You can travel from the Southwest LRT construction project of today to the horse-drawn wagon days, more than 150 years ago, without a time machine and without leaving Eden Prairie.
It’s possible because city officials have pinpointed and are preserving a portion of a long-ago wagon road along the Minnesota River. It’s a roadbed that in even earlier times may have seen oxcart traffic.
It’s difficult to access, and could stay that way for some time. The road segment is barely discernible on the now-wooded bluffs in southeastern Eden Prairie. The area is also the subject of a preservation plan that will soon be completed.
The City of Eden Prairie has hired John Gertz to prepare a Heritage Site Preservation Plan, also called a Cultural Landscape Management Plan. It will define the features that are unique and historically significant. It will also provide recommendations on how to treat and preserve them.
For example, the plan might look at the vegetation present during the state-authorized road’s construction in 1864, when the river valley bluff had more prairie grasses than it does now.
All of which is progress to history buffs like Eden Prairie’s Paul Thorp, a former land surveyor. Thorp loves maps and did a lot of the research that led to the city council’s decision in November 2019 to designate the 1,200-foot-long road segment a Heritage Preservation Site.
“It’s kind of an untouched, unknown resource,” Thorp says about the mid-1800s road. The construction of the road was requested by Carver County officials as an easier way to get produce and other farm products to Minneapolis and St. Paul and return with lumber and other goods.
His research in Carver County archives unearthed valuable data, as did his study of topographical maps of the steep bluffs in southeastern Eden Prairie. Those maps revealed a slight-but-consistent parting of the contour lines about one-third to halfway up the bluff. Soon enough, authorities had a pretty good idea of the road’s path as it crossed the James Brown Conservation Area, a rare portion of the bluff that isn’t in private hands.
As the modern-day Southwest LRT line does today, the then so-called Yorkville and Bloomington Road segment – Yorkville was a settlement in what’s now Chaska – had its detractors. One of them, Gertz points out, was John R. Cummins, the local town supervisor during the road’s planning and construction.
“Very cold wind N.W. and strong. Mercury 3 below this morning. This new road is a great swindle on Hennepin Co. making us expend 2 or 300 dols. for the benefit of Carver co.” – John R. Cummins diary entry, March 18, 1864.
The 18-foot-wide, graded road had easy access to the Minnesota River waters needed by horse and human. However, it would have been plagued by occasional rainfall-induced washouts that occur on the river bluffs because of the sugar-like soil. In fact, the road existed only from 1864 to 1892, when better and more secure routes were carved on higher, flatter ground atop the bluffs.
City-hired researchers like Gertz and MacDonald & Mack Architects, which prepared the official report leading to the city council’s historic designation a year ago, can’t specifically link the road’s path to the earlier Minnesota Valley Oxcart Trail that would have helped fur traders travel all the way from the Red River area of Manitoba to Fort Snelling. But this route along the river “would have made sense for the oxcart trail” prior to widespread settlement of Eden Prairie in 1854 or ’55, says Thorp.
Oxcarts, like their horse-drawn-wagon successors, would have found the nearby river convenient as a water source and a guide, surmises Thorp. There would have been at least some trees nearby, and that would have provided wood for oxcart axles that needed to be replaced frequently. There’s also evidence of a wagon and blacksmith shop located in that area in the 1850s, before the state road was built.
In any case, it’s a piece of Eden Prairie’s history, one that documents an important chapter in the ever-evolving story of how people and goods have been moved over time: by canoe and steamboat on the river; by train, plane, automobiles and now back to rail with LRT, on or above ground.
And it’s not just words on a page, pages in a book. “I’d like people to walk it, experience it,” says Thorp.
Someday, that just may happen.