Historic Camp Coldwater spring and government buildings on the sales block

Next chapter of history
John Anfinson stands at the refurbished structure at Camp Coldwater spring.
MPR Photo Art Hughes

The spring that feeds Coldwater Creek spills into a stone-walled reservoir built well over a century ago. The creek flows into the Mississippi River near where it meets the Minnesota River. Many people point to the spring as the cradle of modern Minnesota's existence. As the clearest and fastest flowing water source in the area, it was an amenity for the U.S. Army soldiers who built nearby Fort Snelling in the 1820s.

Protected waters
The state Legislature passed a bill to prevent any disruption of the Coldwater Creek flow.
MPR Photo Art Hughes

Today the spring and the reservoir are boxed in by nearly a dozen vacant, decaying buildings mainly from the early 1960s that once housed more than 200 Bureau of Mines workers. Before the buildings were abandoned 10 years ago they were the location for innovations such as an air filtration system that virtually eliminated black lung disease in coal miners, according to the Park Service's Kim Berns. She said the site is also the birthplace of the device that beeps when heavy trucks back up.

"Those big vehicles that back up and can't see behind them that beeping sound I'm sure saved a lot of lives," Berns said. "Then they also developed a radio telemetry system that allowed miners below ground to communicate through thousands of feet of rock to talk to each other underground."

Berns is the project manager in charge of the area's newly-released draft Environmental Impact Statement. She says the aluminum, limestone and blue, glazed-brick buildings are eligible for National Register for Historic Places status, but would require major renovation. Even tearing down the buildings would cost well over a $1 million. Law requires the federal government to sell the land to a state or local government, an Indian tribe or a university. The EIS will determine what restrictions, if any, should carry to the new owners.

"While we may not need the buildings I think it's important to capture what happened out here," Berns said.

Coldwater circa 1900
Camp Coldwater Spring with spring house and reservoir, circa 1900.
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

What happened out here, however, depends on which historical account you read.

Occupation by the Bureau of Mines dates back nearly to the start of the 20th Century. The U.S. Army and other government agencies used the site off and on for 100 years before that. Then there's the history before white settlement.

"When the highways were rivers, this was the gathering spot for everyone, so this has an ancient history," said Twin Cities writer and activist Susu Jeffrey.

She's founder of Friends of Camp Coldwater. Jeffrey said an 1805 treaty clearly allows American Indians and others the same access to the spring they enjoyed before the U.S. Government moved in. She thinks the area should be a park open to the public.

Bureau of Mines history fades
Buildings belonging to the disbanded Bureau of Mines stand vacant and in disrepair.
MPR Photo Art Hughes

"They otherwise would have gathered water here at this spring for hundreds of years," she said. "But not to harm the spring. And not develop the land for an office park, for heaven's sake."

The office park idea comes from Hennepin County. A preliminary plan calls for converting the main Bureau of Mines building to office space. The service's EIS includes the office park as one of the more adverse uses.

The Coldwater Creek area was at the center of the battle against rerouting nearby Highway 55 in the late 1990s. Efforts to protect water flow to the spring also temporarily halted plans to merge Highways 55 and 62.

National Park Service historian John Anfinson said it will be difficult to accommodate all the varied interests.

"If we want to emphasize the Coldwater spring area, the Fort Snelling history, more than the history of the Bureau of Mines, (that) part might have to go away, or parts of it might go away," he said. "If we want to preserve and interpret the Bureau of Mines part of that history...it will be hard to understand the spring in the context of Fort Snelling because you're seeing these modern buildings next to it."

The Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., which will make a decision on the final EIS next year.