Friends of Patrick Eagan Park

"Is Pilot Knob Too Historical and Sacred for New Townhouses?"

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Sunday, February 23, 2003

by Curt Brown


A developer's plan calls for new housing, but Indians and historians say the Mendota Heights bluff has historical and even sacred significance.

The Dakota people called it oheyahe, a hill much visited. French explorers referred to the blufftop as La Butte de Morts, knoll of the dead. But to more recent generations, from those steering steamboats to those navigating minivans, it's been Pilot Knob.

The Mendota Heights perch offers one of the state's most historic and splendid views, encompassing Fort Snelling, the Minneapolis skyline, the Mendota Bridge and the airport, with the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers tumbling below.

Now an Edina developer's plan to cash in on the view and turn 25 acres on Pilot Knob into 157 upscale townhouses has sparked a community debate. Historians, Indian leaders and a nearby synagogue are among those saying: Whoa. They argue that the land is too historically sacred for a housing development.

But the area is deemed appropriate for residential use in Mendota Heights' latest comprehensive plan. So supporters say the city shouldn't stand between private buyers and sellers trying to make a development deal. Then there's the airplane noise roaring over the knob, which prompted Jeff Hamiel-, director of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, to say: ``It's just not a place for people to live.''

Developer Ron Clark of Minnstar Builders submitted a draft environmental assessment worksheet last week, and now Mendota Heights city staffers are analyzing his report to see whether it's complete.

Before the issue goes to the Mendota Heights City Council in March, a coalition loosely calling itself Preserve Pilot Knob is mounting its opposition. The five City Council members could give the development a thumbs up or down - or opt for a full-blown, project-delaying environmental impact statement.

``If the developer can satisfy all the matters that come out, I don't think we'll have much choice but to approve it,'' said John Huber, Mendota Heights' newly elected mayor. ``It gets a fair amount of conversation, for sure, among people who live around here one way or the other. And the issue of historical significance has obviously struck a chord among the residents as a real concern.''

`A grand place'

To frame the debate in some sort of historical context, flash back to 1849. When U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois introduced a bill to designate Minnesota a territory, guess where he suggested the territorial capitol be located?

``The beauty and fitness of Mendota's situation at the junction of the two rivers, with the Pilot Knob peak as a grand place for the capitol building, with its beautiful and extensive view. . . .'' Rewind a dozen years earlier to 1837, and French explorer Joseph Nicollet was experiencing a February much like this one when he bumped into a Dakota medicine dance ``in an oak grove crowning a plateau halfway up the high hill of Pilot Knob.''

Nicollet wrote about ``a great congregation of people, a camp with 80 lodges, eighteen inches of snow, a temperature of 6 to 10 degrees below zero and a northwest wind multiplying the effect of this temperature transformed this day into a spectacle such as civilized societies cannot imagine.''

And 14 years later, in 1851, Pilot Knob was the site of the landmark treaty signing relinquishing much of the Indian land that became southern Minnesota to the U.S. government.

Pilot Knob was more than a ceremonial vista, according to Bob Brown, chairman of the Mendota Mdewakanton- Dakota Community, and historian Bruce White. They point to an array of historical documentation that, Brown said, ``tells us this was a burial place for the Dakotas and possibly Indian people before we were here.'' Among the historical tidbits they use to buttress their burial-ground argument are an 1847 painting by Seth Eastman showing Pilot Knob topped with Dakota burial scaffolding, and accounts of early white settlers who wrote about Indian tombs and graves on the knob.

``The entire river valley clearly has historical significance,'' said Huber, the mayor. ``But one question that comes up is whether there is something of particular historical significance at this particular spot.'' David Kraft, a real-estate broker for St. Paul Homes, said the issue might boil down to whether the parcels eyed for development merely have a ``proximity'' to burial grounds.

``There is no empirical evidence and no one has proved the land we have for sale has any burial grounds on them,'' Kraft said.

He represents two businessmen whose $1.65 million sale of 8.5 acres to the Clark development group is contingent on the city approving the development. Clark is planning to acquire the other two-thirds of the site in question from the adjacent Acacia Park Cemetery. When the cemetery was built in the 1920s, Brown said, there was evidence that earlier remains were found.

But the cemetery's general manager, Dale Bachmeier-, isn't so sure.

``Supposedly there's a vault out here somewhere, but there is nothing we have found in our history or notes that validates their claims,'' Bachmeier said. ``This has always been known as a significant spot for rituals and the treaty was signed up here, but we don't know anything about actual burials.''

Brown and White point to a 1962 newspaper clipping from the now-defunct West Side Booster that reported a group of teenage vandals had stolen Indian skulls from an Acacia Park shed. When three of the skulls were returned, the former cemetery manager told the newspaper they had come from an old Indian burial plot on Pilot Knob. Bachmeier, the current cemetery manager, questions the veracity of the 41-year-old newspaper account but said he has ``every intent of searching'' through old records and files to see whether there is any hidden evidence.

`Brutal' noise

Besides the sensitive burial issue, there's the question of why anyone would want to live in a townhouse costing between $300,000 and $500,000 on a knoll exposed to the deafening noise from nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. ``The roaring engines would be brutal,'' said Scott Beaty, chairman of the Mendota Heights Airports Relations Committee. The Airports Commission's Hamiel has testified against adding housing so near the airport.

``Even if the housing is insulated for sound, the minute you open a window or a door or take a walk, you'll be subject to high aircraft noise,'' he said last week.

Clark, the developer, declined to return numerous phone calls to answer questions for this article.

But Kraft, the real-estate broker involved in the sale, said the issue of airport noise should be driven by the marketplace, not politicians. He points to the nearby upscale Augusta Shores development, which required buyers to sign waivers promising not to complain about plane noise.

Familiar faces

The coalition opposing the Pilot Knob housing includes members of the Beth Jacob Congregation located nearby off Hwy. 110, plus various Indian and historical preservation groups.

But standing at the center are the familiar faces of Bob and Linda Brown.

Bob, the tribal chairman, and Linda, administrator of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, were active in the fight against the rerouting of Hwy. 55 near Fort Snelling. Both say they learned many lessons during that protest, namely to hire a good lawyer to guide them through the environmental assessments and other legal tangles.

The Mendota Mdewakanton community includes 280 adult members and is in the process of seeking federal recognition as a tribe. It draws no casino revenues, and when people suggest they match the offer, buy the land in question and perhaps put up an interpretive center, Linda Brown shrugs. ``We'd love to, but we have no money,'' she said.

That's one reason the neighboring synagogue is getting involved.

``We want to support any recognition of that land as historic or sacred, and we also want to support the tribe because there is an awareness that this is not a group that holds a lot of power in local decisionmaking,'' said Scott Chazdon, chair of the Beth Jacob Social Justice Committee.

Mendota Heights City Council Member Mary Jeanne Schneeman said she'd love to see the Mendota Mdewakanton community join other, richer tribes to purchase the land and place it in trust with provisions for an interpretive center.

``I haven't talked to any citizens of Mendota Heights who think housing is a good idea for Pilot Knob,'' Schneeman said. ``This could be a great teaching tool, but you can't always wish things to happen.''

Curt Brown is at

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