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A Brief Description and History of

Bassett Creek

Bassett Creek is a small, shallow stream which begins its journey at Medicine Lake in Plymouth and winds eastward along a 12-mile course before draining into the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. The creek flows between the hills and marshes of Golden Valley, New Hope, Crystal, Minnetonka, and Minneapolis. A few blocks south-west of the intersection of Lyndale Avenue and Glenwood Avenue in Minneapolis the creek is diverted into a huge concrete underground storm water tunnel. The creek flows beneath downtown Minneapolis, traveling about one and one half miles before entering the Mississippi River near the Stone Arch Bridge.

Several lakes, ponds, wetlands, smaller streams, and manmade storm sewers and ditches feed Bassett Creek. Rain, snowmelt and groundwater contribute to its water flow. Thirty-eight square miles of land in and west of downtown Minneapolis -- approximately 25,702 acres -- drain into Bassett Creek; this land is called the creek's watershed.

Increased urban development within Bassett Creek's watershed has created more land areas with impermeable surfaces such as concrete, asphalt and roofs. Because these surfaces prevent water from seeping naturally into the earth, more water runs off the land and into Bassett Creek. As stormwater flows across parking lots and other impermeable surfaces it picks up pollutants which are transported into the creek. This causes a water quality problem called polluted runoff.

In addition to polluted runoff, increases in impervious surfaces in the Bassett Creek watershed have contributed to flooding problems. Instead of soaking naturally and cleanly into the vegetated soil as it once did, much rain now flows off manmade impervious surfaces. Most of this runoff then flows into the network of underground storm sewers which lead to the creek. Flooding has occurred in 1903, 1913, 1974, 1975 and 1987.

Early settlement and development

Before the European development in the 1800's, Bassett's Creek flowed as an open and pristine stream surrounded by native prairies and woodlands. The creek entered the Mississippi River across from the western edge of Nicollet Island in present day Minneapolis. The area around Bassett Creek was an abundant hunting ground for the native Dakota people prior to the arrival of European immigrants.

Although it is now we do not know if native Americans had a name for Bassett's Creek, the early white settlers did know of an Indian path that ran between the east side of Lake Calhoun and the Mississippi River. A Dakota village marked the beginning of the trail which traversed the east shore of Lake of the Isles to near Euclid Place then passed through Waverly Place and the ridges of Lowry Hill. The trail continued on west of Spring Lake and followed Bassett Creek to the Mississippi River above St. Anthony Falls. Early European settlers, unable to find an existing name for the creek, referred to it as "the brook." The settlers fished in the creek, and also used its waters for recreational activities such as swimming and skating.

The creek was eventially named after one of the first Europeans to settle on its banks, Joel Bean Bassett, a native of New Hampshire who came to Minneapolis in 1850. At one time Bassett owned a section of the creek where it entered into the Mississippi. When the City of Minneapolis became incorporated in 1856, Bassett’s property value had risen greatly and he sold his land to the city for $250 an acre.

Between 1880 and 1885, the population of Minneapolis jumped from 45,000 to 129,000 and the city’s railroad system was improved and linked to both east and west coasts. Bassett Creek was crossed and re-crossed by railroads and streets. Trees were cut down, wetlands were filled, streams were diverted and their sources were cut by sewers as the city’s growth was pushed to its limits. By 1890, development projects were affecting much of Bassett Creek's watershed.

The loss of Bassett Creek wetlands

Bassett Creek valley was once a wetland area that was extremely swampy and unsuitable for building. The valley became a dumping ground for the City of Minneapolis that was emerging along its edges. By 1920, the swampy valley had become virtually an open sewer filled with ashes, dead animals, garbage, glass bottles, car tires, bedsprings, tin cans and other rubbish. The wetlands slowly disappeared as they became filled with dirt and trash from the surrounding industrial and residential development.

As early as 1925, the Minneapolis City Planning Commission recommended cleaning up part of Bassett Creek valley. In 1929 Theodore Wirth, Park Board Director, endorsed the idea and presented it in his annual report. Because of lack of funding and local neighborhood opposition, the project was not begun until 1934 when the city hired about 208 men with funding from the federal government to clean up the creek valley, fix the badly eroded banks and reclaim sections of the degraded wetland valley.

Unfortunately, in the section of the Bassett Creek corridor that runs through present day Minneapolis, only a tiny portion of the original wetland areas have not been filled and developed.

The Burying of Bassett Creek

Floodplain wetlands serve as natural flood water holding pond areas, and help greatly in reducing flood damage. This filling of the wetland floodplain with 10 to 15 feet of fill, along with the construction of hard surfaces, caused more water to rush into and through the restricted creek during heavy rains. These, by and large humanly caused, flooding problems - which were severe with heavy rainfall in the spring of 1913 - led to a series of flood control projects that altered much of the course of Bassett Creek in Minneapolis.

In the wake of the 1913 flood, Minneapolis park and city officials became convinced that the annual flooding of the creek would be eliminated if they could secure enough funding to convert the open creek into enclosed pipes. Later that year, the Minneapolis legislature approved a $50,000 bond to begin the work. The target area stretched from the Mississippi River to Washington Avenue and from Lyndale Avenue to Glenwood Avenue. Because construction was halted during World War I, it took a decade to divert the creek into an underground tunnel. By 1923, one and one half miles of the creek were buried at a total cost of $280,772.

Four decades later, suburban expansion had covered more land, greatly increasing the amount of stormwater draining into Bassett Creek. By the 1960s there were parts of nine municipalities within the land area that drains to Bassett Creek: Crystal, Golden Valley, Medicine Lake, Minneapolis, Minnetonka, New Hope, Plymouth, St. Louis Park and Robbinsdale. In 1969 the municipalities formed the Bassett Creek Flood Control Commission, later called Bassett Creek Water Management Commission. The commission raised concerns that the aging and deteriorating underground conduit would not be structurally sound enough, or have a large enough capacity, to prevent major flood events.

In 1970, the Bassett Creek Water Management Commission asked the St. Paul District Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a study of Bassett Creek’s flooding and related land resource problems within its watershed. It took six years for the Army Corps to complete its study. In 1976, the Army Corps finally presented its findings to the Bassett Creek Water Management Commission and made several recommendations that further changed the character of the creek.

One of the recommendations was to divert the creek from the old conduit, now running under the Harrison, Glenwood Lyndale, Sumner Olson and North Loop neighborhoods. This diversion was also planned to help drain streets, highways and freeways. Much of I-94 and I-394 in the near downtown area now drain into the creek tunnel. The new tunnel begins at approximately Colfax and 2nd Avenue North and outlets into the Mississippi River near St. Anthony Falls. This outlet is below Mississippi River surface level, so therefore is very difficult to locate. Construction work for the new tunnel was completed in 1992. The old conduit tunnel is still maintained and handles local storm sewer drainage as well as occasional overflow from the creek near the new tunnel entrance.

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Content © Friends of Bassett Creek; Maintained by Dave Stack, Ed McRoberts; Created by Gabe Ormsby; Update 003apr22