Ask a 'sotan: Why is West St. Paul south of St. Paul?

A picture of an old government building.
West St. Paul's City Hall building, as seen in 1937.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Updated: 2:43 p.m.

Ask a 'sotan is an occasional series exploring questions from curious Minnesotans about our state. Have a question about life in Minnesota? Ask it here.

Have you ever looked at a map and something didn’t look quite right? Like when a street ends where you didn’t expect to end? Or, a city that has a directional term in its name doesn’t match with its actual location?

That second query is one that MPR News listener Hal Davis pondered when he planned to pick up some food.

“I grew up in New York, and when living in Minneapolis, I tasted a Jersey Mike’s sub, and it brought back memories because it did capture, perfectly, the taste of a hero sandwich from the East Coast,” Davis said.

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Later, Davis got a Jersey Mike’s coupon in the mail and wanted to use it so he could reconnect with a favorite food item from his youth.

“West St. Paul seemed to be the most logical place. So, I checked it on a map and was amazed to discover that West St. Paul seemed to be south of St. Paul,” he said.

And as many Minnesotans know on this one, the map doesn’t lie.

The answer to this geographical head-scratcher has to do with settlers and where the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers join in the metro area.

Kelly Swanson is a geography professor at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. He notes that near that connection point, the Mississippi takes a big turn, thus creating a geographical quagmire.

“The river almost makes a horseshoe bend around St. Paul, what is now the west side of St. Paul today. And so, the left side of that river is actually to the south [of downtown St. Paul], even though it is to the left of the river and hence, it got the name on the west side, or West St. Paul,” Swanson said.

So, when you look at the map, the general land area where West St. Paul is situated comes to a point, and much of it is on the west banks of the river as it starts to flow south again after that big hook.

West St. Paul officials confirm this explanation. They say after the Sioux Native American villages of Kaposia and Mendota had been established in that section of land, the first immigrants arrived in 1848. About a decade later, the land Swanson makes reference to was incorporated as the City of West St. Paul.

Both Swanson and current city officials say those involved with that action presumably took the name from the west bank of the Mississippi River, even though, again, that land is directly south of downtown St. Paul.

West St. Paul 2.0

There have actually been two versions of West St. Paul. The first one, after being incorporated in the 1850s, eventually went bankrupt and ceased operations, according to Swanson.

“Because of that, it became part of the City of South St. Paul, but many to the west there, near present day Mendota Heights, felt they weren’t being represented and became independent in 1889,” he said.

That’s when present day West St. Paul was incorporated.

Since then, both West St. Paul and its neighbor to the east, South St. Paul — more confusion — have been able to co-exist throughout the decades.

The two municipalities share various services, but have separate police departments.

Legacy and other quirks

West St. Paul City Council member John Justen said the question of why the city’s name doesn’t match up with its location does get asked a lot by people who visit or are planning to move there.

“Most people kind of deal with it on an amused level, and you might get asked the question 150 times in your life and you just kind of roll with it,” he said.

Justen goes on to say that all of the geographical confusion, that they're south of St. Paul, and right next to South St. Paul, is taken in stride. He says they have a friendly rivalry with South St. Paul and good-natured jabs are thrown around from time to time.

He also unearthed another map quirk, in that West St. Paul and St. Paul itself are mainly bordered by Annapolis Street. It's a straight line, but there's a small, square-shaped block of West St. Paul that crosses Annapolis into St. Paul.

Justen said there are lot of urban myths about why that is, but there doesn't seem to be a consensus about why this small piece of land spills over. However, MinnPost took a closer look at that map quirk in 2017.

An interesting tidbit for sure, but it might not rise to the level of West St. Paul being south of St. Paul.

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