800 Columbia Parkway
Minneapolis, MN 55418
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Major investments at Central Gym Park in 2018 were made possible with funding from the 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan. This historic agreement between MPRB and the City of Minneapolis helps address racial and economic equity across 160 neighborhood parks and provides $11 million annually to maintain, repair and replace facilities.
Name: The park was named to celebrate Columbia Year, 1892, 400 years after Columbus’s first voyage to the new world. The name also may have been derived from the Columbia Heights Addition north of the park. The name was adopted December 15, 1892.
Acquisition and Development
The first 144 acres of Columbia Park, including most of the 40-acre Sandy Lake, were acquired in December 1892 at a total cost of $208,000, which the park board assessed over ten years on property owners in the area. Area landowners had petitioned the park board to approve the acquisition, thus indicating their willingness to be assessed for it. The sellers of the land donated $20,000 for the immediate improvement of the land.
Even before the land was purchased, the board had approved creating a skating rink on Sandy Lake for the winter of 1892-93.
The acquisition was not without controversy. Park Commissioner William Folwell opposed the deal because he thought the price was too high. He called it “jobbery” by “wealthy capitalists.” Other commissioners thought it was in keeping with land values in the area. Park commissioner Albert Boardman wrote later that he thought the acquisition—at the peak of a land boom in the city—was a mistake at that price. One of the promoters of the acquisition was Portius C. Deming who would later serve on the park board for nearly 15 years in two stints, and would have part of St. Anthony Parkway, Deming Heights, named for him many years later.
Folwell opposed the deal even though he supported acquiring the land. A year earlier he had authored a report on the expansion of the park system in which he had encouraged residents of northeast Minneapolis to agitate for the acquisition of a park in northeast that could be the hub of a parkway from Camden Park west of the Mississippi and continuing south back to the Mississippi at the University of Minnesota. It was in that report that Folwell recommended a name for the system of parkways encircling the city: The Grand Rounds.
Folwell’s objection to the price was partially assuaged when the Minneapolis Investment Company, which had sold the land to the park board, donated an additional eight acres of land for the park after Folwell objected to the price.
The park was expanded by 18 acres in 1893 at a cost of $26,600 and by another 13-plus acres in 1911 for about $14,000 more. The 1911 annual report referred to the land acquired as “a finely wooded tract lying immediately west of Central Avenue and north of Thirty-first Avenue Northeast.”
The first development in Columbia Park came in 1894 when the Minneapolis Investment Company constructed a bandstand at its expense in the park.
Despite Folwell’s opposition to the cost of the original land for the park, the acquisition of Columbia Park did serve as a prod for the development of the “Grand Rounds” he desired. In the 1905 annual report of the park board, it noted that petitions to expand Glenwood (Wirth) Park and acquire the shores of Cedar Lake were both viewed in the context of the expanded parkway system. “This project contemplates at some future time,” the report said, “the building of a boulevard northward from Keegan’s (Wirth) Lake along the valley of Bassett’s Creek and across the city by some convenient route to Columbia Park, thus completing the grand project of that master in landscape architecture—the late H.W.S. Cleveland—a boulevard encircling the entire city.”
In 1911, the park board anticipated bond funding to help create a parkway from Camden (Webber) Park in north Minneapolis to Columbia Park. In the next two years, the land was acquired for St. Anthony Parkway from Columbia Park east to Stinson Boulevard. About 60 percent of that land was donated. Those acquisitions left only two missing links in the parkway system at the time, Camden to Columbia and Stinson Boulevard to the University of Minnesota. The former was acquired in the early 1920s, the latter is still “missing.” (A new route for the only remaining missing link was created by the park board in 2008, although the board suggested at that time that it could take many years to acquire the land and develop the parkway.)
In 1930, Theodore Wirth presented a plan for the creation of athletic fields, a picnic shelter and a swimming pool at Columbia Park. In response to calls for swimming facilities east of the river, Wirth proposed a swimming pool for Columbia Park along Central Avenue. He recommended that instead of an outdoor pool, such as at Webber Park, the extra money be spent to make it an indoor pool. With the Great Depression taking hold, however, his plans were not acted on.
In 1940, the park board engaged in “an exchange of land to mutual advantage” at Columbia Park with the Soo Line railroad. While that exchange has been cited by some critics of the park board as an example of the board bowing to commercial interests, it was neither the first nor the last time that the park board accommodated business interests in exchange for what it considered fair value. The same year the park board leased a block of land between Loring Park and The Parade to a car dealership for $5,200 a year, citing the board’s “straightened financial position.”
An offer by the Northeast Lions Club to pay for a picnic shelter in the park in 1955 was accepted by the park board and along with the construction of the shelter in 1956, roads in the park were also upgraded. The park board began an experiment at the Columbia Park picnic shelter that soon was adopted at other park shelters: the metering of electricity. Picnic shelter users could buy electricity by the minute. In 2015 the picnic shelter was renovated. The coin-operated electrical outlets and hot plates are gone, but the shelter's 1950s design was preserved while making numerous accessibility upgrades.
Recreation facilities in Columbia Park received a major upgrade in 1997 with new playground equipment, paths, volleyball and basketball courts and a soccer/rugby field. By that time, cross-country ski trails had also been laid out over the golf course.
The original Columbia Park included most of a forty-acre lake called Sandy Lake. At the time it was acquired, Sandy Lake was described as a spring-fed lake. In 1894, Sandy Lake was officially renamed Lake Menomin, but the name appears to have been little used. In 1910, park superintendent Theodore Wirth noted that Sandy Lake was completely dry. He wrote then that the lake, the bed of which he calculated at 24 acres, “will never be a satisfactory sheet of water” except “possibly” during wet seasons. In 1914, Wirth repeated that the lake existed primarily because of storm-water run-off from the surrounding area. At that time the city was installing a storm sewer through the neighborhood to the Mississippi River and Wirth recommended that the city be asked to place the storm sewer at a level that would also drain the area of Sandy Lake. Park commissioners approved Wirth’s recommendation. Other low land in the park had been drained in 1906.
In his 1926 annual report, park board president Burton Kingsley, recalled fishing and boating in Sandy Lake and suggested restoring the lake by sinking a deep well, which the board had recently done at Longfellow Glen near Minnehaha Falls to ensure a supply of water over the falls. The park board never took up the suggestion. One reason it didn’t may have been that by then the old lake bed had been converted into a golf course.
A persistent myth in northeast Minneapolis is that Theodore Wirth filled Sandy Lake when he was dredging Lake of the Isles from 1907 to 1911. Although water levels in Sandy Lake are reported to have dropped considerably in that time, it is highly unlikely that thousands of yards of muck could have been transported by horse-drawn wagons across the entire city from Lake of the Isles to Sandy Lake.
The muck dredged at Isles was so hard to handle that the first contractor hired to dredge Lake of the Isles quit the job after a couple months in 1907. Even when the park board sued him, he wouldn’t resume work and sacrificed his bond instead. The dredged material was so wet that a system of dikes had to be built on the shores of Lake of the Isles to keep the muck from oozing back into the lake before it dried. It would have been difficult, at the very least, to carry that liquid dirt across the city in wagons.
Moreover, considerable fill was used around Isles: building up the shores of the lake from two to eleven feet along the entire western and southern shores, filling in the lake where two islands once existed near the south shore, building up bridge approaches for the linking of Isles with Calhoun and Cedar, and significantly enlarging the south island that remains. When Lake of the Isles was connected to Calhoun in 1911, the lagoon between them had to be dredged deeper than planned just to get enough fill to create the approaches for street and railroad bridges over the channel.
In addition, park land much closer to Lake of the Isles than Sandy Lake badly needed fill at the time. Among parks needing fill was Kenwood Park, just across the street from Lake of Isles, which was acquired in 1907 when Lake of the Isles dredging began. Eventually, in 1912, the board spent nearly $4,000 to buy fill for the low areas of Kenwood Park along Franklin Avenue. During the years Lake of the Isles was being dredged, the park board authorized a garbage dump at Bryant Square just to bring it up to grade so it could be improved, and in 1912 spent $6,000 on fill for that park. The Parade also badly needed fill and it was just over the hill from Lake of the Isles. Wirth had once proposed doubling the size of Spring Lake next to The Parade just to generate enough fill to make the low-lying land at The Parade useful. Jackson Square, lying between Lake of the Isles and Sandy Lake also needed fill. The difficulty of transporting oozing mud, and the needs of the park board for fill much closer to Lake of the Isles, make it unlikely at best that Lake of the Isles muck was used to fill Sandy Lake.
The final argument against that theory is that Wirth was a meticulous record-keeper and his reports make no mention of transporting thousands of yards of fill across the city. That Wirth did not devote much attention to Columbia Park relative to his work elsewhere in the city is clear, but it is doubtful that he filled Sandy Lake.
In 1933, Wirth reported that attempts to reestablish Sandy Lake would not be desirable because there was no source of water other than ground water and with no movement of water the lake would become stagnant and unsanitary. Moreover, in Wirth’s opinion soil conditions were not good for the re-creation of a lake there. Wirth also explained that plans to further develop the area as a golf course and recreation field would be of great value to the neighborhood.
Columbia Golf Course
Early in the history of Columbia Park, the park board wasn’t sure what to do with the land. In 1898 it granted Patrick Ryan, perhaps the same Patrick Ryan who had served as a park commissioner 1890-1896, permission to cultivate the low land in the park. The following year the board gave some consideration to creating an arboretum at the park. Subsequent proposals for the park included making it into a “popular resort” (1905), a golf course (1910) and a large athletic field (1912).
The 1910 recommendation eventually was preferred. Following the popular development of a nine-hole golf course at Glenwood (Wirth) Park in 1916, the park board created a six-hole course with sand greens at Columbia in 1917. After only a year of operation, the park board realized that six holes was too short for a golf course and by 1920, expanded it to nine holes, still with sand greens however. It took only two more years to realize that 18 holes were needed and in 1922 the course was expanded again. The new course was so popular that golfers had to be turned away, which led the park board to build a golf club house, called a community center, in 1924. Revenues from golf were expected to pay for the building, which cost about $70,000 to build. Suggested names for the golf club house included “House of Seven Gables” and “Deming Hall,” but the name eventually chosen in 1930 was “The Manor.”
Golf continued to increase in popularity leading to the implementation of a registration system in 1927 to eliminate long waits for tee times. With the onset of the depression, however, golf’s popularity took a big hit. Rounds played at Columbia dropped by 30% in 1934 as they did at other courses, except Armour (Gross) Golf Course, which was the only course with an irrigation system to water the fairways. Even though the Columbia course was upgraded to grass greens in 1935, with the help of federal work relief funds, the course continued to operate at a loss for many years.
In the late 1960s, Columbia was upgraded from a length of 4600 yards to 6200 yards to keep it competitive. The locker rooms at Columbia were upgraded in 1987 and the club house was remodeled in 1990.
Columbia Golf Course was the first Minneapolis course to have a Golf Learning Center added in the 1990s.
A new concrete patio and entrance steps to The Manor were poured in 2007 and a new irrigation system on the course was installed in 2009. In 2011 a tree inventory was taken at the course to help plan for maintenance and potential replacement of ash trees.
In 1900, 150 tons of hay were harvested from Columbia Park, Lake of the Isles, Lyndale Park and Minnehaha Parkway.
In 1923 the park board approved creating an auto tourist camp at Columbia Park, similar to the one developed at Minnehaha Park, but it was never developed.
History through 2008 written by David C. Smith, with updates from 2009 to present written by MPRB.