Photo 1 Caption: The Albert Nordby family pictured on one of the log railing bridges over the little brook that flowed through the park. Taken about 1904. (Photo from Barbara Bistodeau.)
Photo 2 Caption: A photographer is part of this group that spent their afternoon at Old Camden Park in 1906. (Minnesota Historical Society photo.)
Photo 3 Caption: A back view of Camden's Pumping Station #3. Part of the lagoon in the park is shown in the foreground. The river itself is beyond the building in the picture. (Minnesota Historical Society photo.)
The original Camden Park was not where it is today. The park we call Camden Park, or Webber Park, is actually the second Camden Park to exist, and it has undergone many drastic changes over its history. The Camden Park I'm writing about here, however, is the original one. It was down on the Mississippi riverbank. Today, the boat launch site under the Camden Bridge occupies a portion of this old park. When I was a boy in Camden during the 1950s, this area down by the river was referred to as "Old Camden Park." To me this seemed a little strange, since the entire area along the river here was pretty wild and heavily wooded then, and certainly had little resemblance to a park. It wasn't until well into my adulthood that I got a chance to examine and study what the original park was like.
When the first Camden Park came into existence, there was no Camden Bridge. That came about 25 years later. I remember that to get down to the old park, one used an access road, a good portion of which is gone today. Where the freeway now exists, there used to be an extension of Washington Ave. You drove a short distance south on Washington Ave. from 42nd, then turned left onto Soo Ave. down a hill toward the river. Soo Ave. ran under the railroad trestle here, then turned right and continued down to the riverbank. Today, the portion that ran under the railroad trestle is still there, but you must go down to 41st, just east of 1-94, to gain entrance.
In order to explain how this area had once qualified to be Camden Park, it is necessary to digress. In 1867 the City of Minneapolis began pumping water from the river just above St. Anthony Falls on the west bank. The original building was located between the riverbank and a water power canal that had been constructed around the falls on its west side. By 1871 the city needed more capacity, and Joel Bassett's old sawmill building was purchased and converted to become Pumping Station #1. This building was on the west side of the same power canal around the falls. The pumping was done with water power provided through the canal. In 1883 an addition was added on the north end of this building, and in 1886 steam operated pumps helped to increase capacity. But the need to move the water intake further upstream, away from the congestion at the falls, was soon apparent.
In 1888 Pumping Station #3 opened in Camden, in the area where the present blacktop parking area is for the boat landing. In 1904 another station, Pumping Station #4, was built on the other side of the river, and also a filtration plant and large reservoir high on a hill in Columbia Heights. Pumping Station #3 on our side of the river continued to serve until 1931, but Pumping Station #4 and the filtration plant in Columbia Heights are still in operation today. Pumping Station #4 is the building that may still be seen at the far end of the Camden Bridge.
It would be easy to get sidetracked here into a history of the city water department. It is an interesting topic in itself, and there were many developments to follow. But let's return to the discussion of the Old Camden Park site. The area around this Camden Pumping Station was developed into a park that I could have never imagined, had I not seen several photographs of it. There was a small brook that branched off from Shingle Creek and flowed through the park, allowing for the construction of little picturesque bridges. In their first incarnation, these bridges were built in an arched pattern and constructed of logs. This style of bridge was popular in Minneapolis parks, and the same kind of bridge can be seen in many of the older photos of Minnehaha Falls.
Later in park history, these log bridges were replaced with concrete bridges with iron pipe railings. There was an extensive lagoon running through the park and paths with benches provided. The park was planted with many flowers and shrubs, and the grass was manicured in a style that would rival anything that Como Park in St. Paul has to offer today. The park was bounded on its northern edge by Shingle Creek. That all this would disappear from the earth and be allowed to return to the wild by the time I inherited the area as a playground, was inconceivable to me. But it did.
Yes, the Old Camden Park that I heard my relatives speak of was already a thing of the past in my day. In some old photos, it is referred to as "Pumping Station Park" or "Camden Place Park" This part of Minneapolis was once named "Camden Place," as the sign on the railroad depot would attest. The Camden depot was along the tracks by the old grain elevator, and the old elevator can still be seen overlooking the site. The railroad depot was still there when I was growing up.
I don't think that this original Camden Park was ever really owned by the Minneapolis Park system. I suspect it was the Water Department property, and the public was welcomed onto the grounds. Twenty years or more after this park was created, the city did begin developing the "new" Camden Park a little further upstream on Shingle Creek.
In the woods just west of the boat launch parking lot, you will find heavy iron castings protruding from the ground. These are the remains of gate valves for the water mains associated with the old pumping station. The whole landscape along the river has been changed from that time, not only here, but at other places along the Camden riverfront as well. Changes were coming to this park. In the next installment of our story, I‘ll talk about the new river crossing we call the Camden Bridge and other uses to develop for this property. The whole riverfront was alive with activity back then. The tranquil river pathways of today have held their secrets of the past well.
Ron Manger is a life-long resident of Camden. For 34 years he taught life sciences in the Mounds View schools, and has been retired for six years. He is a charter member of the Camden Community Historical Society. He is interested in what you may have to tell or help to add to the society's archives. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The group meets the second Saturday each month at 11 a.m. at the North Methodist Church, 44th and Fremont Ave. N. All interested persons are welcome.