West Side: The Flats

Tour curated by: Special thanks to author Paul Nelson

The contours of the earth define and set apart Saint Paul’s West Side. On the north, the great swoop of the Mississippi forms the point and two sides of a rounded triangle; a line of sandstone cliffs--the shore long ago of the glacial River Warren--forms the base. The low plain inside the triangle, the flats, has invited immigrants, industry, and floods for more than a century and a half. The immigrants and those who followed them eventually expanded the West Side south to the city limits at Annapolis Street.

It took a few decades for this area to become part of the city. During the 1840s, settlers who were busy building a village and steamboat levees along the river (today’s downtown Saint Paul) looked across the river at land that was legally beyond their reach. This land--and all of the land west of the Mississippi River--officially belonged to the Dakota people until treaties were signed in 1851. Connections to Saint Paul then came along slowly: ferries, a bridge, then two, and finally annexation to the metropolis in 1878. The West Side has been part of Saint Paul for more than a century but the Mississippi and those early years of independent growth still work to keep its identity distinct.

Frequent flooding made the lowlands chancy for housing, hence a place for the poorest of immigrants, most enduringly Eastern European Jews, then Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. The higher and drier ground above more resembles the rest of the city’s neighborhoods. The cliffs marked a division of West Side residents physically, ethnically, and economically--a division much less evident today.

Industry and housing once grew side by side on the flood plain. Industries manufacturing fire engines, boxes, pickles, derricks, and macaroni operated alongside synagogues, butcher shops, junkyards, and schools. Amongst the landscape were vacant lots but no parks. By the mid-1960s much of the development was all gone.

The demolition and industrial redevelopment stopped where the earth began to rise, roughly along the line from the Wabasha caves on the west to Captain Ken’s Beans on the east. South of that the district is more vibrant today than it has been for many years. This is District del Sol, now the Spanish-accented heart of the new West Side.

And why is it called the West Side when it is obviously south of downtown? It’s all because of the Mississippi. The great river runs north-south almost everywhere, so everyplace on its west side is clearly west. But at Fort Snelling, the Father of Waters begins a loop east and north, so that when it reaches downtown Saint Paul, it flows almost due east. Here is the source of the confusion. The West Side lies south of downtown, but on the west (or Minneapolis) shore. If one could tug the Mississippi taut, like a string, the West Side (and West Saint Paul too) would shift decisively west and lodge right below Minneapolis, unmistakably on the west bank.

Locations for Tour

The West Side of St. Paul originally got it's name not from the fact that it sits west of St. Paul, but because at this point of the river, the Mississippi bends from its north-south bearing, to an east-west, placing the West Side on the left or…

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…

From downtown Saint Paul, Wabasha Street crosses the Mississippi and marches due south until the bluffs force it to jog left. The bluffs here -- deep sandstone beneath a thin limestone cap -- tell some of St. Paul's geological history. Sand…

Find this intersection (just south and one block west of the Robert Street bridge), and what do you see? Not much? Well, only because you came several decades too late. Had you had the foresight to visit, say in 1940 or 1950, you would be standing in…

People of Mexican origin or descent began to come to St. Paul around the time of World War I. Oftentimes they were migrant agricultural workers who found reasons to stay year-round, working in the railroads, local shops and factories, or the South…