Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Save Lake Calhoun!

No, not from the dangers of tall buildings or even milfoil. Here's a taste of some of the big issues facing local residents in the winter of 1901. From the Minneapolis Journal, January 4, 1901:

"'Save Lake Calhoun' is the watchword of a movement inaugurated this morning.

Residents of the growing community on the east shore of Calhoun have awakened to the fact that two-thirds of the expanse of the lake has been staked off by the ice companies, and ice fifteen inches thick will be cut off in this whole area. The lake is fed only by subterranean springs, and is now sixteen inches than it was ten years ago. Two companies, the Boston Ice Company and the Cedar Lake Ice Company, have been cutting there for several years, but this winter, it is announced, will cut ice on the lake for commercial purposes. They have already staked off more than twice the area taken any previous winter, and the situation is getting serious. Ice boating is practically ruined for this winter, in itself sufficient grievance, but the danger of reducing the city's beauty spot to a marshy pond has aroused the neighborhood."

"Put a stop to the evil."

Outraged residents circulated a petition to put a stop to the excesses. According to Secretary Ridgeway of the Park Board, the ice companies owned property on the shore, and were thus entitled to do as they liked out on the ice. "Our jurisdiction extends only to the shore," he told the Journal, "and we have no rights on the lake."

The scene is set

What did the lake look like when carved up by so many ice cutters? It was quite a different scene than today, certainly. According to the Journal, "each ice company has staked off a tract of ice, planting small evergreens about thirty feet apart to make the limits plain. Then, to prevent ice boats and skaters from crossing, the tract is fenced in with blocks of ice."

Frosty Relations

Approximately fifty ice boats were kept docked up at Ewing's dock; the paper notes that the owners used to "tie them up on the bank wherever they pleased," but ice workers allegedly began to cut their ropes and even "used some of the boats roughly." Meanwhile, the employees of the ice companies depended on their access to the lake for their livelihoods, and presumably weren't always sympathetic to the recreational needs of those lucky enough to own ice boats.

Civil Discourse

One of the things that impresses me most about this story isn't the sheer magnitude of the ice cutting operations, although obviously that's significant. From a more modern perspective, I appreciate that the opponents of the ice cutters generally seemed to be taking the high road when it came to voicing their opposition. A sample quote from one of the local petitioners, Dr. J.W. Penberthy of Calhoun Boulevard:

"It is a downright shame to see one of the beauty spots of Minneapolis so despoiled. It is of the interest of every one in Minneapolis to see that it is preserved. I do not want to see a hardship inflicted on any one, and as the companies have begun their winter's work and have money invested in their plants, it might not be just to stop the work this winter. But eventually the work must come to a stop. The sentiment of the whole community must be aroused against it."

I like this. Short, to the point, doesn't resort to talking about evil outsiders out to destroy the community in the name of commercial gain. It seems a legitimate attempt to balance, or at least acknowledge, the varied needs of the community (the article also cites the many jobs created by the ice cutters), while still standing firm on the proposed ultimate solution. The ability to look at the issue as a whole, and to at least consider the various implications of action, is something that today's residents can take to heart. We might not agree on final solutions (and today's aren't as pressing -- and uncontreversial -- as the obvious dangers of draining a lake), but we should be able to find at least some common ground when talking about the pros and cons of current issues.


  1. I think they're something like sailboats fitted with runners so that they can glide over the ice.