Lake Calhoun today

Lake Calhoun, the most popular and most urban of the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes

Lake Calhoun at a Glance
Area: 421.3 acres
Shoreline: 3.12 miles
Volume: 4,835,000,000 gallons
Max depth: 90 feet
Avg. Depth: 35 feet

Lake Calhoun
Our first venture is to explore the most intensely used lake in the City of Lakes. Lake Calhoun, located in the heart of Minneapolis, is one in a chain of lakes that receives 2.5 million visitors each year - as many as Yellowstone National Park!

In the Beginning
The Minneapolis Chain of Lakes was originally created as a great valley some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, when torrential rivers of meltwater carved great valleys into the bedrock.

The meltwater came from melting Ice Age glaciers, which also left behind giant, slow-melting icebergs covered with windblown dirt.

The bulk of the meltwater valley soon filled in with sediment washed down from the surrounding hills, but because of their dirt insulation and their size, the icebergs took longer to melt. When they did, they formed the Chain of Lakes.

Naming the Lake: Mde Ma-ka-ska,
Medoza, Calhoun, _______?

The lake now known as Calhoun has been through several name changes. The native Dakotas called the lake "Mde Ma-ka-ska," meaning "Lake of the White Earth," presumably because of a sandy shore on the north side of the lake.

Early European settlers re-named the lake using another Dakota name, "Medoza," or loon, sometime before 1837, when the name first appeared on Army maps.

The current name comes from a very unlikely source. Army surveyors sent by then Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, to map the western lands in 1817 renamed the lake "Calhoun." Calhoun is better known, though, as the South Carolina Senator who was the chief proponent of slavery during the time leading up to the Civil War. He championed the institution of slavery and the theory of states' rights -- the two primary causes of the war. The name may have appealed to the large number of southern tourists who visited the Lake region of Minnesota throughout the 19th century.

Lake prior to dredging

The lake prior to commencement of dredging operations*

The Lake as the Dakota Knew It
When some of the first missionaries, Samuel and Gideon Pond, arrived in 1834 on the eastern shore of the marshy lake, they found a large village known as Marh'piya Wicasta -- the village of Cloud Man.

The Dakota Indians who lived in the lake region were farmers who caught fish and gathered wild rice from the lake itself and maintained gardens nearby.

treaty party

Members of the treaty party from the Dakota people in New York City to sign the Treaty of Traverse de Sioux*

The Pond brothers, who were encouraged by Cloud Man both to settle nearby and to help out during harvest season, described an active, busy Dakota community surrounding the lake.

The Dakota presence at Lake Calhoun and throughout the region, ended with the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851, which vacated the land in order to make room for migrating Europeans.

Development of Lake Calhoun's Watershed
Originally a part of the Fort Snelling military preserve, Charles Mosseaux became the European title holder to lands on Lake Calhoun in 1849. Mosseaux trapped the lake and farmed the fields formerly belonging to the Dakotas from Cloud Man's village.

Colonel King's Pavilion

The Colonel King's Pavilion at Lake Calhoun in its latter days as a hotel*

The area remained largely unclaimed and undeveloped through the late 1850's, when land development finally expanded away from St. Anthony Falls.

With the growth in population and tourism in the 1870's, Colonel William S. King erected a grand pavilion at Lake Calhoun in 1877and later sold it to L.F. Menage, who converted it to a hotel. The hotel was later destroyed by fire.

In the 1870's, the double-decker, side-wheel steamer "Hattie" plied the waters of Lake Calhoun. "Hattie" took tourists and locals on excursion rides around the lake until urban expansion moved the resort and vacation seekers to Lake Minnetonka. When service was discontinued in 1880, she was towed to the center of the lake and burned.

The steamer Hattie

The excursion steamer "Hattie" operated by the Lyndale and Minnetonka Motor Line*

Prior to acquisition by the Minneapolis Park Board in 1909, the north shore of the lake was bounded by a series of ice houses, used to store ice cut from the lake.

Between 1883 and 1909, the Minneapolis Park Board acquired all the land around the Lake, none of which was donated, for $127,414.25.

Channel opening day

Spectators gather to watch the opening of the channel between Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles on July 5, 1911*

Park Board dredging and filling projects eliminated the natural wetlands surrounding the lake, transforming 460 acres of water and 62.6 acres of land, much of which was wetlands. By the time the Park Board completed dredging and filling projects around Lake Calhoun in 1924, there was only 424.5 acres of water -- the rest was dry land, with zero remaining wetlands.

Only the North and East Parkways surrounding the lake are on what was originally dry land -- the South and East sides of the lake were constructed almost completely with dredge spoils. Almost the entire shore received dredge spoils, which amounted to 1.4 million cubic yards by 1925.

Driving Park

Calhoun as a newly crowned automobile driving park*

In 1911 the Park Board dug the channel linking Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles, and Cedar Lakes.

Originally developed as a driving park for the newly invented automobiles, Lake Calhoun and its surrounding parks are still used today by many motorists out for a summer drive.

A Lake at Risk
Paved over

Much of Lake Calhoun's watershed has been paved over, creating tremendous challenges to the lake

Changes to Lake Calhoun's natural eco-system now seriously threaten the lake. The wetlands which provided a natural buffer to stormwater run-off from surrounding hills are filled in with dredging spoils, and the woods which once covered the hills around it are covered with houses, roads and other impervious, or impenetrable, surfaces. (For more information on the effects of imperviousness, see Tom Schueler's discussion of imperviousness in WaterGuest.)

Lake Calhoun's watershed has a very high level of imperviousness (estimated to be 30%), resulting in large amounts of polluted stormwater entering the Lake.

Water quality in Lake Calhoun reflects "mesotrophic to eutrophic conditions," which means a moderately high nutrient level. The primary nutrient is phosphorus, which spurns algae growth, and the total phosphorus concentrations in Lake Calhoun have increased over the past decades. Although phosphorus accumulates over time in a natural setting, human activity in the lake's watershed has greatly accelerated this accumulation.

What's Being Done?
Individuals, community groups and governments are coming together to help restore and protect Lake Calhoun. Here's who they are and what they are doing:

The Clean Water Partnership
The Partnership, composed of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, Hennepin County, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and the Cities of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, instituted a long term plan for protecting and restoring the entire Chain of Lakes. Most recently, the partnership has initiated plans to restore and protect water quality in Lake Calhoun through the construction of a series of wetlands near the south-west corner of the lake. The ponds will be designed to remove harmful pollutants while restoring the natural beauty and wildlife of the lake's wetlands. Other activities undertaken by the Clean Water Partnership include:

  • creation of a Fish Advisory Education Committee
  • catch basin stenciling to show the connection from our stormwater to the lake
  • promoting public awareness of proper lawn care, use of the lakes and associated park facilities, and reduction of trash and litter in runoff
  • improved street sweeping
  • shoreline erosion control measures
  • improvement and coordination of lake water quality monitoring plans, fish community management, goose population controls, and local stormwater management plans

Making a Difference

David Shirley

Meet Water Citizen David Shirley.

David is the president of the Cedar Isles Dean Neighborhood Association, and has served on countless citizens committees focused on protecting and restoring the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes.

He served on the original citizens advisory committee for the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes Clean Water Partnership, and most recently, served as the chair of the Citizens Design Advisory Committee for the Clean Water Partnership's project to restore Lake Calhoun.

Has he made a difference? "I would like to think so," he confesses, "our main focus has been to increase awareness of the lakes' water quality problems, and to give citizens information and time to learn about the potential solutions. As always, it is important that supporters of a 'clean lakes' agenda work hard to assure that their voice is heard. The bottom line is that we must decide about our legacy. Will we trash Lake Calhoun and the other Minneapolis Lakes, or will we work hard so that 100 years from now they are still a valuable resource?"


* Credits for Historical Photographs:
   Minneapolis Public Library, Minneapolis Collection

© 1997 Smith Parker P.L.L.P.