouse & livery on the eastern shore of the lake by the 1890s. This little slice of shoreline was a mooring place for rowboats and sailboats that Dingley rented out. Dotting the shore in this area were a collection of summer homes and camping tents.
However, by 1914, most of these summer cottages and camping areas on the eastern shore of Cedar Lake were gone. Due to the lowering of the lake level, Cedar Lake’s former east bay became a muddy bog no longer suitable for direct lake access. Dingley tried to reorient his livery business with a new dock that extended westward directly into Cedar Lake at the site of Hidden Beach. Unfortunately, with the ever-encroaching railyard in the Kenilworth Corridor, the eastern shore of Cedar Lake essentially became a difficult to access backwater. Dingley passed away in 1948; his family attempted to keep the livery business alive. By the early 1950s, Dingley’s family shuttered their once lively boat rental business. In the decades that followed, the enclave surrounding Hidden Beach to the west of the Kenilworth Corridor became a gathering place for transients.
More Changes to Cedar Lake’s Populace
During the middle of the 1900s, a stark contrast developed between the community that lived off Burnham Boulevard compared to the community that lived on Upton Avenue and to its north. The Burnham Boulevard community consisted of wealthy, upper class citizens. One of the wealthy families on Burnham Boulevard commissioned famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build them a custom Usonian home in the shadows of Cedar Lake.
In contrast, the Upton Avenue enclave became a de facto gathering place for a more transient community. The homes on Upton Avenue were owned by mostly middle class citizens. It was In the woods to the north and west of Upton Avenue that a collection of train hoppers and homeless built small shacks and lean-to structures infamously coined Bum’s Ridge. The area known as Bum’s Ridge was later partially cleared out and turned into a city dumping ground. Many of the locals of Bum’s Ridge moved their shacks further into the woods on the northern shore of Cedar Lake where they remained through the 1950s into the 1960s. Unfortunately for Cedar Lake and its residents, the contaminated detritus at the dumping ground caused considerable environmental harm to the waters of Cedar Lake. The city later capped the landfill with mounds of dirt from other city works projects, and Bum’s Ridge reclaimed the dumping ground as more transients moved in.
The populace at Bum’s Ridge rediscovered Ed Dingley’s old livery location on the eastern shore of Cedar Lake. This area was colloquially known as Hidden Beach, a sandy beach that was a popular nude beach during the latter half of the twentieth century. Hidden Beach became a getaway in the middle of the city. Although the majority of beach goers at Hidden Beach meant no harm, there were countless reports of drug usage, untamed bonfires, fights, sexual assaults, overnight camping, and a handful of murders that plagued the beach.
For years, Hidden Beach was not included as an official Minneapolis park. Thus, the area lacked resources that other beach parks had such as lights, emergency telephones, lifeguards, and access to safety equipment. It wasn’t until 2007 that Hidden Beach was improved upon by the city. A lifeguard stand, safety equipment, picnic benches, trash and recycling containers, portable restrooms, a gravel trail, and bike racks were added to make Hidden Beach more easily accessible and safer. It was also around this time that Hidden Beach was rebranded as Cedar Lake East Beach. Fortunately, one of the iconic attractions at Hidden Beach, the Andrew Foss Mudhole, remains as a popular attraction to this day.
Changing Tides Alongside Cedar Lake
Beginning in the 1980s, Cedar Lake and the surrounding communities were greatly relieved from the railroad businesses that suffocated the eastern and northern shores of the lake. As the railroad companies saw many mergers in the 1980s, much of the rail infrastructure was removed from the Kenilworth Corridor and Cedar Lake Yards. During these years, the Park Board in collaboration with the Cedar Lake Park Association purchased land from the railroad companies to repurpose into park land. Over the several years that followed, the former railroad right-of-way was turned into world class bike and nature trails along the shores of Cedar Lake. Today, the Kenilworth Corridor is being repurposed once more into a new railway for light rail transit.
Like all sections of Minneapolis, Cedar Lake has gone through a metamorphosis over the last two centuries. The lake’s shape and size has been heavily altered, Industry has come and gone, neighborhoods have been developed and redeveloped again, and lengthy reclamation projects have turned former industrial wasteland into state-of-the-art parks. Cedar Lake is often overshadowed by the rest of the Chain of Lakes, but this lake is just as deserving as the rest to be considered as a crown jewel for the city of Minneapolis.
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