Lilydale Regional Park Brickyard Trail

Echo CaveLexi and I have been checking out the trails in Lilydale Regional Park lately.

It started with Bruce Vento’s View a couple weeks ago. We drive by the entrance all the time. It’s at the southern corner of Cherokee Regional Park. It’s a great overlook where you can see all the way to Minneapolis (“look down on Minneapolis,” as I later heard someone say). The overlook itself has some stones set up like theater seating, and appears that the stones were salvaged from old buildings. While we were there we saw a trail that descended the bluff but we didn’t have time to check out.

Yesterday we did. I had the not-so-brilliant idea that we’d bike down there and worst case scenario I’d have to walk the bike back up the hill. I didn’t realize how steep the hill would be or account for the fact that the bike, the buggy and Lexi weigh a lot.

But the trip was worth it. The trail was pretty cool and we discovered a cave, a waterfall and a great view of Pickerel Lake.

When we got home I did a little sleuthing and found out there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony planned for this morning. So Lexi and I came back, this time with no heavy bike.

So we checked out the ribbon-cutting ceremony, complete with musical performance by the Eddies, quick comments from St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and City Council Member Dave Thume, some birds released back into the wild, and some snacks. Lexi made some friends, including the mayor’s dog.

After the ceremony we took a walk down the trail and heard more about the history of the area. The Twin Cities Brick Quarry operated in the area for more than 100 years, ending in the early 1970s. Their work excavating clay left a lot of the cliff side exposed and now the area is great for fossil digging (but you need a permit). There’s also the man-made Echo Cave, which has been used for mining, growing mushrooms, making cheese, and now is a winter hibernation resort for the big brown bats species, complete with a bat gate to protect the bats and keep people out (yes, it’s our very own Bat Cave). There’s also the remains of a brick oven.

We were joined in our walk by a group of YWCA girls who had the privilege of camping in Lilydale park the night before, something that’s not ordinarily allowed. Some of the girls were enamored with Lexi and were eager to show her Echo Cave. Lexi hammed it up for them.

The trail itself used to be the road the brick company used, so it’s fairly wide. The Parks & Rec people also put down some gravel that’s apparently flakes from recent work on the Lafayette bridge. With all the clay and brick activity, there are a lot of remnants of an earlier time lying around. According to the maps there are a few waterfalls and regions we didn’t explore, so it definitely deserves a few more trips just to see it all.

Update: Welcome 2010 St. Paul treasure hunters! Hope you’re finding the info on Lilydale Regional Park helpful. Just wanted to take a quick moment to point your attention to a fundraiser I started last week where kids are coloring pictures to help Haiit. Make a donation, get a picture: Color4aCause. Hope you’ll consider making a donation.

3 thoughts on “Lilydale Regional Park Brickyard Trail”

  1. Kevin,

    I loved your Lilydale Park posting!!! Thanks for the wonderful photo tour & story of your’s and Lexi’s explorations.

    Best,
    Grit Youngquist
    on behalf of the Friends of Lilydale Park

  2. Kevin,
    Fun blog comments and photos. I believe I also saw you and Lexi at the ribbon-cutting. (I led the little hike down the hill.)
    Anyway, the above link goes to a story I did for my old pub, Riverview Times, about the history of the stones at Vento’s View. Hopefully you’ll find it of interest. (Sorry the graphic links don’t work right – the story and my webpage are actually off-line though still stored on the server.)
    Below is another story I did in 2000 for RTimes that I don’t have in html anymore (come to think of it I should get it up on our primitive webpage – time!)
    But hopefully you’ll find it of some interest also. Sometime I’d be glad to walk the park with you if we get another nice weekend.
    Best,
    Jon Kerr

    In Memoriam:
    Lilly Dale of past is bulldozed but not forgotten

    It was the summer of 1965 and as most of Minnesota focused attention on the Minnesota Twins’ drive for their first pennant, American astronauts walking in space or on war in a place called Vietnam, Huck Finn’s life in the tiny riverfront community of Lilly Dale or Lilydale was beginning to come to an end.
    That spring’s massive floods over the banks of the Mississippi had already driven most residents to higher grounds and again left layers of mud and debris up to rooflines of some ramshackle houses along the former River Road. The remaining 50-60 homes, including ramshackle trailers, sheds, and outhouses, were an impoverished eyesore to some. Even as the adjacent West Side River Flats community was being displaced by an industrial park, the upriver Lily Dale Village and Pickerel Lake area was being eyed for return to its “natural state” according to state Legislature authorization finally approved in 1971.
    Today, plans for a regional park remain largely unfilled despite large-scale improvements to adjacent Harriet Island and opening several years ago of a new bike/walking trail. Water Street was finally repaved last summer, yet still unmarked are nearby earthen mounds where the bulldozed remnants of the West Side Flats lie buried. And history still hasn’t resolved whether Lilly Dale or Lilydale–a community of less than 200 people and an almost equal number of dogs at its peak–was actually named for a popular river boatmen’s song of the 19th century (“Lily”) or for the lilly pads that once were omnipresent on Pickerel Lake. Even undetermined is whether the name originally had one or two L’s.
    But beyond question is that memories remain strong of the small settlement that made its mark as the literal source of much of Saint Paul’s growth–first as a collecting and sorting site for huge collections of logs being floated down the Mississippi, then later as the home of Twin Cities Brickyards, and still later as the site of a J.L. Shiely Gravel gravel quarry. The river valley’s natural resources may have drawn settlers there, but it was the lifestyle that kept them despite floods, poverty and other hardships.
    “As a kid there, I built a raft and spent the first half of my day fishing in the river and the second half I went swimming in Pickerel Lake,” remembers John Darlow, who grew up in Lilydale from 1955 to 1965 and still remains nearby as owner of the River Road Bait Shop. “I can’t even explain what it was like, it was so beautiful. …Sure, we were poor. But it was like the Flats, we all knew each other and got along.”
    The story is repeated many times over among those who grew up or around Lilydale through the decades.
    “It was great for us kids. The fishing was great in Pickerel and in the winter the Certified Ice company would come and cut ice out of the lake. That was exciting,” said Mike Mrozinski, now of South St. Paul who was born in Lilydale in 1926 and whose mother lived there through the 1960s. His father was one of the last commercial fishermen on this stretch of the Upper Mississippi.
    “If every kid could have grown up like we did down there. …It was Tom Sawyer every day,” said Ed Peltier, now of West St. Paul, who with his brother Phil grew up near the intersection of Water and Joy streets from 1933 to 1952. Days were spent fishing and swimming in the river, climbing in and out of caves, and hunting fossils. “For us kids there was that lure of water and woods. There was always something to do. We were real river rats.”
    Even the “hill rats” who either walked down stairs then located beside the High Bridge or otherwise found their way down from Cherokee Heights reveled in the attractions of the Lilydale area. A favorite pastime of West Side and Lilydale youth was to “moon” passengers on the Mankato-bound train that regularly passed by their Pickerel Lake swimming hole.
    “We used to stand on the bridge and wait ‘til the engineer would blow the whistle before we’d jump in,” remembered Bill Meehn, a teenager in the late 1930s. “And the only suits we had on were our birthday suits.”
    “We’d come down through Ivy Falls (then known as “Happy Hollow”), for a shower,” remember Wayne Schmidt of Mendota Heights. “Then when we were done we’d go and dry off at the brickyards.”
    Life wasn’t always so easy in Lilydale however, between semi-annual floods, a shortage of plumbing and other hardships.
    “We were all pretty poor people. There were no wealthy neighbors. …Course we were pretty spread apart,” Mrozinski remembers.
    “It was tough. I went to bed hungry at night lots of times,” remembers Bob Hammond, who grew up as a third-generation Lilydaler in the 1920s. “I remember my grandfather had a herd of cattle, and there were loggers around and people did just about anything. …Course most of us were squatters. We never paid taxes back then.”
    Many Lilydale residents worked outside year-round pulling clay and limestone out of the river bluffs for use by the brickyards. Other workers there would have to operate kilns that heated up to 900 degrees. Still other Lilydale residents made a living by means as varied as growing mushrooms in caves, by raising their own cows and chickens, or even operating a pig farm as one prominent St. Paul official did.
    At times the secluded community had a somewhat rough-and-tumble reputation. During prohibition, the “Mystic Taverns” (hillside caves) were widely known as a beer-lovers draw. A dance hall and bar by the Omaha Bridge was known as a hotspot into the 1950s. In even later years, the town was known for its automobile salvage yards and a Bohemian riverfront marina community. But always the residents of Lilydale seemed to pull together or at least practice tolerance.
    “It was quite a quaint little community. Everybody knew everybody knew everybody. If somebody got out too of line they’d give ‘em a kick without having to worry about their parents calling a lawyer,” said Peltier. “They were good days.”
    Prominent in most memories is the Lilydale schoolhouse, built in 1893 for the sum of $1,500 and which survived until the mid-1980s. Not only a one-room school, the building was a center of community and civic life to the end. Even when most of the village’s buildings were removed, the schoolhouse and the Lillydale marina resisted the forces of nature and government officials.
    But the 1965 flood was the backbreaker for the old Lily Dale–with nearly every home flooded through the first floor and many washed away from their foundations. Streets were almost all washed away, with sewer run-off and garbage strewn everywhere.
    “It was really a mess. I pitied anybody going back into that,” says West Sider Tom Mahoney, who as a telephone company employee at the time was one of the first people to re-enter Lilydale. “A lot of people had already decided they’d had enough.”
    Ramsey and Dakota County officials decided it also was time to turn Lilydale to a better use as part of a new regional park. Not all the Lilydale residents wanted to go, however.
    “Most of the people felt it was worth it just to live in a beautiful place like that. …People loved that place, floods or no floods,” he said. “The people on this side of the river were a different breed. Still are,” said Darlow.
    Darlow admits he is pleased to see recent efforts to improve Lilydale, despite some resentments.
    “I have a lot of resentment that we were forced to move out, especially when I see the Pool and Yacht Club still there (after making extensive, flood-proofing improvements),” he said. “But I’m glad it’s a park and people still have a place to get away.”
    A few more improvements such as paving the parking area near Pickerel and maybe a fishing pier would increase safety and open up Lilydale to more people, Darlow suggests, pointing to the large numbers of minority youth who are drawn to the Pickerel Lake area.
    “Kids need that. I had it and I still remember,” said Darlow. “But it’ll never come again like it was.”

  3. I lived in Lilydale from ’69 to mid ’70’s. If it still existed, I’d be living there now. I only recall the grey house over by the Justice of the Peace, the justice of the Peaces & the town Secretaries house standing then. Have heard from a couple of others who said other houses were still up, tho.

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