Coldwater Spring: A Minnesota Historic Landmark

For many years, an abandoned site located between Minnehaha Park and Fort Snelling contained the remains of a cultural and historic landmark important to the development of the military site and the Twin Cities. I’m sure few people even knew the site was there, let alone what it contained. It’s called Coldwater Spring, an abundant source of clean water that drew settlers throughout the region’s history. This little-known landmark is currently being restored, and this fall the 29-acre site will reopen as part of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area as an urban national park.

Perhaps in a moment of hyperbole, one might call this little-known site the birthplace of Minnesota. Long before our state was even known as the Minnesota Territory, the Dakota and Ojibiwa visited the site. Work on the nearby Fort Snelling, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, began in the early 1800s, which is largely responsible for the development of the city of Minneapolis. The Coldwater spring site attracted some of the state’s first European settlers in 1837. Traders and trappers also used the site for a camp, as squatters quickly located near the military reserve. Eventually the site would include stables, blacksmiths, and a nearby farmstead. Over the years, the location has been used as a trading post, farmland, reservoir, and even the St. Louis Hotel, which operated during the early 1850s. 


       The Coldwater springhouse circa 1885, and as it looked before restoration efforts began in 2010.

By the late 1870s, Fort Snelling had grown to become a major post. The spring had to provide a reliable source of water, and the Army began to build the modern waterworks on the nearby Coldwater Springs site, which would eventually include several buildings, including those to house fuel and the pump house. The construction also included the springhouse and the reservoir, the remains of which can be seen at the site today. During the 1920s, the U.S. Army began to draw its water supply from the city of St. Paul, leaving the Coldwater Waterworks to fall into disrepair. The Coldwater site has been closed to the public for many years, but that’s about to change.

In 2010, the National Park Service began to manage the property and they soon drew up plans to renovate the area into a national park and recreation area. In fact, Coldwater Spring is the largest piece of National Park Service land within the 72-mile Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. The restored landscape will include wetland as well as areas resembling an oak savanna and prairies. (The land will look much like the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary at the edge of St. Paul.) As part of the development, the National Park Service also will restore the historic springhouse, Coldwater Creek, and the historic Coldwater Reserve.

The video below takes a look at the National Park Service’s renovation process. Coldwater Spring will open to the public in September, a beautiful site rich with history for Minneapolis and St. Paul residents to enjoy in their own backyard.