The Most Historic Land in Minnesota

P1: Coldwater reservoir, Spring House and the "Spirit Tree," January 1998 (coldest day of the year—note steam coming off reservoir water since the Spring's sourcewater is warmer than the air). The Spirit Tree (up, right) lost its major limbs in a spring 1998 storm, secondary limbs grew. A Coldwater supporter burned the hollow tree (4/19/09) after placing an offering of lit sage in the cushion of duff inside the shell of the trunk.
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P2: Coldwater supporters, December 17, 1989; up, left, corner of huge warehouse that dumps stormwater down the hillside; up right the blonde limbs of the willow tree. The elm, hackberry and other trees around the reservoir have been removed. (click image for larger view)
Photo: Dick Bancroft.
We don't know the names of the Native American peoples who lived around Coldwater Spring after the last glacier melt 10,000-years-ago. The Dakota people were there when soldiers camped at the Spring while building Fort Snelling (1820-3) above the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. (P1, P2)

The Spring furnished water to the Fort 1820-1920 and still flows at a reduced rate of about 80,000 gallons per day. During the drought summer of 1976 when city water tasted putrid, Coldwater was an emergency drinking water supply for south Minneapolis.

Friends of Coldwater (FoC) was founded in 2001, on the shoulders of Park and River Alliance, Stop the Reroute—Save the Park, and Preserve Camp Coldwater Coalition as the movement to save this historic land and waterscape changed with passing time. In January 2010 the National Park Service/Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (NPS/MNRRA) began managing the 27-acre Coldwater property.

Friends of Coldwater is one of the consulting parties to the NPS/MNRRA Memorandum of Agreement to transition the property from industrial research campus to open parkland. Since February 2011 we have been asking, repeatedly, to see the plans before plans are finalized.

It is the frustration of arbitrary tree removal, toxic chemical application and recent land damage that leads us to the extraordinary step of writing to the regional director of the NPS.

Sacred Land/Traditional Cultural Property

"[W]e wish to put on record our opinion that Coldwater Spring meets the criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP)," Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Britta L. Bloomberg from the Minnesota Historical Society wrote (4/14/10) to Paul Labovitz, Superintendent, NPS/MNRRA.

"Our staff has reviewed the ethnographic resources study prepared by your cultural resources consultant (June 2006) and are in agreement with their findings that the site does qualify as a TCP. We were surprised that the National Park Service has disagreed with this determination.... We want to be clear that signing the MOA [Memorandum of Agreement] in no way implies that we concur with the National Park Service's opinion on this matter....

"In addition we have some concerns regarding the extent and nature of future land restoration and landscape modification for this site. Stipulation II.B. of the MOA commits the National Park Service to sharing with us in advance any such landscape plans, and incorporating our review comments. We anticipate a continued discussion as your plans take shape." (see document)

Friends of Coldwater, another signatory to the MOA, agrees with five points made by the Minnesota State Historical Preservation Office:
1) Coldwater is a TCP.
2) Signing the MOA in no way implies that we concur with the NPS's opinion to deny Native American TCP status to the Coldwater site.
3) We have concerns about the extent and nature of landscape modification plans.
4) We expect to see landscape plans in advance.
5) We anticipate having our review comments incorporated into NPS landscape plans.

It is uncomfortable to bring up the palpable anti-Indian prejudice in Minnesota. For example, there is no Dakota or Ojibwe museum in the Twin Cities although downtown Minneapolis boasts a Mill City Museum. The potential for Indian tourism, particularly with German and Japanese visitors along with domestic vacationers, is invisible. Extensive bicycle trails and the Mall of America are the selling points here currently.

The Dakota-U.S. War of 1862 has its sesquicentennial next year. A mass hanging of 38 Dakota men was executed on December 26, 1862, in Mankato. After the war Dakota people were confined over the extremely cold winter of 1862-3 and the survivors shipped out of state. A bounty for Indian scalps was offered by the state in the late 1800s; Little Crow's scalp fetched $75 in 1863.

Indian youth lag behind their peers in school affecting later earning capacity with the attendant social/cultural fallout. The poverty rate among Minnesota Indian people is 39-percent according to the most recent census data.

This is an insensitive time to ignore popular acknowledgment that Coldwater is a Native American sacred site. The other sacred spring, called the Great Medicine Spring, was permanently dewatered in the late 1980s for Interstate-394 west out of Minneapolis.

Because Coldwater is commonly considered a sacred site, people both Native and non-Indian leave offerings. (This writer observed such practice throughout England and Scotland.) It was surprising to learn that MNRRA and NPS staff routinely remove these offerings despite posted notice that it is unlawful to "collect, appropriate" etc. any artifact.

In 2003 Coldwater Spring was one of 29 places featured on the University of Minnesota Design Institute's spirituality-themed Knowledge Map of the Twin Cities.

"In nature we find the spring from which all spiritual traditions grow; in places we find the space in which to connect spiritually with ourselves and others…." The Saint Paul Cathedral along with 16 other houses of worship, the Minnesota River path, Lakewood Cemetery, (Indian) Mounds Park and the Falls of Saint Anthony in downtown Minneapolis are also on this map.

Coldwater supporter Mary Ann Meyer says, "It's time for them [MNRRA] to get their vision in line with the vision of the community."

Poison in the Well

P3: Coldwater Spring House interior, graffiti on west (orange) and east (white) walls after Goof Off treatment. The North wall is disintegrating under the pressure of emerging groundwater; outflow of groundwater is at the northwest corner of the structure, the only place where people are advised to collect spring water. Tree stump inside Spring House is the "step" for people to scoot down for water collection, August 31, 2011.
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On Wednesday, August 31, 2011, MNRRA used Goof Off to remove graffiti inside the historic Spring House. Goof Off contains Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) which were washed onto the floor of the Spring House, into the (unpainted) porous cement of the interior walls, and into the reservoir water.

The treatment failed to remove graffiti. The public was never cautioned about collecting water which has been used for drinking, cooking and in ceremony since 1998 with popular rediscovery and research into the site. (P3)

MNRRA used the free labor of people steered into Sentence to Serve rather than jail for minor crimes for graffiti treatment. Workers wore dust masks that do not protect against VOCs.

State of the art laser removal vaporizes graffiti and is recommended for historic sites. Sand blasting results in paint and cement dust blasted into the air and dropped into the water. Painting over the graffiti or motion activated camera surveillance was apparently not considered.

P4: Jane Byron, technician with local government authority for ground and surface water, Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, standing in the erosion ravine at the top of the hillside behind (west of) the reservoir, May 16, 2005.
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Erosion, Deforestation and Regrading

In 1996 the 27-acre fenced, former Cold War research facility closed and Coldwater became a federal orphan under the minimal management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Invasive exotics, buckthorn and garlic-mustard, encroached shading out natives on the Mississippi bluff and erosion resulted. (P4)

Building 11, a huge warehouse constructed without gutters by the Bureau of Mines (BOM) above the Spring, drained stormwater down the hillside toward the Spring House and reservoir. During Light Rail Transit construction, late 1990s into early 2000s, the warehouse was heavily used and construction equipment compacted soil at the crest of the hill. Stormwater and spring melt created a "V" in the land delineating a single downhill passage that became a ravine.

Eric Evenson, administrator of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (LGA, Local Government Authority for Coldwater Spring and creek), advised MNRRA before it assumed management of Coldwater, that addressing hillside erosion would include stabilizing the top and bottom of the ravine.

MNRRA removed buckthorn, laid down several erosion control mats and sowed rye grass on the hillside but never tried to correct the growing ravine carving a channel down the hill. Building 11 is scheduled to be the last building razed at Coldwater.

P5a: Three photos, all March 20, 2009: Labyrinth rocks atop fist-sized rocks dumped into the erosion ravine, over-looking the reservoir—looking east across the Mississippi gorge.
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P5b: Frozen spring meltwater showing eroded path down-bluff to the reservoir. Fire circle rocks barely show at far left edge of snow.
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P5c: Dakota men's fire circle with rocks brought to the site from a sweat ceremony location, looking west.
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P6: Greg Strandmark, member Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, with one of the carp illegally dumped into the reservoir, standing beside the willow tree and the defaced Minnesota Historical Society plaque (erected 1991); photo taken July 17, 2009.
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In December 2002 a labyrinth was laid out with evergreen boughs at Coldwater on a rise just north of the Spring House. Over time visitors, mostly non-Indian who also consider Coldwater to be a sacred landscape, maintained the labyrinth with offerings of rocks and tree branches.

The labyrinth was visited more frequently than the Spring because it was more accessible. People simply showed up at all hours to walk the 7-circuits (symbol of the Mother Earth for Hopi people) in a meditative manner.

In November 2007, at the behest of MNRRA, "the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had the [labyrinth] materials removed to be used for erosion control." The large rocks were dumped at the top of the hillside above the Spring which exacerbated the erosion.

Previously FWS had dumped a load of fist-sized and smaller rocks into the ravine. Added to those rocks and the large labyrinth rocks, MNRRA later pressed FWS to remove big rocks from an Indian sacred fire circle at the top of the hill above the Spring—those rocks too went into the ever-deepening ravine. Rocks, of course, do not have roots and do not hold the soil. (P5a, P5b, P5c)

With destruction of the labyrinth visitors to the property dropped off and graffiti artists and junkies moved in. The Main Building became a drug "shooting gallery," thieves broke into one building after another for copper pipes, and kids found a great place to vandalize.

In 2001, then-Congressman Martin Sabo requested a study to determine the cost of removing all the decaying asbestos and mold-ridden BOM buildings and infrastructure; $1-million was the answer. Since 1996 the federal government has spent more than a million on site security. The buildings are currently scheduled to be removed this winter, 2011-12. (P6)

In early August 2011, MNRRA contracted with a Milwaukee archaeological firm to conduct another survey at Coldwater. Artifacts found include one trade bead with scratch marks that look like a snake head and an Indianhead penny—both post-contact finds, found southwest of the Spring and reservoir.

Originally the hill behind the Spring was 17-feet higher, MNRRA reported. Studies before this archaeological dig gave evidence of extensive re-contouring of the land by the U.S. Army for the reservoir and waterworks that pumped water to Fort Snelling from 1880 to 1920, and from the 1950s to 1980s, much more earth-moving for the BOM campus buildings and roads.

Regrading the land back to the 1880s without rebuilding the hill behind the Spring lacks historic consistency. Re-contouring the land in itself means loss of vegetation and more erosion.
P7a: Archaeological trench on the hillside west, behind and above Coldwater reservoir, week of August 8, 2011.
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P7b: Coldwater hillside shorn of vegetation, trenched, and backfilled by a bulldozer on August 16, 2011. The hillside is a couple of feet lower than the surrounding land with vegetative cover. Note the visitor and the hole left of the Spring House where the 1880s steps are completely eroded.
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P8a: Archaeological worker in the deepest of three trenches around the willow tree; note the soil layers, week of August 8, 2011.
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P8b: Archaeological trench with seeping water beside the willow tree, week of August 8, 2011.
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P8c: Willow tree cutters under the tree with a back-filled trench in the foreground, August 18, 2011.
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P9a: Hillside dirt flowing downhill past the Spring House into the reservoir. A seeping grotto has formed behind the Spring House where steps down to the reservoir are completely eroded, August 18, 2011.
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P9b: The fist-sized rocks slid downhill. Larger rocks from the labyrinth and Dakota men's fire were considered sacred and had been moved to safer locations by people who don't write letters to bureaucrats, August 18, 2011.
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P9c: Fist–sized rocks covered by erosion mat after rye grass seeds were sprinkled around; this part of the hillside will have trouble holding with the spring melt, August 30, 2011.
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P10: Around the Spring House where erosion is most extreme, hillside dirt has filled the edge of the reservoir above the water level, September 2, 2011.
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P11: Coldwater Spring House needs a roof to shade the Spring and to protect the historic limestone structure from further weathering, August 30, 2011.
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Seven trenches were dug in the immediate Coldwater reservoir area. Two of the trenches were dug vertically on the already seriously eroded hillside behind (west of) the reservoir. (P7a, P7b)

Three trenches were dug close to the great willow tree, ripping up roots the size of an adult's arm and leg. John Anfinson, Ph.D. history, MNRRA Chief of Resource Management, told Coldwater supporters that the willow would be removed. There was a huge outcry. On 6/7/11 he sent out an email stating "While the willow tree is very old and fragile, we are leaving it in." (P8a, P8b, P8c)

On 6/8/11 Anfinson reiterated: "I made it very clear in my email yesterday and at the Full Moon Walk that we had no plans to take down the willow." On 8/16/11 the archaeology trenches were back-filled.

On 8/10/11, Sheldon Wolfchild, Dakota leader from the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation in Morton, Minnesota, posted a letter addressed to Anfinson who said he never received the letter.

"The Dakota people who respect and honor our Sacred Sites and the natural vegetation surrounding these sites which include specific sacred trees such as our willow trees! and in particular the Sacred willow tree at our Dakota Sacred site Coldwater Spring, are requesting you grant the wish of our elders and spiritual leaders to put a stop on cutting down our Sacred willow tree at Coldwater spring."

On 8/18/11, MNRRA officials and Coldwater supporters who had gathered to witness the removal of "Grandmother Willow" noticed that the erosion control "snake" between the hillside and the reservoir had been over-topped with eroded dirt. (P9a, P9b, P9c) The erosion control device lasted less than 48 hours. Dirt in the reservoir is above the water level, 5-feet, on the of the west (hill) side. (P10)

Sr. Jane McDonald, Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet, compares Coldwater to the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis—one sacred basilica, one sacred spring. Coldwater supporter Dee Logan said, "The willow tree is down but the buildings are still standing."

People bond deeply with trees—beyond their ecological and financial value. Trees seem to be our elder relatives, greater in wisdom, strength, protection, beauty. Every culture, religion and state has tree associations.

MNRRA spokesman Alan Robbins-Fenger, Land Use and Planning Specialist, said: "We didn't know where the trenches would be," and, cutting the willow roots "wouldn't hurt the tree." It is our understanding that MNRRA contracted for the archaeological survey and thus is the responsible party.

Apparently tree limb crutches were never considered for the willow. Over 100 willow cuttings were picked-up by Coldwater supporters to plant as the next generation of the beloved willow.

FoC was told that MNRRA's ecological consultant is located in Denver, Colorado. We wonder why Native Americans with historic knowledge of this area and non-Indians who have been intimate with the land since the mid-1990s are not consulted.

We question the wisdom of making decisions about this ancient, fragile landscape by people at out of state desks. FoC does not understand why stabilizing the ravine, like "stabilizing the patient," is not a priority.

Coldwater supporters were told by Dr. Anfinson that the area would become an oak savanna, then modified to a mixed hardwood savanna but that "no trees would be permitted around the spring." The only oaks left on the 27-acre Coldwater property after soldiers and pioneers cut them for firewood (1820s-40s), are at the extreme north and south ends, at least a quarter mile from the Spring.

Since oaks are very slow growing no one alive today will live to see the proposed savanna. Every tree and sumac bush existing near the Spring is to be removed. Also scheduled for taking down are approximately 65 pines and spruces planted by BOM in the 1960s and 1970s, and native cottonwoods and Manitoba maples (box elder).

A dense grove of 100-plus-year-old burr oaks line the length and hold the soil atop most of the Mississippi gorge from the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers upstream to downtown Minneapolis. Mississippi blufftop ecology evolved with this oak savanna transition between the tall grass prairie to the west and the eastern hardwood forest to the east.

MNRRA announced a small demonstration tall grass prairie "for educational purposes" on the rise above the spring. The Mississippi blufftop is not the habitat for tall grass prairie plants which occur further inland from the river.

The oak savanna habitat is "practically extinct," "rare," "listed as globally imperiled." What a grand undertaking to return this 27-acre plot to indigenous vegetation especially during the climate change yo-yo weather we've experienced lately.

To maintain the thin soil above the Mississippi gorge, Friends of Coldwater argues for the natural death of existing trees during the years-long transition—rather than a clear-cut park with no place for bird's nests, a silent spring.

Another problem with waiting for 100 years for an oak savanna to grow is that the National Park Service is scheduled for cutting by Congress and a plan for reforestation at Coldwater has not yet been drawn up.


Friends of Coldwater urges MNRRA to reconsider Coldwater as a TCP and to maintain access to the Spring during reconstruction.

Coldwater is arguably the most historic land in Minnesota, a 10,000-year-old Spring just above the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, gathering place for Upper Mississippi tribes and birthplace of the state. Where Coldwater Creek empties into the Mississippi the bedrock is 351-million-years-old. This land holds stories geologic and human.

We are thrilled at the prospect of MNRRA's plan to remove the BOM buildings, roads and infrastructure. Daylighting Coldwater Creek below the reservoir is universally popular.

Constructing an auxiliary creek at the south end of the reservoir would take more water out of the reservoir which now grows algae in June and is without shade since the elms, hackberry and willow have been cut. With no shade and the 20-gallon-per-minute decrease in flow since highway construction, the reservoir is less and less attractive to Native and non-Indian Coldwater supporters and more attractive to vandals and beer party folks.

While many people value the old army reservoir as a meditative reflecting pond others would like to see the ruins of the historic Fort waterworks removed. If the dissolving 1880s limestone Spring House (P11) is to be restored, it needs to be stabilized with a roof ASAP along with soil stabilization of the hillside.

The MNRRA practice of executing plans without notice to consulting parties is causing growing antagonisms. Friends of Coldwater calls for a mediated inclusionary process of face to face discussions with interested supporters.

Susu Jeffrey
for Friends of Coldwater
September 2011

Postscript: In December of 2011, the local head of the National Park Service authorized clear cutting of the 27-acre historic Coldwater property. Hundreds of trees including a grove of indigenous cottonwood trees, a grove of evergreens home to songs birds, indigenous sumac bushes and Manitoba maples, and rows of locusts planted against erosion simply disappeared.

Despite the fact that every climate change authority recommends planting trees as the most important hedge against climate chaos, National Park officials decided to change the look of the land.

Subsequent reconstruction of the Coldwater campus included importation of thousands of tons of dirt fill to flatten the grade of the Mississippi gorge in order to create a prairie. Prairie landscape is the current fashion in park landscaping, it is the cheapest, fastest way to prettify cleared land.

The present superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, John Anfinson Ph.D., is an academic who does not consult with local Dakota leaders. Anfinson claims that the National Park Service “owns” Coldwater.

Coldwater is a recognized, acknowledged Dakota sacred site.

All images by Susu Jeffrey unless otherwise noted.

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