Meandering beside the mighty Mississippi in Minnesota

minnesotaWe have been visiting Minnesota regularly for almost two decades, with the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul our main destination.

One geographical feature dominates the landscape in the Twin Cities: the mighty Mississippi. It bisects the metropolitan area, with Minneapolis on the west bank, and St Paul on the east. Since a decade ago, our elder daughter Hannah and her husband Michael have lived just a few blocks from the Mississippi. In April this year they moved to a new house along the banks of the river – although at least 50 m above the water, so no danger of flooding there as the river flows through a limestone gorge.

In this short video that I took on take-off from MSP last week, our Delta flight banked to the west, and followed the Mississippi northwest over the center of Minneapolis, and the rapids between the Central Ave SE bridge and that carrying I-35W.

When we travel to the USA, Steph and I try to make a road trip, short or long. In 2011, it was the Grand Canyon and other canyons of Arizona and New Mexico. We were drawn to the Minnesota Riviera in 2012, and the Oregon coast, Crater Lake and the redwoods of northern California in 2013. 2014 saw us trek across the Great Plains from Minnesota to Yellowstone National Park, and last year we took a mini-break by train in Chicago.

Because of the ongoing rehabilitation from my leg injury earlier this year, I didn’t want to make a long road journey. But we decided to take a mini-break, just 3½ days (and a round-trip of 750 miles) to the source and headwaters of the Mississippi River north of the Twin Cities in northwest Minnesota.

What is the source of the Mississippi?
The source of the Mississippi was controversial for almost a hundred years in the 19th century, until, after a thorough hydrological survey by Jacob V Brower in 1888, Lake Itasca was confirmed as the source. Lake Itasca had been claimed as the source by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in 1832.

20160922-099-minnesota

Our first day itinerary, of about 260 miles took us northwest to Nevis, where we had booked bed and breakfast accommodation at The Park Street Inn, a house built in 1912 by banker Justin Halvorson who came to the town to set up a bank and devlop this region of Minnesota.

We spent almost the whole of our second day in Itasca State Park, touring the park by car, and stopping wherever the fancy took us. But our prime objective was the source of the Mississippi.

Our destination on the third day was Grand Rapids, no more than about 75 miles by the most direct route from Nevis. We took almost 200 miles! On the last day, Thursday, and with the weather deteriorating (there had been flash floods in the Twin Cities overnight) we headed back to St Paul by the most direct route.

Lake Itasca State Park
We entered the park at the south gate, and stopped at the Jacob V Brower Visitor Center to pay our USD5 park fee, and see the various exhibits about the park, its establishment in 1891, and the history of exploration of the Mississippi headwaters.

We took the road north along the lake to the source of the Mississippi as it leaves Lake Itasca, as a small stream bubbling over a small rapids, to begin its journey of more than 2000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

I would have liked to cross the Mississippi on foot, but didn’t dare even make an attempt, although I made it across a log bridge just 50 feet or so down from the rapids. And Steph only made it to the middle of the stepping stones. The gap between two stones was just too wide for her to feel comfortable and, in any case, one broken leg in the family was more than enough!

The Mississippi flows north out of the lake. Just a little further on, the park road crosses the river, no more than a stream ten feet wide, but with an auspicious sign alongside.

We followed the Wilderness Road right round the park, stopping every so often to admire the scenery, views of the lake, the Fall colours in the trees, and the old-growth red and white pines (the remaining stands of these in the state).

At the headwaters of the Mississippi there is an interesting set of displays about the river. This one caught my attention.

20160922-131-minnesota

It’s interesting to note that the Mississippi is not the longest or largest (in terms of flow) of the rivers that drain the overall  watershed. The Missouri is longer; the Ohio flows stronger. And other rivers, like the Arkansas, join the river further downstream. The Mississippi and its tributaries drain about half the United States!

Although we even made it to the Aiton Fire Tower (over half a mile on foot uphill from the nearest car park), and even though other visitors told us that there was a magnificent view of the forest from the top, at 100 feet high, that was too much for my head, and more than enough for my leg. We made it to just the fourth floor.

20160922-168-minnesota

Our itinerary from Nevis to Grand Rapids took us via the small Schoolcraft State Park, named after Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Here the Mississippi is already 50-100 feet wide.

Then the landscape drops noticeably into Grand Rapids where the Mississippi becomes a raging torrent and its power already harnessed by the building of a dam and creation of a lake to power paper mills.

the_wizard_of_oz_judy_garland_terry_1939

Judy Garland – born in Minnesota, not Kansas!

Who’s from Minnesota?
Grand Rapids is the birthplace of Frances Ethel Gumm. Frances Ethel who?

Judy Garland to you and me, who was born here in 1922, but moved to California four years later. There was a museum a couple of blocks from our hotel. We passed it on our way south.

When I looked up information about Judy Garland, it crossed my mind to find out who else famous hails from Minnesota, or spent significant time there. I’d seen a sign to the ‘Charles Lindbergh homestead’ at Little Falls on the drive north where Lindbergh spent much of his childhood. Lindbergh was the first pilot to make a solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

Minnesota has quite a number of famous sons and daughters, including Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale (politicians), F Scott Fitzgerald and Garrison Keillor (writers), the one and only Prince (musician), and James Arness (actor, Gunsmoke), among many others.

We like Minnesota. The people are laid back, typical mid-West I’m told. The state has lots to offer, perhaps not as famous as attractions in many other states. Nevertheless, it suits us just fine, as it seems to suit Hannah and her family.

 

 

 

A bridge too four . . .

There’s water everywhere, notwithstanding all the lakes that characterise Minnesota. It’s not for nothing that Minnesota is known as ‘The Land of 10,000 Lakes’.

The Minneapolis-St Paul metro area (the Twin Cities) is surrounded (almost) by water. I’m talking about rivers. Large rivers.

The mighty Mississippi River bisects the cities. The Minnesota River is a southern boundary to Minneapolis. And the St Croix River is the state line between Minnesota and Wisconsin just east of St Paul, and its confluence with the Mississippi is just south of St Paul.

The Twin Cities (and surrounding areas) have their fair share of bridges – road and rail – that cross all of these rivers. There are twenty six highway bridges across the Mississippi, eight across the Minnesota River, and five across the St Croix (and another being constructed to relieve Stillwater of its congestion at the Lift Bridge.

Closest to where our daughter and her family live in the Highland Park neighbourhood of St Paul is the Mississippi River Bridge. Or should that be the Intercity Bridge, the Ford Parkway Bridge, or even the 46th Street Bridge? Its official name is ‘Intercity Bridge’, but at both ends there is a plate stating that the name is ‘Mississippi River Bridge’.

The Intercity Bridge, looking north from the Lock and Dam 1. Photo downloaded from the Minnesota Department of Transportation website.

Work began on this beautiful bridge in 1925, and it was completed two years later. It connected Minneapolis with the Ford Motor plant on the St Paul side of the river, now closed and demolished.

The following five photos were taken from an information booth above the old hydroelectric plant.

20160909-021-minnesota

20160909-019-minnesota

20160909-022-minnesota

The Ford Motor plant is on the eastern side of the Intercity Bridge. Below the bridge is the hydroelectric plant that provided power for Ford.

20160909-020-minnesota

20160909-023-minnesota

Now that the trees have matured along the banks of the Mississippi, there are few clear views of the bridge from the banks, even from the viewpoints.

The next bridge upstream is the Marshall Avenue bridge, and can just be seen from the Intercity Bridge. Our daughter Hannah now lives just beyond the river bank treeline on the right of these photos, on Mississippi River Boulevard.

20160912-004-minnesota

20160912-005-minnesota

This is the view today of the hydroelectric power station, the dam and lock below the bridge.

20160912-006-minnesota

About a mile further down river is Hidden Falls Regional Park. The road drops steeply down the bluff to the water’s edge. And there you get a real appreciation of the majesty and power of the flow of the Mississippi, even though it’s over 1200 miles to the ocean at the Gulf of Mexico.

Just over the Intercity Bridge on the Minneapolis side is Minnehaha Regional Park, and the beautiful Minnehaha Falls. On a visit to St Paul at Christmas 2007 we saw these Falls under very different circumstances: completely frozen. But not yesterday.

 

Letting the train take the strain – Amtrak-style

amtrak-logoSt Paul, Minnesota.
22 September 2015.
07:45.

The Amtrak Empire Builder pulls into Union Depot on time, two days and about 1,800 miles after leaving Seattle¹, headed by two GE P42 Genesis locomotives.

Destination: Union Station, Chicago. Another 400 miles and 8 hours travel, with intermediate stops at Red Wing and Winona in Minnesota, La Crosse, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells, Portage, Columbus and Milwaukee in Wisconsin, and Glenview (an outer suburb of Chicago) in Illinois.

Until early 2014 Amtrak used the Midway depot (between Minneapolis and St Paul) as its station in the Twin Cities. Now it operates out of the refurbished—and very plush—Union Depot in downtown St Paul, alongside the Mississippi River. Interestingly, Amtrak uses three-letter codes for all its stations, just like airports (MSP for St Paul-Minneapolis).

20150930 0464

20150930 0465

We arrived to Union Depot with about 20 minutes to spare, found our way to the exit gate, and joined the other passengers (around 40) waiting to board the train that was due in a few minutes later. Once all St Paul passengers had ‘de-trained’, we were assigned our coach at the departure gate, and made our way down to the platform. The train consisted of a single-decker baggage railcar just behind the locomotives (you can just see it in the photo above), and a long set of sleeper cars and seating cars, a dining car, and an observation car. Seattle cars were at the front of the train, and those from Portland at the rear.

20150930 0471

Although we had reserved seats, we didn’t have actual seats assigned. But as the railcars were not full, we just found the first empty seats available, all on the upper deck of each Superliner car. Fortunately, Amtrak does assign blocks of seats for couples traveling together, and those for passengers traveling alone. So it’s always possible to sit together. If the train is full, however, the conductor will assign specific seats.

On both sectors we had no problem finding good seats, and down to Chicago, our car was immediately behind the observation car, with its snack bar on the lower level. All seats face forward, recline, there’s a foot-rest, and ample space between seats, more like the business class seating space on an aircraft.

20150930 0474 20150930 0477

Since we only had hand luggage, this could be accommodated in the racks above our seats. There was plenty of space for larger luggage downstairs, and baggage could also be checked and stored in the baggage car.

So, letting ‘the train take the strain’ we settled into our seats, anticipating the journey south to Chicago.

We departed on time at 08:03, which is exceptional for Amtrak considering the issues this service has been facing in recent times. Delays of up to five hours have occurred on some sectors, especially west of St Paul. The Amtrak Empire Builder runs on tracks (often single tracks) owned by several freight companies², which take priority. So if extra freight trains are added to the schedule, or there’s a breakdown on one of the single track sections, for example, then Amtrak just has to fit in. Fortunately on both sectors of our Chicago jaunt, the trains ran to schedule and on time.

About 20 miles south of St Paul, the railway crosses the Mississippi at Hastings over to the west bank. I didn’t even notice when that happened, as the river is quite narrow at this point. Not so, further south, as the river merges with a set of lakes. Where the railroad crosses the Mississippi over to the east bank near La Crosse, WI, it is most impressive as you can see in the Part 1 video (at around 13 minutes).

From Hastings south to Red Wing and Winona, the railroad more or less hugs the bank of the Mississippi. After crossing the river, it heads east over mid-Wisconsin, often through extensive wetlands, but also mile upon mile of maize and soybeans. After Milwaukee, on the shore of Lake Michigan, it turns abruptly south, and after another 90 minutes or so, pulls into Chicago’s Union Station—as we did on time around 15:55.

On both sectors there are slightly longer stops at Winona and Milwaukee to permit passengers to step off the train for a few minutes and stretch their legs and, if needs must, smoke. All Amtrak services are strictly No Smoking!

20150930 0470

Stretching our legs at Winona, MN

On the journey to Chicago, we bought sandwiches in the snack bar. Big mistake! They were expensive, and dry, almost inedible slabs of bread (no butter or mayonnaise) with a turkey and cheese in between. As we had to leave the house early for our train we hadn’t had time to prepare anything. On the return journey we stocked up with supplies from a deli close to our hotel. Much tastier and better value.

While many passengers (retirees in particular) take the Empire Builder for its relaxing way to travel across this vast country, for others rail travel is cheaper than flying. After all, our two return tickets cost only USD224. For others it’s really the only way they can travel. On both journeys there were many Amish (or were they Old Order Mennonites, or even Hutterites?) making their way to Chicago, or back to their communities in the far west in Montana.

20150930 0476

A young ‘Amish’ woman and her baby making their way through the observation car.

On the return leg, there were four young ‘Amish’ women sitting in the row in front of us, chattering away in ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’, that strange Swiss-German dialect they have used since first arriving in the USA (you can hear them at the beginning of the Part 2 video). They were traveling to Malta, Montana, another 36 hours at least west from St Paul. Another young man seated near us was traveling on to Portland, OR. And only seated! I couldn’t do that. On a longer journey than our trip to Chicago, I would definitely choose the sleeper option, with all meals included.

Was it a good trip? On the whole, yes. I love traveling by train, as I have posted elsewhere on this blog. Traveling by train allowed us to see new parts of the USA that we wouldn’t had we flown to Chicago—new communities, new landscapes, new agriculture. A pity though that Amtrak doesn’t clean the railcar windows more regularly (as you can see from the videos, unfortunately).

Maybe another time, for a short trip like this one, I would travel by train one way, and return by air. That would certainly be the case for a transcontinental trip. Nevertheless, our trip was comfortable, interesting, on time, and with rail travel there is the distinct advantage of arriving in the center of the city. From Union Station in Chicago it was a short taxi ride to our hotel. I have one regret. We didn’t have time to look round Union Station. It was a bit of a maze to find our departure gate, so once there, we just waited for the gate to open (about 20 minutes) rather than wander off around the concourse, and I’m not sure in which direction that lay. Union Station is huge.

Three things struck me as we traveled:

  1. Chicago is the terminal for many of the long-distance trains that Amtrak operates to California, the Midwest, and Texas among others. Of course, it was the city from where the 19th century railway building boom started. Parts of our journey used to be double track or more. Many lengths are now just single track. But looking at the landscapes, the rivers and wetlands that the railroad crossed again brings to mind the superhuman effort to build a trans-continental railway then.
  2. The state of the railway is quite poor in parts, although efforts are being made to upgrade different sections of the line. But almost exclusively existing wooden sleepers are being replaced by wooden sleepers. I hardly saw any concrete sleepers at all. And rail lengths are very short. This is in contrast to what you see in the UK and Europe, where all rail refurbishment is with concrete sleepers and extremely long lengths of steel rails welded together for a safer and smoother ride. With wooden sleepers about a foot or so apart, I hate to think just how many trees (and which species) have been sacrificed to build the railways. Crossing the Great Plains in the 19th century, sleepers were shipped in, were quite crude, and made from timber (often cottonwood) that didn’t survive for very long. Modern wooden sleepers are huge chunks of wood.
  3. And as you will see as you watch the two videos, there isn’t much segregation between the railroad and cars and people. Obviously the railroad follows today the original 19th century route, passing through the center of towns along the way. There are innumerable railroad crossings, and the locomotive engineer was constantly sounding his horn the whole journey as we approached the many roads crossing the line, or on entering towns. There are no fences, and the line often cuts across gardens of houses alongside the railroad.

However, this Amtrak trip is another item ticked off my Bucket List. Time to start planning my next trip.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
¹ Actually, the Empire Builder is two trains, one from Seattle and the other from Portland, OR that join to form a single train at Spokane, in eastern Washington State.
² BNSF Railway’s northern route from Seattle to Minneapolis, Minnesota Commercial from Minneapolis to St. Paul, Canadian Pacific from St. Paul to Glenview, and Metra from Glenview to Chicago.