Raspberry Island has all the makings for an identity crisis. It has long lived in the shadow of its sibling and neighbor Harriet Island, and it sits literally in the shadow of the Wabasha Street Bridge. Its size and function have been altered several times, its name has changed, and it only became an actual island through dredging when it was re-named Navy Island in the late 1940s. Yet this plucky island survives and thrives as a city park and the longtime home of the Minnesota Boat Club. In fact, it holds the honorable position of being the last remaining true island in the Mississippi River in Saint Paul.
“A little gem in the middle of the river,” is how Don Ganje, Senior Landscape Architect of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, describes it.
Early on, Mdewakanton Dakota, Ojibwe and Winnebago tribes used the island as a meeting place, and the Dakota used it as late as the 1820s through the 1840s, according to “Notes on the History of Raspberry Island” from the City of Saint Paul, which owns and runs the site. Donald L. Empson says in his book, The Street Where You Live, that Raspberry Island is marked on the first map of the city, made in 1851.
One nearly constant factor in Raspberry Island’s identity has been the Minnesota Boat Club, a nonprofit group that claims to be Minnesota’s oldest athletic institution. The club was organized in 1870, and bought the downstream (western) end of the island seven years later, notes Virginia Brainerd Kunz in “The Mississippi and Saint Paul.” The Boat Club’s website says the club owned the entire island at one point, but doesn’t specify when. The current clubhouse dates from 1910 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The Minnesota Boat Club still actively engages in and promotes the sport of rowing, using the Raspberry Island site as its base. The upper level of the building has been the home of various night clubs and now is available to rent for weddings and other events.
The city’s first curling match in 1885 was played on the Mississippi River near Raspberry Island on Christmas Day. And according to the Saint Paul Curling Club, its first club location was constructed on the island in 1891, featuring five sheets of natural ice.
Raspberry Island has changed substantially over time. Depictions of the island in 1883 and 1938 show it as long and thin, reaching almost to the Robert Street Bridge. The City’s “Notes” describe its ownership in 1916: “The western 650’ more or less (m/l) owned by the Minnesota Boat Club, the middle 175’ m/l by St. Paul Union Depot, and the eastern 480’ m/l by John Heinen.” That totals 1305 feet and would mean the island once was longer than four football fields. Erosion and shape shifting by the river naturally altered the island’s outline.
When the City condemned portions of the island in 1948, there were numerous structures there, including several houseboats. Since those were cleared, the island has been bare of buildings, except for the clubhouse.
The City of Saint Paul obtained title to the eastern three acres of the island from the Union Depot Company in 1938 or 1939. Just after World War II in 1948, the U.S. Navy leased part of that acreage and built a training center there. This is when the island was given the name Navy Island. The center only lasted 10 years, however, and was demolished in 1958, though the island continued under that name for quite a few years.
At some point the size and shape of the island were altered by human rather than natural forces, perhaps during the Navy construction, perhaps before or after, perhaps both. Fill was added at some point so the island lay higher than the Ordinary High Water level for the Mississippi River in that locale. By 1950 documents show the island “not nearly as long” as before. The City’s “Notes” cite a history booklet from the Saint Paul Yacht Club saying, “As a part of the St. Paul Harbor Improvement Program, completed in 1949 by the Federal Government, Raspberry Island (which was never an island, except in high water) was made into one by dredging a back channel around it and re-christening it Navy Island. At the same time Harriet Island was joined to the mainland.”
During the 1970s and 1980s Raspberry Island was best known as a parking lot for people who worked in downtown Saint Paul.
During the early 1990s, the island housed a small bandshell where occasional concerts were performed. At one concert in 1994, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra performed Handel (“Water Music”?) from a barge while the audience listened from the island (markkthompson.blogspot.com/2008).
In 1996-97 when the Wabasha Bridge was rebuilt, the bridge to Raspberry Island was in the way, so it was removed and a temporary one was put in on the downstream end of the island. The permanent bridge to the island was rebuilt in 2001, according to www.johnweeks.com/bridges. During the planning of the new Wabasha Street Bridge, the island was again christened Raspberry Island.
Yet, Empson claims there’s some question whether the city actually had the right to reinstitute the name Raspberry Island. The City of Saint Paul owns the land, but the river is a federal waterway, which makes the jurisdiction somewhat unclear.
In recent years the island has seen a renaissance. The Schubert Club of Minnesota built the Heilmaier Memorial Bandshell there in 2004. During 2007 and 2008, Raspberry Island was redesigned by Saint Paul Parks and Recreation, financed by a $5 million grant from the State of Minnesota. Just before that, a local newspaper described it as “a sun-baked expanse of dirt and rocks… as desolate as ever,” “a humble sliver of land,” and “a peaceful sandbar” (St. Paul Pioneer Press, 7/31/2007). Following the renovation it became a much more welcoming site, a park “helping people find new ways to reconnect to the Mississippi.”
Cottonwood trees along the shoreline had to be removed, and the concrete shoreline was replaced with riprap (rock or other material used to armor shorelines and protect them from erosion). Walking paths, public toilets and parking, seating areas and extensive landscaping made the new park more accessible and welcoming to the public. More than 2500 trees and flowers, including native plants, replaced the cottonwoods; project plans called for 131 trees, 443 shrubs, 4,000 ornamental grasses, 10,000 sedge plants, 1400 wildflowers, 900 perennials, and 300 ferns.
Raspberry Island is now part of Lilydale-Harriet Island-Cherokee Regional Park (established in 1974), which extends westward almost to the High Bridge. Raspberry Island no longer has a looming identity crisis: it has its old name back and is wearing its finest garb to welcome visitors. This is the place to go to get up close and personal with the river; you can walk, sit and look at the beautiful view, and even fish from the steps. You can reach down and touch the river.
June 2011, revised August 1918