St. Paul, Minnesota, has more layers of history than you might imagine. From prehistoric times, Native American settlements, the glory days of the railroads, the roaring twenties and the era of mobsters and their molls, here's where you can visit to experience St. Paul's history, from 450 million years ago, to more recent historical times.
Summit Avenue's Historical Houses
Summit Avenue, starting on the hill above downtown St. Paul, and running all the way west to the Mississippi River, is where St. Paul's lumber barons and railroad millionaires built their mansions a century ago. Almost every home on Summit Avenue dates from Victorian times, and since the area has always been wealthy, most have been impeccably maintained.
The grandest homes are on the eastern end of the avenue, including the James J. Hill house, now a museum. The Minnesota Governor's Residence is at 1006 Summit Avenue, and the stately house is open for free tours in the summer.
The architecture of the houses encompasses elegant, tasteful, and hideous. It's fun to drive or walk along, and pick out the most beautiful, and the most ugly home on Summit Avenue.
Mickey's Dining Car in downtown St. Paul has been open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for almost 70 years, weathering urban redevelopment, the onslaught of fast-food chains, and modern health food. An icon of St. Paul, you can't call yourself a true resident until you've had breakfast at 3 a.m. at Mickey's.
Humans have lived in the area which was to become St. Paul for thousands of years. Urban development has obliterated most all of the area's Native American history, save a small number of burial mounds in Indian Mounds Park, east of downtown St. Paul.
A Native American burial ground was located on the bluff above the Mississippi River, and once a large number of burial mounds were build in this area. The majority were destroyed in early 20th century construction. Six remain, and are preserved in Indian Mounds park. The park is a St. Paul public park, and is free to visit.
Lilydale Park is unique as a site where you can experience both recent history, and prehistoric times. The site, now a St. Paul public park, was once home to the Twin Cities Brick Company's brickyards. The company started operations in 1894, quarrying shale and firing bricks at the site. Caves, quarry sites, the ruins of a brick kiln, and plenty of old bricks, can be found in the park.
Then, go back 450 million years, to when Minnesota was submerged under a prehistoric sea. Fossils of undersea animals can be found in the broad layer of Decorah shale exposed in Lilydale Park. The fossils, mostly simple sea creatures, are plentiful and relatively easily found. A permit from the city of St. Paul is required for hunting fossils at Lilydale Park.
The seat of the State Government, the elegant Minnesota State Capitol and grounds are in the north of downtown St. Paul. The building is open to the public daily, and free tours start on the hour during opening hours. The tours visit the House and Senate chambers, view the Capitol's art collections, and weather permitting, visit the four golden horses on the roof of the Capitol building.
The Beaux-Art style Cathedral of St. Paul has been a dominant feature of the St. Paul skyline for a century. Construction began in 1907, and the first Mass was held in the Cathedral in 1915. The Cathedral welcomes all Mass, and it's free to visit the Cathedral when a service isn't being held. You can also join one of the several weekly free tours of the building.
Reputedly home to spook and spirits, the man-made Wabasha Street Caves were used by run-running, bootlegging gangsters during St. Paul's notorious prohibition days. These days, you can take a tour of the caves, held Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Or experience the caves 1920s style at one of their weekly Thursday swing dancing evenings.
The Landmark Center, in Downtown St. Paul, was once the Federal Courthouse, and tried many notorious mobsters during St. Paul's gangster age, including Ma Baker and John Dillinger. These days, the Landmark Center is home to several small museums, and hosts regular special events in the grand hall.
You can tour the building by joining one of the free public tours, held on Thursdays and Sundays. The Landmark Center also holds free tours of other the Rice Park area and historic buildings surrounding the Landmark Center twice a month.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in, and lived in St. Paul for several years. One of St. Paul's most famous residents, Fitzgerald wrote his first novel at 599 Summit Avenue, in the prestigious Cathedral Hill neighborhood. The house is currently a private home, as are many of the other nearby places with a Fitzgerald connection. So, although there isn't much for fans to get their teeth into, you can take a pleasant stroll around the genteel neighborhood which he called home.
Other F. Scott Fitzgerald landmarks: 25 North Dale Street, currently a law firm, was once a private school which Fitzgerald attended, and has a statue of the author outside, and several other nearby homes and buildings connected with Fitzgerald.
With an appeal extending beyond train fans, the Jackson Street Roundhouse covers many important aspects of the history of our urban and regional transportation. The Roundhouse is home to many lovingly restored trains and buses, transportation memorabilia, and a working turntable which museum visitors can take a ride on. If you ask nicely, you may be able to take a tour of the restoration workshops, and see the guts of vintage steam engines, and surreally oversized tools needed to work on them.
The Jackson Street Roundhouse is open Wednesdays and Saturdays. Freebie tip: look out for free admission to the Jackson Street Roundhouse, occasionally available in the Museum Adventure Pass program at local libraries.
The Minnesota History Center does what it says on the tin. This museum is dedicated to the preservation of Minnesota's history, with subjects as diverse as Charles Lindberg, spam, wartime Minnesota, ice fishing, and butter sculptures from the Minnesota State Fair. The Minnesota History Center also curates special exhibitions, and hosts notable traveling exhibitions.
Freebie tip: The Minnesota History Center has free admission to all on Tuesday evenings, from 5-8 pm. And for a free visit at other times, look out for free admission to the Minnesota History Center, occasionally available in the Museum Adventure Pass program at local libraries.