Reclaiming and Restoring an Urban Natural Area

Download a map of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary

A former railyard nestled at the foot of Dayton's Bluff, the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary offers an array of unique and beautiful features, including towering sandstone and limestone bluffs, pristine underground springs and dramatic views of the Downtown Saint Paul skyline. For the first time in over 100 years, the sanctuary and associated trail links provide Saint Paul's East Side with safe, easy access to the Lowertown neighborhood and, soon, to the Mississippi River. This unusually large and significant open space is just several minutes walk from the city’s center and will provide an important green amenity for people who live and work in the Lowertown and Downtown area. The sanctuary will be a beautiful, lasting legacy for families from around the region, and has generated extensive notoriety, including selection as one of the McKnight Foundation’s top ten treasures in its Embrace Open Space initiative.

A Storied History

Before European settlement, the area was a vibrant floodplain where Trout Book and Phalen Creek flowed together to join the Mississippi River. The confluence of tributaries at this sharp curve in the Mississippi River made the area a focal point for Dakota people who gathered here for trade and ceremony. The southeastern edge of the sanctuary includes an unusual concentration of historic features, including an intact, underground brewery foundation and a string of caves, one of which is an internationally significant cultural resource. Dakota elders have described snake petroglyphs on the cave walls and in 1766 British explorer Jonathan Carver visited the cave and reported that it was known as Wakan Tipi or house of spirits by the Dakota tribes. Later the cave became known to many as Carver's Cave, and was a landmark to other Europeans, including Joseph Nicollet.

The Impact of Industrialization

More than a century of industrial use changed this land significantly. Wetlands were filled, trees were removed and the soil was contaminated and compacted. The entryway of Wakan Tipi, where the petroglyphs were thought to be located, was destroyed to make room for rail operations. For decades, the land was left degraded and vacant until 1997 when East Side activists joined with the Lowertown community to reclaim this area to create a nature sanctuary that combines restoration of riverfront habitat with public access to the natural world in the midst of the urban core.

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A vision of transformation

Through our Community Vision report, Natural Resources Management Plan and extensive environmental testing and planning, we set the stage for transforming the land. In October 2002 the City of Saint Paul adopted a summary of our community vision into their comprehensive plan. The next month, after years of planning, advocacy and fundraising and key leadership from the Trust for Public Land, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and National Park Service the land was purchased from the railroad and conveyed to the City of Saint Paul.

Restoration Work Commences

After the acquisition, the Lower Phalen Creek Project's focus turned to helping clean up the land and beginning ecological restoration work. In the summer of 2003 we organized more than 150 volunteers to help remove 50 tons of surface debris from the sanctuary, which had been used as a dumping ground for decades. In July 2003, we helped the city of Saint Paul achieve its first-ever grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields program and effectively closed the gap in the remediation budget for the sanctuary. In winter 2003 the construction phase of work on the sanctuary was launched. Asbestos, mercury and other contaminants were removed from the site and clean soil was used to cover marginal soil areas. Archeologists worked in test pits to search for culturally significant artifacts and ensure careful treatment of both Native American and European artifacts. With a site planning grant from the Saint Paul Foundation we revised our plans for the sanctuary based on the discovery of the brewery foundation and greater-than-expected contamination in the wetland area. Working closely with Dakota tribal representatives, the Lower Phalen Creek Project, National Park Service and city staff established revised plans for excavating and recreating the wetlands in front of Carvers Cave/Wakan Tipi and fine tuned the viewing areas and walking paths on the sanctuary.

Since the beginning of 2003, Lower Phalen Creek Project, partners, and community members have been vigorously working to continue the restoration of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.

A revitalized Landscape

In summer 2004, the Lower Phalen Creek Project worked with the East Side Youth Conservation Corps, Americorps volunteers, 3M East Side Lab employees and other volunteers to clear away the buckthorn that has long choked the landscape here, and begin the restoration of oak savanna and prairie. The weeks of effort by these young people were enormously valuable and uncovered a walkable path on the shelf above one of the sanctuary caves an area providing a breathtaking view of the Mississippi River. We applied for and received grants from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Environmental Initiative for plant materials and planning. The bluffs were stabilized and sprayed with seeds, and the young people from the East Side Youth Conservation Corps returned to help plant new vegetation.

Open to the Public

On May 21, 2005 the park was opened to the public and since then, the land’s ecological features have been further restored by the East Side Youth Conservation Corps, 3M employees, volunteers through the new Vento Sanctuary Eco Stewards program (organized by the Lower Phalen Creek Project and City of Saint Paul) and other volunteers — including participants from the North American Environmental Educators Conference.

Expanding the Sanctuary

In 2008 Saint Paul Parks and Recreation purchased several acres of land adjacent to the sanctuary, including a vacant 36,000 square foot former warehouse. A wide range of partners are coming together to work with the city to redevelop the building as a multi-use cultural center the benefits the community and interprets this vibrant stretch of the Mississippi River corridor. Redevelopment steps conducted to date include engineering evaluations of the building, several architectural renderings and soil cleanup around the building funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Support for an Interpretive Center

In 2012 the Lower Phalen Creek Project, Saint Paul Parks and other community partners completed a feasibility study on the building, comparing the benefits of a renovated multi-use center with a new standalone interpretive facility. The group determined that the renovation model was financially feasible and that synergistic tenants are interested in participating in the project. A recent public survey confirmed support for the project and partners are now launching a capital campaign feasibility study and further planning.

Wakan Tipi Cave and Dakota Culture at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary

Finding the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary

The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary is located near the intersection of East Fourth Street and Commercial Street, just east of Saint Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood at the foot of Dayton’s Bluff. The Kellogg Bridge runs along the northwest boundary of the sanctuary, which lies below it.

If you are coming from the west, take the Mounds Boulevard exit off of Interstate 94, turn right, crossing Kellogg/East Third Street. Stay right, and take a sharp right turn on Commercial Street then go down the hill to the first intersection (Fourth Street). From the east, take the Mounds Boulevard exit off I-94 and turn left before making a quick right turn on Commercial Street and following the directions above.

An off-road bicycle/pedestrian trail along Commercial Street provides great bicycle access from the trail network along Mounds Bluff. Access to the sanctuary from Lowertown is affected by current Lafayette Bridge construction. At this time, the most reliable strategy for visiting from Lowertown is to travel across the Kellogg Bridge or Seventh Street to Mounds Blvd and follow the directions above. With the completion of the Bruce Vento Regional Trail extension the sanctuary has also become easy biking or walking distance from Swede Hollow Park – when you emerge from the park at the trailhead at Payne Avenue and East Seventh Street, just veer left toward the I-94 bridge. You will travel under the I-94 bridge, loop over an abandoned rail bridge and down to the sanctuary.