Coldwater Springs

Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

2000 Introduction | 2001 Update | 2008 Update

Saving Coldwater


by Susu Jeffrey

In Minnesota, between Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Mississippi River is joined by the Minnesota River around a triangle island in the middle of a broad river valley carved by glacier melt 10,000 years ago. Pike Island, where the two rivers become one, is the omphalos (emergence place) of the Dakota Nation whose people migrated here 400 years ago. They called it Mendota, the meeting of waters.

The island lies below the towering bluffs that line the Mississippi River forming the only true gorge on its 2300-mile length. Atop the bluff stands a bald prairie hill, a great prominence with a commanding view. Taku Wakan Tipi (Dwelling Place of the Gods, literally Something Powerful/Sacred Dwells Here) was the site of Dakota sky burials. Artist Seth Eastman painted a watercolor in 1847 depicting two native mourners near three platforms, with perhaps multiple bodies on each. The Dakota practice was to allow the birds to pick the bones clean, and after a year, the bones would be buried in Mother Earth. Out of that hill Coldwater Spring flows at 144,000 gallons a day forming a creek, wetland and waterfall on its path down the gorge to the Mississippi. The hill and spring are typical of sacred landscape, a famous Western example being Glastonbury Tor in England, out of which pours Chalice Well near the graves of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.

Unk Te He is the name of the powerful Dakota water god who roams the mysterious underground waterpaths from the hilltop down to the river. The spring water is considered medicine and Unk Te He honored as a medicine god. There are stories of young men’s initiation rites, their birth into manhood, using a tunnel in Taku Wakan Tipi that descends to the Mississippi. Minnehaha Falls, a spectacular 53-foot drop, is just 2 -miles upstream of the triangle island with Coldwater Spring between. This waterscape along the west bank of the Mississippi, from the falls to the spring to the confluence of rivers, became America’s first state park in 1889. “We know that the falls which came to be known as Minnehaha Falls, was a sacred place, was a neutral place, a place for many nations to come,” Eddie Benton Benais, fullblood Anishinabe from northern Wisconsin and Grand Chief of the Mdewiwin Lodge (Medicine Society), said in court-ordered testimony (3/19/99). “Between the falls and that point (where the rivers meet) there were sacred grounds that were mutually held to be a sacred place. And that the spring from which the sacred water should be drawn was not very far… that there’s a spring, near the Lodge, that all nations used to draw the sacred water for the ceremony.”

“It is difficult to even estimate when the last sacred ceremony was held inter-tribally there,” Benais continued. “My grandfather who lived to be 108, died in 1942 (born 1834). Many times he retold how we traveled, how he and his family, he as a small boy traveled by foot, by horse, by canoe to this great place to where there would be these great religious, spiritual events. And that they always camped between the falls and the sacred water place.” Benais identified the Anishinabe (Ojibwe) along with the Dakota Nation, the Sauk and Fox (Mesquakie), and the Potowatamie as mutually using the land and agreeing “that it is forever a neutral place and forever a sacred place.” For peoples of the upper Mississippi watershed the confluence was the natural trade and transportation hub, also the place were the prairie from the west meets the hardwood forest of the east. Coldwater is a remnant ancient sacred landscape, home of the gods, place of ceremonies, dramatic beauty, power and peace. Coldwater is also the birthplace of Minnesota, home (1820) to the soldiers who built Fort Snelling at the point above the rivers, and attracted settlers who founded St. Paul and Minneapolis. Across the bluff at the town called Mendota, a state archaeologist found a 9,000-year old flint spear point designed to bring down a bison twice the size of today’s buffalo. The top of Taku Wakan Tipi was bulldozed to accommodate the international airport. Planes rumble over Coldwater spring and reservoir. A new highway was cut through Minnehaha Park’s prairie savannah dewatering some of the flow to the falls, possibly to Coldwater too, and destroying a historic stand of gnarly bur oak trees.

The Four Trees were the most precious of the urban grove of Quercus macrocarpa (“oak, big fruit”) that stretched from the falls to the springs. Oak savannah that used to border the Mississippi River covered 10-percent of the state, now down to .02-percent. Bur oak has the largest leaves and nuts of the six species of oaks in Minnesota—and the sweetest fruit. You can eat bur oak nuts right off the ground (check for worms), you don’t have to soak the bitter tannic acid out.

The Four Trees were planted, experts agree, because they were unnaturally close together for a prairie tree with a huge root system. And these particular oaks were growing in the four cardinal directions. In federal court (12/17/99) the state offered expert evidence that dated the four bur oaks at 137 tree rings, too young to have been used in burial ceremonies for Dakota people expelled from the area in the 1830s. The point is moot the lawyer said, because the trees were cut down (the previous Saturday morning after arresting nonviolent defenders). Exactly 137-years ago the Dakota Uprising of 1862 occurred resulting in a reported 644 white settler deaths. Native deaths were not recorded. Most Dakota people were forced to relocate west to Nebraska and South Dakota.

“Our people traditionally planted what is called ‘marker trees’ to identify sacred sites,” said Bob Brown, chairman of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community. His ancestors were among the local “friendlies” who stayed as “squatters” on their traditional land and who do not have federal status. A decorated Maypole and other European-American pagan religious paraphernalia were quietly removed from the Four Trees when Indian people rediscovered the area.

The mysterious underground flow to Coldwater Spring (Unk Te He) pours on — even with a stormwater sewer cut into the bedrock under the entire length of the new road. However seeps along the bluff are drying up. (In winter seeps show as icicles growing down the Mississippi gorge.) Most threatening, a pump test for the proposed new highway interchange showed a fall in Coldwater’s discharge.

The interchange includes a stormwater pond at a lower elevation than the outflow to Coldwater. Studies indicate the pond would reverse the flow of groundwater, draining a quarter of the water to the spring — 43,000 gallons a day.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT)-designed interchange would allow drivers to avoid a traffic light and save three minutes getting to the airport. A light rail transit line from downtown Minneapolis to the airport is planned to parallel the new road at a (constantly escalating) cost approaching $1-billion.

The airport has started dewatering for the first of 8-10 planned tunnels. This very controversial pumping underground water out of bedrock is affecting city lakes and Minnehaha Creek. One projection is to pump out 9,000-gallons a minute. Much of that area is on the west side of Taku Wakan Tipi, in the Minnesota River watershed. But surface water and (under) “ground” water do not always take the same path. Call it mysterious spirit or incomplete science, no one knows the source(s) of Coldwater. Since 1957 when the road was first conceived there has never been a hydrology study to determine the path of water to the spring. Furthermore there has been no discussion of the cumulative effects of the cuts into Coldwater’s flow.

The birthplace of Minnesota and the Dakota Nation is federal land (former military reserve, now Bureau of Mines-Department of the Interior). Coldwater is “a dream archaeological site” according to Bruce M. White, Ph.D., historical anthropologist at the University of Minnesota . The historic state marker at Camp Coldwater only mentions white history. Dred Scott, the African-American whose suit for freedom was denied by the US Supreme Court in 1857, walked here. In fact Dred Scott based his reach for freedom on residency at Fort Snelling (between 1836-40) in the free territory that became Minnesota where slavery was illegal. The fort got their water from the spring for a hundred years. Water wagons hauled water in barrels until the well tower, pump house and reservoir were built after the Civil War.

The scars of the water wagon road are still visible dents in the land behind Coldwater. Between 1959-1991 it was a Cold War research facility, a military-university complex. The land can’t be developed in the sense of riverfront condos. It’s in the airport safety (read: sacrifice) zone—nothing above the treetops. The mayor of Minneapolis signed an agreement with the airport commission (11/98) which plans to purchase the 27.3-acre property and pave seven of the flattest acres near the spring for 850 airport employee cars.

If MAC (the Metropolitan Airports Commission) buys the land the federally protected “conservation easement” would include only the steep bluff, not the source of the spring or the outflow.

The $6-million for Coldwater to the Department of the Interior (DOI) has already been budgeted: $3-million to Fish & Game within DOI, $2-million for a downtown St. Paul headquarters for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, $1-million for a downtown Minneapolis interpretive center in the old lumber-flour mills district, and somehow there would be $200,000 for an archaeological study of the Coldwater area. Details may change, native people may be offered special access for ceremonies inside the fenced, locked area, but this is the deal as of October 2000.

MAC is flush with money, power and attorneys. They buy any land for sale in the vicinity of the airport — sometimes to use, sometimes to trade. Current airport expansion plans go 20 years into the future. Local political party machines dream of bringing the Olympics to the Twin Cities-Mall of America. Highway development killed the other major sacred spring called Great Medicine Spring which was frequented by Indian people “who came hundreds of miles to get the benefit of its medicinal qualities” Col. John H. Stevens reported in 1874. The place is still there in Theodore Wirth Park, but no water runs. MnDOT offered to pump treated city water into the Coldwater reservoir. Unacceptable, Native American leaders replied. Without the spring, Coldwater is just a pretty view. The new highway 55 is being constructed with federal funds. Alan Steger, the federal Department of Transportation administrator in Minnesota, supports the Dakota people while denying the impact of the road on the spring. “Simply stated, the Dakota people are hoping, first, for a solution which preserves the site for future generations. That is paramount. Second, they wish to have access to, and use of, the site for ceremonial purposes….These seem to be rather modest and reasonable requests….The Federal Highway Administration has no formal role in the disposition process (of selling the land) since the property is not needed for, nor impacted by, the highway project.” (2/14/00 copy of a letter to the author.) Coldwater has been flowing five times the age of Christianity. After an intense four-year public education campaign by a coalition of neighborhood, small business, environmental and Native American groups, Coldwater is becoming too valuable to pave.

Preserve Camp Coldwater Coalition opposes the sale of this historic public land. We advocate preservation rather than recreational development adjacent to a vast parking lot. We see Coldwater as a federally owned and protected site like Pipestone in western Minnesota or Mesa Verde in Colorado, with an interpretative center in the existing brick building. We envision cultural education for and about all Minnesotans. We know Coldwater as the last place in our county where we can drink the water directly from the earth. Eagles still fly here.

Preserve Camp Coldwater Coalition’s website is: Every Monday at 2 PM a prayer and pipe ceremony is held at Coldwater Spring. For information contact the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community (651)-452-4141 or

Susu Jeffrey is a poet and activist. Her most recent collection of poetry is “Mississippi Mother,” a spoken word CD on Oar Fin Records, Minneapolis.


SOUTHSIDE PRIDE, Nokomis Edition, October 2001, Vol. XI, Issue 8, pages 1 and 5

By Susu Jeffrey

The Metropolitan Airports Commission will not be purchasing Coldwater Springs after all. Because of post-Sept. 11 belt-tightening measures by the airline industry the proposed runway 4-22 extension has been canceled, removing the historic “Birthplace of Minnesota” from the runway safety zone and saving $6-million.

The cancellation also changes overflight height restrictions for the Highway 55/62 interchange. The roadbed can now be raised out of the path of underground water feeding Coldwater Springs.

Front Gate Looking In by Tom Holtzleiter

“There is no longer any reason to not raise the road,” said Tom Holtzleiter of Preserve Camp Coldwater Coalition.

“Raising the road is the cheapest and easiest solution,” said Minnehaha Creek Watershed District Administrator Eric Evenson. The watershed district has been in a fierce legal battle with the Minnesota Department of Transportation over road design and hydrology science. A court-ordered independent third party recommended the construction of a concrete liner, nicknamed “the bathtub,” to surround and encase the low road. The $4 to $8-million “bathtub” would theoretically channel the underground water around and under the sprawling multi-lane Highway 62 roadbed for several hundred feet, allowing the water to resume its original flow on the other side. But would it?

Evenson described the Highway 55/62 interchange area as “a sink,” where water seems to be flowing in from all directions. Not all the water in the construction zone outflows to Coldwater. There is more than one aquifer system.

Coldwater gets a third to a half of its water from under the interchange, Evenson said. The watershed district said results from the dye tests and construction dewatering showed the relationship between the construction zone and the spring. MCWD hydrogeologic consultant Kelton Barr measured about a 25 percent loss of flow to Coldwater. Dennis Larson, Principal Engineer with MnDOT’s Water Resources Division, said there is no significant effect on the spring from dewatering 250 gallons per minute (360,000 gallons a day).

The clue is the word “significant.” MnDOT attorney Lisa Crum said “MnDOT (design) standards were based on reasonable estimates” when Hennepin County Judge Franklin Knoll chided: “MnDOT is one of the largest and most well-staffed departments in Minnesota. Your engineers, geologists and water specialists all signed off on this design..How could your professionals be so far off in their hydrology? What facts were not available to you.” Thomas Vasaly, another MnDOT attorney at the Sept. 13 hearing at which MnDOT was seeking to be released from all previous agreements with the watershed said, “Minnehaha Creek Watershed District and MnDOT are not going to agree.” The Department of Transportation, with a $600 million yearly budget, and the MCWD, with a $5 million annual budget, don’t even agree on the baseline daily flow of water at Coldwater Springs. Figures range from 90,000 to 144,000 gallons per day.

Image by Susu Jeffery

Five days after the hearing where MnDOT’s argument wilted, MnDOT canceled construction of the Highway 55/62 intersection because, it said, the law guaranteeing the flow of water to Coldwater Springs was too stringent. An unmentioned factor was the project was so far behind schedule it could not have been completed before winter. MnDOT paid $2 million to Ames Construction as a broken contract penalty for the job stoppage. The following day Richard Stehr, MnDOT metro district engineer, told KFAI news “We aren’t considering any alternatives.” The state transportation department planned to take the issue back to the Legislature, which overwhelmingly passed the law prohibiting any diminishment of flow to or from the spring last May.

Cancellation of MAC’s runway extension-and its trail of effects on MnDOT, MCWD and the Legislature-saves face all around. Incumbent and challenger candidates for the November elections are already jumping on the “I saved Coldwater” wagon.

“We were told we would lose and we would win,” said Jim Anderson, cultural chair of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community. “We lost the Four Trees but we saved the spring.”

MnDOT’s road is designed to last 15-30 years. Coldwater Springs has been flowing at least 10,000 years.

2008 Site Status: Preservation in Limbo
The future of Coldwater — will it be part of a national park?


From Southside Pride

The future of Coldwater Spring, currently flowing at about 90,000 gallons a day, is in the hands of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). Soon, the DOI will announce what public entity will “own” this 10,000-year-old spring. And whoever “owns” it could directly impact the future of the spring.

When Hwy. 55 was rerouted, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) promised “no adverse impact” to Coldwater Spring, which is losing more than 27,500 gallons daily since construction ended, according to MnDOT’s own measurements. In a huge bureaucracy, with multiple spokespeople, no one is accountable.

The 55/62 interchange will be rebuilt in 20-some years. There is enough land for a full cloverleaf if Highway 55 is expanded into a freeway. Whatever agency is responsible for the 27-acre Coldwater property must be powerful enough to force MnDOT to obey the law.

In 2001 the Minnesota legislature passed a law mandating no “loss of flow to or from” Coldwater Spring. No Minnesota court, watershed district, or citizen’s group was able to enforce compliance by MnDOT, the state’s richest, most powerful agency. In the late 1980s the Great Medicine Spring in Theodore Wirth Park and historic Glenwood Spring were permanently dewatered with construction of I-394 west out of Minneapolis.

The National Park Service (NPS) tops the list of best available overseers. Coldwater is part of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) under NPS jurisdiction and a National Historic Landmark. Coldwater supporters believe federal ownership is the best hope for protection and preservation of the county’s last natural spring since the majority of interstate highway money comes from federal funds.

The Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community (MMDC) called for a conservation easement at Coldwater to “cover all 27 acres in perpetuity and also that the site be managed by the National Park Service” in August 2000. At the time a $6 million agreement to sell the property to the airport for parking and warehouse space looked like Coldwater’s future. But the deal fell through with the economic airline collapse after the World Trade Towers catastrophe. “It was the only good thing to come out of 9/11,” said Jim Anderson, MMDC’s Cultural Chair.

Before white settlement, Coldwater (Mni Owe Sni, “water-spring-cold” in Dakota) was a sacred gathering place for Dakota, Anishinabe, Ho Chunk, Iowa, Sauk and Fox peoples. Anishinable spiritual elder Eddie Benton Benais from Lac Courte Oreilles, Wis., recounted in court-ordered testimony how his grandfather “traveled by foot, by horse, by canoe to this great place to where there would be these great religious, spiritual events. And that they always camped between the falls (Minnehaha) and the sacred water place (Coldwater). Those are his words.” Only the federal level offers recognition to Native Americans.

In 1805 Lt. Zebulon Pike signed a treaty with two (of seven) Dakota leaders for permission to build a fort between the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers and the falls now called St. Anthony. The fort exists but the treaty has yet to be tested in court.

In 1820, Lt. Col. Henry Leavenworth ordered troops to build huts at “Camp Coldwater” and begin cutting limestone out of the Mississippi bluff to build a fort. Fort Snelling attracted pioneers who subsequently founded the state of Minnesota.

Coldwater furnished water to Fort Snelling from 1820 to 1920 and was listed on various maps as “Coldwater Park” from the 1880s into the 1940s. In the late 1950s Coldwater was briefly considered as a nuclear power plant site but became a Cold War research campus where taconite was developed. Since 1991, when the Cold War ended and Congress terminated the U.S. Bureau of Mines, this Mississippi blufftop property has been up for grabs.

Sacred site, birthplace of Minnesota — this stretch along the Mississippi is arguably the most historic in the state.

How You Can Help
Coldwater supporters are calling for NPS ownership of a 50-acre “Coldwater Park” (including 2-blocks of Veteran’s Administration land) from the south end of Minnehaha Regional Park to Fort Snelling State Park. Coldwater Park is envisioned as an oak savanna urban wilderness designated as a Green Museum, a place where the land is the museum.

To comment on Coldwater’s future, e-mail Dirk Kempthorne, Secretary of the Department of the Interior at or phone 202-208-7351 (e-mail preferred).

Consider calling or copying your email to:
Congressman Keith Ellison 612-522-1212 or
Senator Amy Klobuchar 612-727-5220 or
Senator Norm Coleman 651-645-0323 or
More info at

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