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The Sick Creek in the City of Lakes

Updated: Aug 8

If you’re anything like me, you experience the world around you behind the screen of your phone. Panning through Google Maps to find the fastest route to work, or to find that new bar everyone is raving about in the North Loop. If you’re also like me, you may have noticed that pair of odd, blue streaks that irregularly jog through this section of Minneapolis on Google Maps. Your initial thought may be “well that’s not right, I can’t think of any stream in the North Loop.” In a sense, you’re spot on! There isn’t a creek in the North Loop, rather, it’s below the North Loop.


Bassett Creek is an ancient water catchment with a modern story to tell. Flowing a length of 12 miles from its source at Medicine Lake, the creek meanders through backyards, parks, and golf courses in the suburbs to the west of Minneapolis. Once the creek reaches Minneapolis, it quickly vanishes in a gargantuan tunnel; traveling deep underneath roadways, parking lots, buildings, and railways. It’s crazy to think is that fans enjoying a Twins game on a weekend afternoon are none the wiser that there’s a creek flowing through a deep, dark tunnel dozens of feet underneath them.


The headwaters of Bassett Creek at Medicine Lake. When water levels are high, the creek spills over the concrete weir.

Minnesota’s largest city is home to the state’s sickest urban creek. The thing is, it makes sense why it’s so sick; it’s an overwhelmed watershed unable to cope with so many humans. What was once a place of vegetation, mud, rocks, and biodiversity is now one of impenetrable surfaces feeding a network of sewers and drains. No Minnesotan creek has suffered as much from urbanization as Basset Creek.


The creek was named after settler Joel Bean Bassett, who worked his farm and sawmill at the creek’s confluence with the Mississippi beginning in 1852. By 1856, the city began to develop a street grid near Bassett’s property in the present day North Loop. Bassett, seeing this as a moment of opportunity, sold much of his property to be developed into city lots prime for industrial development.


Even in Minneapolis’ early history, Bassett Creek was designated as the city’s other creek. Minnehaha Creek was much more idyllic with its beloved Minnehaha Falls and Longfellow Glen. The falls at Minnehaha ensured that Minnehaha Creek was destined as parkland for citizens of Minneapolis to enjoy.


Bassett Creek unfortunately did not receive the same love as its southern counterpart. As more residents and industry moved in near the banks of Bassett Creek in the late 1800s, the more the creek suffered. By 1876, Bassett Creek was becoming a hazardous issue. Runoff of oils, fats, chemicals, and effluent from the several factories of the Warehouse District all found their way into Bassett Creek’s watershed. The common joke was that if you fell into the creek, you’d dissolve. Individuals walking through the Warehouse District knew they were approaching Bassett Creek when they began to smell its sickly sweet perfume. The city planned to tidy up the undisciplined creek within neat cement banks. This plan took several decades to initiate, with an 1882 article stating that the creek was “a prolific source of filth and poison… the suggestion that a solution of the difficulty might be found in turning the creek into a sewer, the outlet of which should be below [St. Anthony Falls], is certainly worthy of consideration.”


Bassett Creek's meandering path through Minneapolis, 1882.

Even by the time the Minneapolis Park Board came into existence in 1883, they had no interest in Bassett Creek. Park Board landscape architect at the time, Horace Cleveland, stated “The region traversed by Bassett’s creek is one which threatens danger to the health of the future city, and its proper treatment is a problem that demands early attention. No one has said anything to me in regard to it, and it was only as I have crossed it at one or two different points that I have had an opportunity to observe it. I venture to make only one suggestion in regard to it, which is that the risk of malaria from it will be greatly increased by the construction of causeways across it at the points where it is crossed by streets, as the valley between every two streets would thus be converted into a deep pit, impervious to the air, whereas if bridges are used, the winds would still have free passage up and down the valley.”


Several ideas were proposed to counter the city’s suggestion to tunnel the creek. Real estate investor Louis Menage brought forth a plan to route the creek across a swath of land he owned to the west of Washington Avenue so he could build houses there. However, Menage’s plan didn’t hold much weight. Most residents that once lived near Bassett Creek had already departed to other areas of the city further away from the noise and pollution that came with the industrial area of the Warehouse District. Bassett himself had long left the banks of the creek named after him, relocating to a home on Nicollet Island in 1870.


Another suggestion by early conservationists advocated the diversion of Bassett Creek’s course into the chain of lakes. This idea was largely backed by the community as a 1905 Minneapolis Journal article, Getting Rid of a Nuisance, suggested the proposal that in the drier summer months, the addition of Bassett’s waterflow into the chain of lakes would guarantee a steady stream of water for visitors' pleasure downstream at Minnehaha Falls. Thus, “relieving everyone of the Bassett Creek problem.” The idea here was that the diversion of Bassett Creek into the chain of lakes would cut off the creek’s flow into the Warehouse District, thus, “suppressing this truculent little river” from further pollution and flooding in the city’s industrial center.


Bassett Creek in 1894.

Of course, this suggestion never materialized either. Bassett Creek continued to be a problem for the city that needed sorting out. A 1906 article concluded that “[eliminating] Bassett Creek is not an easy matter.” As it turned out, they were right. Eliminating Bassett Creek wasn’t an option, but building over the creek was. In 1908, the city began to tunnel the creek at its confluence with the Mississippi; by 1912, the entombment through the Warehouse District was all but complete. Roughly 60 years after the city of Minneapolis was born, Bassett Creek had transitioned from a peaceful flowing body of water to a polluted sewer buried 80 feet underground.


Over the last 110 years, there have been countless plans for the restoration and reclamation of Bassett Creek. There have been plans to daylight the creek, plans to clean it from pollutants, plans to straighten its flow, plans to divert it, and plans to turn portions of its path into storm retention ponds.


Aerial photo of Bassett Creek's path to the tunnel in Minneapolis, 1937.

Of these several plans, there were two public reclamation projects for the section of Bassett Creek within Minneapolis that came to fruition. The first came in 1934, when the Fruen Milling Company donated a dozen acres of land to Theodore Wirth Park. The Works Progress Administration hired hundreds of individuals to tidy up the creek and straighten the creek’s channel north of Glenwood Avenue. This public works project was not without its issues. A culvert built to connect the straightened channel with the original creek bed was built incorrectly. As a result, the water from the original creek bed had no place to go. Where there was once a 9-foot deep sandy swimming hole at Bassett Creek has now become a shallow eutrophic pool where algal blooms are a common occurrence. For nearly 100 years, this old creek bed has been a stagnant body of water, unable to flow through the culvert.


The stagnant portion of Bassett Creek from the 1934 public works project.

The second reclamation project for Bassett Creek occurred in the 1990s in the Sumner-Field neighborhood. Sumner-Field was located just west of Interstate 94, once consisting of a low income housing project built during the middle of the twentieth century on top of Bassett Creek’s original course. The housing was built atop unstable soils, which ultimately led to severe foundational issues and continuous flooding. This issue was exacerbated as all runoff from the surrounding freeway and impermeable surfaces couldn’t flow into the wetlands that once surrounded this portion of the creek. Over the course of several years and several lawsuits, large portions of this neighborhood were razed, and portions of Bassett Creek and surrounding wetlands were retrofitted to see daylight for the first time in over half a century. Today, Heritage Park has replaced Sumner-Field.


The last 300 yards of Bassett Creek before it vanishes into the tunnel just past Van White Memorial Parkway is where the creek is sickest. Designated as a Superfund site, toxic metals and waste have seeped into the water from a nearby waste dump and impound lot. Not long ago, it wasn’t uncommon to find large debris such as trash bags, shopping carts, and tires in this section of the creek. Most of the larger detritus has been removed from the creek. However, smaller clues of waste remain such as soda bottles, beer cans, food wrappers, and the occasional errant golf ball from one of the upstream golf courses.


Entrance to Bassett Creek tunnel at the Superfund site.

Bassett’s path of least resistance has been rapidly changed by the hands of humans during the industrialization of the city. I’m convinced such places as Bassett Creek are fascinating to most, but given they often stink and they’re wet and hard to reach; it’s simpler to go places that smell nice that the city wants you to see, rather than places the city hides under its industrial past. A problem arises - Bassett Creek’s sickness is invisible in the places we cannot see, and entirely up to what we do or don’t read. And even for me, who gives a damn about this type of stuff, it’s all too easy to turn the page and find something more pleasant to read.


Where fresh water becomes a reason to make camp, camps become settlements, settlements become villages, and finally a city. Cities spur development and industry, and industry pollutes the surrounding land and waters. And that’s where Minneapolis finds itself today: with a problem hundreds of years in the making. Several plans have been prescribed to this sick creek, but most of these have remained just that - plans. But the good news is Minneapolis’ twin city, St. Paul, is working to daylight their once-tunneled Phalen Creek. Perhaps Minneapolis can learn a thing or two from its neighbor to the east.


Minneapolis is without a doubt a remarkable city; a famous sculpture garden, home to professional sports teams, and a fabulous parks system all to be found within its defined borders. But this reductionist view doesn’t expose the cross-sectional life of Minneapolis; and perhaps the greatest insight of all - where sickness resides. A tunnel that was once a creek does; a watershed, representing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.


Sources:


“Minnesota Historical Aerial Photographs Online” WN-9-783. July 26, 1937. https://geo.lib.umn.edu/Hennepin_County/y1937/WN-9-783.jpg


“Getting Rid of a Nuisance” The Minneapolis Journal, May 5, 1905. P. 20.


Stamps, David. “The Hiding of Bassett Creek” Star Tribune, September 29, 1985. P. 18.


Ek, Trinity. “Hidden Waterways: Bassett Creek” Open Rivers, Spring 2021. https://openrivers.lib.umn.edu/article/hidden-waterways-bassett-creek/


Miles, Beau "Bad River" YouTube. July 28, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmxKUwB8VFQ&t=1173s


Smith, David. “The Myth of Bassett’s Creek” Minneapolis Park History, November 27, 2011. https://minneapolisparkhistory.com/2011/11/27/the-myth-of-bassetts-creek/


Hart, Chas. H. Davison's Pocket Map of Minneapolis, Minnesota. 1882. Hennepin County Library, James K. Hosmer Special Collections Library, collection.mndigital.org/catalog/mpls:252 Accessed 2 Aug. 2022.


Rainville Jr., Michael. "Bassett's Creek" Mill City Times, June 28, 2020. http://millcitytimes.com/news/bassetts-creek.html


Johnson, Daryl. "BassettCreek_TheTunnel" July 8, 2019. https://amaliatulkki.com/bassettcreek_thetunnel/


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