Nature made it an island, but it is an island now only in name, its back channel filled in 1950 to connect it to the shore. It takes its name from Harriet Bishop (1817 -- 1883), who came from Vermont in 1847 to become the city’s first public school teacher. Bishop lived the rest of her life in St. Paul, seeing it grow from a muddy hamlet to a railroad boomtown while she busied herself with church (First Baptist), charity (Home for the Friendless, among others), marriage and divorce. She was not a simple schoolmarm.
The island was named after Bishop, but its importance to the city belongs to Dr. Justus Ohage. Born in Germany in 1839, Justus Ohage came to the United States at age 15, fought in the Civil War, married an American, became a physician, and moved to Saint Paul in 1881. Dr. Ohage was an innovative surgeon (he did the area’s first gall bladder surgery), a professor at the University of Minnesota, and the city’s first public health officer, serving 1899-1918. There he led in compulsory vaccination, pure food laws, and trash disposal.
Ohage acquired the island on his own, then donated it to the city in 1900 on the condition that it be used as a park. Its fortunes since then have waxed and waned with the health of -- and interest in -- the Mississippi.
It had its days of glory, mostly in the early 20th century: swimming beaches (known as “the public baths”), playgrounds, exercise grounds, a zoo (moved in the 1930s to Como Park) and many thousands of summer visitors. But as sewage fouled the river, people turned away, and by the early 1920s the park languished into disuse. In 1935, shortly before his death, Dr. Ohage even threatened to take it back. It has been revived from time to time, most notably in the late 1990s as public attention focused on the river once again.
Today, Harriet Island Regional Park offers fine views of downtown, walking access to the river, a Bed and Breakfast in a vintage towboat, paddleboats, vast grounds for festivals, a stage, and the refurbished WPA pavilion (1941) designed by the pioneering African American architect, Clarence Wigington. There are also trail links to Lilydale Regional Park.