Thursday, July 18, 2019

The History of St Paul’s "New" Grand Round Bike Trail

In 1870, the University of Minnesota's first president and librarian, William Watts Folwell, or simply Billy, as his mother called him, was presiding over just a single building. However, the school’s enrollment had ballooned to three hundred students from a mere forty in attendance two years before.

As the president of a rapidly growing university, he needed help - certainly with buildings but designing the grounds as well. For this, according to research done by local parks historian and author David C. Smith, Folwell wrote to Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City.  Olmsted wrote back to Folwell with only “perfunctory advice” and showed little interest in a commission.

Two years later, when Folwell was called away to Washington, DC during a time he was scheduled to give a presentation to civic leaders in St. Paul, he asked another landscape architect who had once worked for Olmstead to give the talk for him. 

His name was Horace W. S. Cleveland, and he held similar ideas to Olmstead about preserving and using the natural landscape in all his projects.

During this speech, Cleveland spoke at length about the importance of securing land for parks along the banks of the Mississippi River before quarry owners ruined one of the twin cities’ truly scenic wonders.

He also highlighted the lands around Lake Como and Lake Phalen. He said that he would “…unconditionally recommend that you secure the control of the shores of both of these legs, and connect them with the city and with each other by avenues befitting the wants of the time…”

It seems Cleveland was the first speak forcefully not just in favor of building parks in the twin cities but building “park ways” which would have features of both and would connect areas and diverse neighborhoods.

Cleveland’s talk was met with great enthusiasm; it was repeated the next night.  He returned to St. Paul and completed two private projects a year later in 1873. (One was for a land development plan for St Anthony Park ordered by former Minnesota governor William Rainey Marshall who owned large tracks of land between Como Lake and Minneapolis.)

Due to economic conditions, there was a lull but ten years later, Cleveland came back to the city of St Paul to give a second speech. This time, Minneapolis moved ahead on his suggestions. They established a park board with Charles M. Loring as president. They hired Cleveland.

In 1884, Folwell stepped down as the president of the University of Minnesota (although he still retained some important duties) and expanded his work in public life. In 1888, he joined the Minneapolis park board as well.

Although the term “Grand Rounds” appears in the Minneapolis park reports as early as 1890, it was probably a bit later that the term coalesced into the bike/pedestrian/riding path that it is most famous for today.

In 1895, his first year as president of the Minneapolis park board, Folwell wrote that “It may be that the splendid scheme of Mr. Cleveland and Mr. Loring may never be perfected in all its details, but Minneapolis will never be satisfied unless it is executed in spirit and essential features… The “Grand Rounds” must be at length accomplished…”

In 1887, St Paul established a park board – five years after Minneapolis. It also hired Cleveland in 1888. In addition to Lake Como, the city acquired the lake and Phalen Park in 1889.

In 1898, in its seventh annual report, the park board’s commissioners wrote that they “…have not been backward in recognizing the rapidly growing claims of the bicycle to the liberal treatment and hospitable accommodation of our system of parks and parkways. Bicycle paths have been provided for in the new improvement of Como Parkway and Como Boulevard, and will form a feature of Midway Parkway, and doubtless of all other boulevards and parkways which may be constructed hereafter by the board.”

As many as one thousand bike racks were in place at Lake Como.

A 1907 map shows both the established and proposed parkways necessary to achieve the vision of St Paul’s Grand Round parkway system encircling the city. 
 1907 Map Showing Existing and Proposed Routes Needed
 to Finish St Paul's Grand Round- Courtesy MN Historical Society

After the turn of the century, however, St Paul’s park board made some more progress but appears to have suffered from some infighting and was unable to get its Grand Round done. Interest in the project waned until 2000 when a new master plan was created.

Finally, in 2016 Mayor Chris Coleman announced that the city would not only begin work but complete the missing (primarily northern) parts needed to connect the city with a coherent Grand Round trail of its own – more than 140 years after it was first proposed.

If most of the work is completed by the end of 2020 as planned, St Paul should have its official continuous “Grand Round” bike loop ahead of Minneapolis fully closing its own Grand Rounds loop – a true tortoise and the hare story.

Grand Round Update:

For the intrepid rider, much of the St Paul Grand Round course is ready to go as is. Look for the Saint Paul Grand Round logo as it starts to appear on new signs, kiosks, trail markers and even manhole covers along the ride.

Note: Construction is scheduled for 2020 for the part along Como Blvd between St Anthony Park and Como Park. For full details, see Grand Round Design & Implementation Plan on the city’s website.

Below is a suggested route to take between July 2019 and October 2019 while Wheelock Parkway is closed due to roadwork and Johnson Parkway and Como Blvd legs have yet to be started:


This article first appeared in the Park Bugle: