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The Changing Names and Landscapes of Lake Nokomis & Hiawatha

Lake Nokomis and Lake Hiawatha are two bodies of water central to south Minneapolis. Although these lakes are often overshadowed by the more visited Chain of Lakes to the west, Both Lake Nokomis and Lake Hiawatha share an interesting history that is deeply intertwined with the development of Minneapolis and its parks system.

Like most lakes in the Twin Cities region, Nokomis and Hiawatha are a remnant of the movement of the glaciers during a series of ice ages tens of thousands of years ago. As ice sheets retreated to the north, chunks of glacier were carved off the bottom of the sheet, creating many of the kettle lakes throughout Minnesota today.

The two lakes are part of the Minnehaha Creek watershed. The creek serves as a tributary to the Mississippi River where its headwaters begin 929 feet above sea level at Lake Minnetonka. Minnehaha Creek meanders through several western suburbs before entering Minneapolis. From here the creek receives a supplement of water outflow from Lake Harriet. As the creek travels further downstream through the city, the creek flows into Lake Nokomis and Lake Hiawatha at 813 feet above sea level. Exiting from Lake Hiawatha, the creek twists and turns another mile and a half before its waters tumble over Minnehaha Falls and ultimately flow into the Mississippi River at 685 feet above sea level.

For thousands of years before the arrival of Euro-American settlers in the region, Minnesota was home to a collection of different Native American peoples. The first Europeans to enter Minnesota occurred in the mid 1600s as bands of fur traders and Jesuit missionaries visited and documented their interactions with the Native Americans and land in the region.

During this period of time, The two lakes looked vastly different. Lake Nokomis was once much shallower, allowing beds of wild rice to grow along the shoreline throughout the lake. Whereas Lake Hiawatha served as a delta for Minnehaha Creek. Over thousands of years the creek dumped silt and sediment on the south and west side of the lake, creating a large wetland consisting of cattails, wild rice, and several other native species of flora and fauna that called the lake home. The wild rice was an important food source for the Native American Dakota peoples who traveled through this region, Lake Hiawatha was once known as Rice Lake for its abundance of wild rice along the shoreline.

1823 map of the vicinity, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

With the encroachment of Euro-American settlers in the region, the two lakes were first featured on a crude 1823 map. On this early map, Lake Nokomis was given the anglicized name of Lake Amelia, while Lake Hiawatha was first birthed as Lake Ann. It is not entirely clear where these lake names came from. Suggestions presume that army officers from nearby Fort Snelling likely named the lakes after their wives - just as Fort Snelling’s Colonel Leavenworth named Lake Harriet after his wife. This naming convention is repeated several times on the 1823 map as Lake Amelia, Lake Ann, Lake Adeline, Lake Charlotte, Lake Lucy, and Lake Abigail dot the landscapes of Minneapolis and Mendota.

Taliaferro's 1835 map, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

A few years later in 1835, Lawrence Taliaferro, an Indian Agent at Fort Snelling, attempted to create his own map of the region surrounding Fort Snelling. Using his sixteen years of expertise in navigating in the area, Taliaferro made a rudimentary map of the bodies of water, Native American villages, physical land features, and structures in the immediate vicinity of the fort. Taliaferro’s map serves as an authoritative and important source of information about the landscape of the area during that time.

On Taliaferro’s map, Lake Amelia remains while Lake Hiawatha re-emerges as a second naming iteration, Mud Lake. Some of the other lakes on this map are debated. Lake Abigail could potentially be Diamond Lake or Mother Lake, and Lake Leavenworth could be either Grass Lake or Wood Lake.

Exploration in the 1800s

Lake Nokomis and Lake Hiawatha were unbothered by the encroachment of Euro-Americans until the early 1800s. By 1819, the military outpost of Fort Snelling was completed. It was from Fort Snelling that several convoys were dispatched to map and learn more about the surrounding lands.

One of Fort Snelling’s residents, Joseph R. Brown, was the first Euro-American navigator to travel to the headwaters of Minnehaha Creek at Lake Minnetonka. In 1822, Brown planned a canoe expedition up the creek to Lake Minnetonka with a team composed of others from Fort Snelling as well as a team of Mdewakanton men. This band of explorers paddled through the two lakes on their journey up the creek to its headwaters. It was from this expedition that the creek adopted its first Euro-American name: Brown’s Creek (other maps and texts from the time titled Minnehaha Creek as Brown’s River, Joe Brown’s Creek, Cascade Creek, Little River, and Little Falls Creek). It wasn’t until the 1850s that the name Minnehaha Creek replaced the former after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, The Song of Hiawatha.

After Brown’s expedition and for the next several years from the 1830s through 1850s, Nokomis and Hiawatha were rarely visited and seldom written about. In these years, Euro-Americans were prohibited from settling west of the Mississippi River. Thus, the lands which would later become Minneapolis were unfettered by development. The only visits to Lake Hiawatha during this period of time would have been Native Americans and Fort Snelling officers who traveled to and from a Native American community on the southeast shores of Lake Calhoun (now Bde Maka Ska) known as Reyataotonwe. A seven mile carriage pathway through the prairie of Minneapolis was constructed to link the two communities to each other. The pathway skirted past the northeast shore of Lake Hiawatha, which served as a halfway point on the journey between the two communities. It can be presumed that during these years, weary travelers rested by the shores of Lake Hiawatha before continuing on their journey towards their destination.

1931 recreation of an 1871 plat map of the area. Note the carriage pathway to the east side of Lake Hiawatha, courtesy of the Hennepin County Digital Library

After the 1851 Traverse Des Sioux Treaty legalized settlement of Minnesota to the west of the Mississippi, entrepreneurial settlers and farmers flocked upon the banks of Minnehaha Creek and along the Mississippi river in downtown Minneapolis; bringing new technologies such as turbines, dams, waterwheels, and mill ponds to harness the energy of Minnehaha Creek and the Mississippi to create a milling industry that surged Minneapolis and the surrounding lands into relevancy in the United States.

Over the next several years, Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha became a recurring naming lexicon for several points of interest in south Minneapolis. In addition to Minnehaha Creek, Minnehaha Park was named in 1889, Lake Amelia was reborn as Lake Nokomis in 1910, and Rice Lake was unveiled as Lake Hiawatha in 1924.

The 1900s

In this chronological timeline, I will refer to the lakes by their respective names during these periods of time.

In the early 1900s while the population of Minneapolis eclipsed 200,000, south Minneapolis near Lake Amelia and Rice Lake were beginning to develop neighborhoods. Although most residents to the south of downtown lived around the Chain of Lakes and to the north of Lake Street. South of Lake Street, there were several developing pockets of small neighborhoods.

The land in this region of the city was more sparsely populated and mostly used for farming. The city planners knew that over the next decade, the farms in south Minneapolis would be purchased and platted for development as the population was surging at an unprecedented rate. It was during the first decade of the 1900s that the Minneapolis Park Board turned their attention to Lake Amelia and Rice Lake.

In 1901, the first suggestions were put forth to add Lake Amelia to the park system. The Park Board’s initial proposals consisted of turning Lake Amelia into a reservoir. This plan called for Minnehaha Creek to flow into Lake Amelia while simultaneously damming any output of water. Thus, the water level at the lake would raise several feet and greatly increase both the area and volume of the lake. The Park Board would then build a man-made canal to cut across from the lake to Minnehaha Creek near South 28th Avenue, entirely circumnavigating water flow into Rice Lake. This canal would be constructed with mechanical gates to regulate water outflow from Lake Amelia back into Minnehaha Creek.

Why would the Park Board propose turning Lake Amelia into a reservoir? Well, the dam at Minnehaha Creek’s headwaters at Lake Minnetonka had greatly diminished water flow into the creek coupled with consecutive dry years. The Park Board theorized that if no action was taken to preserve water for the creek, Minnehaha Falls would be nothing more than a ledge of dry rock face in a few short years. This was a paramount concern for the Park Board after President Benjamin Harrison visited Minnehaha Falls in 1900. Embarrassingly for the city, President Harrison was quoted as saying, “Minnehaha Falls would undoubtedly be very beautiful if there was water in the stream.” At the time, Minnehaha Falls was the crown jewel of the parks system; the Park Board was prepared to take drastic measures to preserve its prime commodity.

Understandably, the Park Board’s initial reservoir plans were met with stern opposition by citizens and health officials alike. One concerned citizen who lived in close proximity to the lake, W. A. Loveland, lamented, “Lake Amelia, in its present condition, is distinctly a muddy lake. The water, at the best, does not exceed five or six feet in depth, and the wild rice and rushes grow in profusion over a large part of the water surface. To dredge the lake would entail an enormous expense. And the task is impracticable at least for many years to come.”

Loveland spared some words for Rice Lake to the north, “The damming of Mud Lake (Rice Lake/Lake Hiawatha) is objected to because of the damage from overflow onto surrounding low-lying meadow land.” Loveland also opposed an early Park Board idea to turn Minnehaha Creek into a culvert from Lake Amelia to Minnehaha Falls, suggesting that the creek should be preserved at all extent possible.

Loveland’s reference to turning a portion of Minnehaha Creek into a culvert came after Park Board Superintendent William Berry made a suggestion to lay underground piping from Lake Amelia to Minnehaha Falls. This culvert would serve as the only outlet for Lake Amelia, thus entirely foregoing any flow of water into either Rice Lake or a mile and a half stretch of Minnehaha Creek just upstream from the falls. Superintendent Berry’s culvert quandary was argued to be a cheap fix to ensure a steady stream of water would always flow over the falls. Fortunately, Berry’s plan was greatly opposed by the public and the plan never came to fruition.

Just as Superintendent Berry’s culvert plan was binned, the Minneapolis Board of Health raised their concerns about the damming and dredging of Lake Amelia. The chief concern for the Board of Health was that the damming of Lake Amelia’s outflow would turn the lake into a cesspool of bacteria and wastewater runoff from several nearby farms.

To back the Park Board’s proposal, Charles Loring attempted to fan the flames of discontent. Loring had previously been a member of the Minneapolis Park Board, but had resigned a few years before the Lake Amelia reservoir proposal. Loring still maintained an interest and influence in the Park Board’s city beautification and park projects. Loring, who spoke before the Board of Health, urged that he was not speaking as a representative of the Park Board; rather, as a representative of the people of Minneapolis.

During this meeting with the Board of Health, Loring concluded, “There is no question but what the southern portion of the city needs a park. Lake Amelia is a large body of water; in most cities it would be considered a place of great value. The supply of water to the Falls is steadily decreasing and in time the stream will be dry. We must attend to the matter now, and not wait until it will be so much more difficult, even impossible.”

Loring next discussed concerns of water quality at Lake Amelia, “the water of Amelia is bad now. There are a number of dairy barns along the shore and these are drained into the lake. But should the city secure control of the lake shore all these places would be torn down, and the water would be good; there would be no source of contamination and the water would be good. Every spring now the lake is flushed by high water and this is what keeps it from being bad now… Of course, the [Park Board] can go ahead and carry out this work, but it is best to have as few objectors and obstructions as possible.”

By 1906, the local newspapers began to report that Lake Amelia stood a good chance of being incorporated into the Minneapolis parks system as the City Beautiful movement was in full force. On August 18 of that year, a delegation of five Park Board Commissioners, Park Board Secretary, and then Park Board Superintendent Theodore Wirth visited Lake Amelia. The members of the Park Board expressed that they were very impressed with the lake, and would hold further discussions on the potential of attaining the lake as a part of the parks system in the near future.

In 1908, the Park Board purchased Lake Amelia and the surrounding land for $63,500 to develop the first park in this region of the city. Over the next several years, the Park Board spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to dredge and reshape the shoreline of the body of water.

Lake Nokomis in 1915 from the Cedar Avenue bridge, note the abundance of wild rice along the shore. Courtesy of the Minnesota Digital Library

The Park Board contracted an outfit from Duluth, the Northern Dredging and Dock Company, to dredge the lake. During the dredging process, the surface area of Lake Amelia was reduced by approximately 33% as the lake’s average depth increased ten feet from to a fifteen feet average. The park board packed nearly 2.5 million cubic yards of dredged soil along the shore of the lake, leveling areas that were once wetlands and swamps in lieu of a new boulevard and walking paths that circumferenced the lake. To add attractions to the new Lake Amelia park, picnic grounds were erected at the north end of the lake, two beaches were built on the eastern and western shores, a playground was built, ball fields were installed on the northwest swath of leveled prairie, and a bath house was placed on the western shore.

Dredging operation at Lake Nokomis in 1917, courtesy of the Minnesota Digital Library

The Park Board also briefly flirted with the idea of removing the Cedar Avenue bridge that cut across the western bay of Lake Amelia. However, a collection of farmers and community members in Richfield were very outspoken in their opposition for the removal of the bridge. Thus, the Park Board chose to make improvements to the bridge to appease the neighboring community in Richfield.

1914 sketch plan of Lake Nokomis. Note the absence of the Cedar Avenue bridge and the addition of the Nokomis Island that was part of the preliminary plans.

Fortunately, the Park Board abstained from influence of several third party real estate investors who sought to privatize the shoreline of the lake. As the Park Board was starting its projects at Lake Amelia, real estate investors turned their attention to the lakeshore as the neighborhoods of Hale, Wenonah, Keewaydin, and Ericsson were being built. Several of these real estate investors who wanted to privatize the lakeshore for housing developments attempted to dissuade the Park Board from building a boulevard around the lake to no avail. One of the local real estate dealers bemoaned, “it would be too bad to have boulevards around all of the lakes… Half the beauty of owning lake property is having a little shore line of your own.” The Park Board’s initial plans for Lake Amelia prevailed, and to this day the entirety of the lakeshore is owned and operated by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

During the same period of time that Lake Amelia was being dredged and reshaped, the Park Board found a solution for their wishes to add a reservoir in the area. Just upstream from the falls, Minnehaha Creek to the southwest of Longfellow Gardens was widened and dredged. This modified portion of the creek was able to hold vastly more water than before and served as a small reservoir for the falls.

By 1910, as the Park Board was underway with their process of turning Lake Amelia into park land, the name of the lake was changed. At the request of the Hiawatha Improvement Association, the Park Board chose to sunset the original Euro-American name of Lake Amelia in lieu of the new name: Lake Nokomis. Nokomis was the name given to the grandmother in Longfellow’s poem the Song of Hiawatha, since Lake Nokomis is near Minnehaha Falls the name was apparent to those involved in the name changing process.

The Park Board Turns to Lake Hiawatha

Just as the projects at Lake Nokomis were concluding in the early 1920s, the Park Board began to turn their attention towards Rice Lake to the north. In the summer of 1921, a group known as the Rice Lake Improvement Association held a neighborhood meeting to discuss the future of the lake. During this meeting in which Theodore Wirth was in attendance, preliminary plans were discussed to dredge Rice Lake and use the dredged material from the lake to build a golf course abutting the shore of the lake.

The Park Board’s decision to turn the land surrounding Rice Lake into a golf course was a sensible plan at the time - golfs popularity in the region was in its ascendancy. The Park Board wanted to capture the popularity of golf and turn it into a commodity they could profit from. The Park Board surmised that the surrounding neighborhoods would also profit from the addition of the golf course as property values in the vicinity would increase.

This wouldn’t be the first time that the Park Board interfered with a city lake to create a golf course. In the late 1910s, the city in collaboration with the Park Board graded and filled Sandy Lake in northeast Minneapolis. The land which was formerly Sandy Lake was redeveloped into Columbia Golf Course in 1919. Columbia Golf Course proved to be a successful project for the Park Board, the golf course hosted many tournaments and was generally perceived as a positive addition to the neighborhoods surrounding the course.

On October 27, 1921, the residents of south Minneapolis held a referendum to determine the future for Rice Lake. In this meeting, a vast majority of residents voted in favor of the proposed golf course and lake dredging project. However, several in attendance at the meeting voiced opposition to the new plan. This group of nay-sayers suggested that the new development of parkland and a golf course would tax them out of their homes and properties.

In 1923, the Minneapolis Park Board purchased 275 acres of land surrounding Rice Lake for $555,000 - nearly nine times more expensive than the purchasing of Lake Nokomis 15 years earlier.

Aerial view of Lake Hiawatha, early 1920s. Courtesy of the Minnesota Digital Library

Why was the Rice Lake property so expensive? By the mid 1920s, the lands surrounding both the lakes had mostly been developed into middle-class neighborhoods. Paired with the completed Lake Nokomis project to the south, land values in south Minneapolis skyrocketed.

As Rice Lake was purchased, the Park Board made their plans for the area clear; the lake would undergo a similar dredging operation to that of Lake Nokomis. The dredged material would be placed along the marshland surrounding the lake to create a new golf course, tennis courts, a small swimming beach, a playground, and other park amenities.

By 1924, the Park Board was preparing their final plans for Rice Lake. During this process, it was determined that the lake would be given a name more endearing to the history of Minnesota. Thus, Rice Lake became no more as the lake was renamed as Lake Hiawatha.

The name Lake Hiawatha was first introduced by Commissioner E. S. Youngdahl. Youngdahl suggested that the new name would be a fitting complement to Lake Nokomis and Minnehaha Creek which bore names in keeping with the Longfellow poem lexicon.

Days after the name change, Dr. William Watts Folwell, President Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, expressed his dismay for the new lake name. Dr. Folwell suggested that Hiawatha derived from the language of the Ojibwe peoples, who did not inhabit the portion of the state that the lake was located in. Dr. Folwell stated that the Native Americans that frequented the shores of Lake Hiawatha, Lake Nokomis, and Minnehaha Creek (which Dr. Folwell said was named correctly) were Dakotan tribes.

To offer a solution, Folwell suggested several names that he felt were more aptly representative of the lake and the Dakota language. Folwell proposed four names: Lake Minihaza (Huckleberry Lake), Lake Miniwaga (Swan Lake), Bde Psin (Rice Lake) and Lake Minimaga. Folwell felt that his suggestions would be more appropriate homage to the Dakotan people. Folwell’s final suggestion landed on Lake Minimaga, accented on the last syllable. In a back and forth of newspaper editorials between Dr. Folwell and The Park Board; the Park Board acknowledged Dr. Folwell’s contributions but ultimately chose Lake Hiawatha for the new name of the body of water.

By 1927, plans were approved by the Park Board for improvements to Lake Hiawatha and the Minnehaha creek valley from Lake Hiawatha to Minnehaha Regional Park for the quoted cost of $636,000. The Park Board began to dredge Lake Hiawatha on July 16, 1929, completed two years later on July 17, 1931. In total, 1,257,382 cubic yards of soil were dredged from the lake.

1929 dredging blueprints for Lake Hiawatha, courtesy of the Hennepin County Digital Library

In early 1932, the grading of Minnehaha Creek was completed and the dredge-filled grounds of Hiawatha Park began to resemble the 18-hole golf course. The Hiawatha Golf Course when completed was advertised to be the longest of the golf courses in Minneapolis at the time with grass greens and undulating fairways. Each green was meticulously surrounded with water hazards and traps. The modest clubhouse perched on a hill to the west of the course was admired for its attractive architecture. Wirth believed that when the golf course was planned to open in 1934, it would become the most popular course in the state.

Dredging operation at Lake Hiawatha in 1929, courtesy of the Minnesota Digital Library

Hiawatha Golf Course

The new Hiawatha Golf Course opened to the public on July 30, 1934. On the day of its opening, the first foursome teed off consisting of Earl Raymond, Director of Recreation; John Jepson, President of the Park Board; Anthony Ingenhutt, Park Board Vice President; and Theodore Wirth, Park Board Superintendent. The four played the front nine holes of the course, with the back nine holes opening the following year.

Players at Hiawatha Golf Course, 1934. Courtesy of the Minnesota Digital Library.

The history of Hiawatha Golf Course has flourished since its inception. Most famously, the Hiawatha Golf Course became one of the only courses in Minnesota that allowed African American golfers to play the course. What started in 1939 as the Minnesota Negro Open Golf Tournament later grew into the Upper Midwest Bronze Invitational. By the 1960s, the Upper Midwest Bronze Invitational - a tournament exclusive to African American golfers - found its perennial home at Hiawatha. Although the tournament’s popularity peaked in the 1970s, The Bronze remained at Hiawatha through the early 1990s.

However historical the course may be, the former wetland underneath the golf course reared its head many times over the last 85 years. In 1936, 1952, 1965, 1987, and in 2014, Lake Hiawatha flooded its basin, dumping millions of gallons of water onto the course. The course has been prone to flooding as the majority of the fairways are below the level of the waterline at the adjacent lake. As a result of the 2014 flooding, the back nine of the golf course remained closed for a few seasons for repairs. To combat the threat of flooding, rip-rap and retaining walls were outfitted along the shore of the lake in the 1930s and ‘40s, berms were constructed to barricade the course from flood events, and pumping stations were placed throughout the course to pump a million gallons of water away from the course daily.

Workers damming Lake Nokomis to prevent flooding downstream at Hiawatha Golf Course in 1936, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

This pumping operation has been detrimental to the water quality at Lake Hiawatha and downstream at Minnehaha Creek. From the golf course, fertilizer and other chemicals have been polluting the ecosystem of the two bodies of water.

Thus, after the 2014 flooding event, discussions began regarding the future of the golf course. Some members of the community thought it would be best to entirely remove the golf course from the area and return the land back to its natural wetland state. Others felt that the golf course should remain as-is because of its rich history and the revitalization of the sport during the pandemic.

As a result, the park board and community recently found compromise. In September of this year, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board voted 6-3 in favor of a new plan to mitigate flooding issues by reducing the golf course to a nine-hole design. Hiawatha Golf Course will still exist with a reduced footprint as plans are now underway to redesign the course and practice facility. The remaining reclaimed land will be partially returned to a wetland state, with the potential for new walking and bike trails around the lake.


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“Wage Question to be Settled. Park Board Will Take up Issue at its Next Meeting” Minnesota Daily Star, January 3, 1924. P. 17.

“Lake Hiawatha is not Proper, Says Folwell” The Minneapolis Star, February 4, 1924. P. 13.

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"Dredging Plan for Lake Hiawatha Park" Hennepin County Digital Library, 1929.

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