History, nature intersect as St. Paul rediscovers an urban oasis

 Vento's View at Lilydale Park. ]

Vento's View provides a truly stunning view of the Mississippi River valley below.

Few parks anywhere can simultaneously showcase caves, a waterfall, a breathtaking overlook, the overgrown remnants of a former riverside town, a major lake, regional riverfront trails, and a historic industrial site. It is rarer still to find such an oasis within a fifteen minute walk of a downtown that employs 50,000. Yet nestled along the lush bluffs of St. Paul's West Side, and the City of Lilydale, is Lilydale Park.

Emerging from the Floods

Lilydale Regional Park traces its history to 1965. Historic river floods that year marked a profound change in the Mississippi River valley around St. Paul. The floods left a soggy legacy, marking the beginning of the end for the historic immigrant neighborhoods on the City's West Side Flats. In the intervening years, scores of modest homes and small businesses gave way to a floodwall, an industrial park, and more recently, dreams of a mixed-use riverfront redevelopment.

Just upriver, the historic Lilydale town center met a parallel fate. But this time, instead of homes being replaced by a floodwall or industry, the neighborhoods of lower Lilydale was returned largely to a more natural state.

The Legislature designated historic Lilydale a Regional Park in 1971. Where Lilydale traces its roots to its place along the river, the City of Lilydale is now centered atop the bluff that overlooks its origins below. Lilydale Park occupies nearly half of the acreage in this community of just 800. For that reason, this tiny city transferred ownership its portion of the park and its management. Eventually, the park ended up in the hands of the St. Paul Parks Department, which already managed the portion of Lilydale Park already in the City of St. Paul.

By the 1980s, most traces of the park's former inhabitants had been removed. The City struggled to control illegal dumping in the park, and on just one day in 1988 cleaned up a jaw-dropping 153,989 pounds of dumped trash. Big plans were drafted for a renewed Harriet Island-Lilydale Regional Park. But while Harriet has seen major investments, its neighbor to the west has seen a new trail, a boat launch, but little other investment in its expansive 384 acres. At least, until recently.

Community Members Reclaim Lilydale Park

Enter concerned community members. Lilydale Park is in many ways naturally separated from its neighbors by a bluff of several hundred feet. That fact, however, didn't stop neighbors from taking an interest in the Park.

The Park has found concerned advocates in the Friends of Lilydale Park. Under the stewardship of longtime West Siders Jon Kerr and Grit Youngquist and numerous other volunteers, and with the support of the West Side Citizens Organization (WSCO), the Friends of Lilydale Park has reconnected the blufftop West Side Community with the park below.

The group has worked to improve aeration in Pickerel Lake to reduce winter fish deaths, and control algae. They have successfully encouraged the City to sponsor an urban camping program at the park. And the have supported school groups who frequent the park on fossil-hunting expeditions.

As St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Bob Bierscheid noted in a 2004 Pioneer Press article, Friends of Lilydale is "emblematic of lots of groups in St. Paul that are critical to our work ... they are willing to put their time and energy where their mouths are."

As one of it's first major successes, the group focused on creating a formal viewing area atop the bluff. Known as Vento's View, and dedicated in 2001, the overlook offers a truly stunning view that includes everything from Fort Snelling, Pickerel Lake, Downtown Minneapolis, Downtown St. Paul, the Capitol, Cathedral, and natural river valley below.

Vento's View was just a slice of what has been developed since. What followed was formalized physical connection between the Park’s lowlands around Pickerel Lake, and Cherokee Park up hundreds of feet on the blufftops above. The completed Brickyard Trail was dedicated in 2007, and formalized the connection between park below and neighborhood above. Remnant bricks scattered along the trail recall the area's former use as a brickyard. And along the winding climb to the top of the bluff, hikers encounter a cave, waterfall, fossil ground, and evermore extraordinary views. The National Park Service partnered to help interpret the site’s trail’s unique and varied surroundings.

 Brickyard Trail at Lilydale Park. ]

The Friends of Lilydale Park partnered with the National Park Service to improve interpretation along the newly reconstructed Brickyard Trail. This panel looks out over the eastern edge of Pickerel Lake.

Planning for the Future

With growing successes under their belt, Friends of Lilydale have been working with the St. Paul Department of Parks and Recreation to imagine a new future for the Park. Over the last year, the St. Paul Department of Parks and Recreation has been developing a new Lilydale Park Master Plan to help guide and focus redevelopment of the Park.

Earlier this summer, the City shared three concept plans with the public. Each plan emphasizes a different facet in the park, but common themes emerge among all three plans.

The plans create a new shelter and hub for the park on the banks of Pickerel Lake, and the plans ree-valuate the course of Lilydale Road through the park, pulling the road away from the edge of Pickerel Lake. The plans try to open up access to the lake for canoes, and add a new boardwalk connection across the eastern end of the lake. The plans re-imagine the trail system through the area, and include elements to better interpret the site’s ecology and history.

The Friends of the Missisissippi River is excited to see renovations at the park, and have offered our comments and support as well.

Advocates seem to agree that they want to improve the Park without fundamentally changing the park's essential character. Where Como Park and Harriet Island Park will continue to be marquee event spaces, Lilydale will continue to appeal more as an urban refuge. To that end, Jon Kerr thinks the park's lush ecology and varied history will both be continuing pillars of the park's use and design.

"One of the beauties of the park is that it is a crossroads between the natural and historic environment," Kerr said. "We think it's possible and appropriate to arrive at a sustainable balance between those assets."

We will keep you updated as progress is made on the Park’s design and implementation.