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A Line or Two: Hikes and History

One of the joys of this year's early spring in these parts has been the opportunity to get out of the house and hike. I say "hike," but I really mean "amble." Though I spend far too much time sitting on my duff manipulating electronic symbols, and am a pretty indoorsy type in general, I do love exploring urban and small-town neighborhoods on foot, usually with my wife, Laurie, leading the way.

Since we live within reasonable walking distance of Cathedral Hill and the fancy part of Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, we're always running across intriguing buildings, out-of-the-way urban corners, and cool little businesses in these beautiful, walkable neighborhoods. History is so alive in these precincts—the mansions, churches, and sturdy stone commercial buildings tell the story of Saint Paul's opulent industrial heyday.

A while ago while chasing down some historical information about a stretch of Summit where we planned to amble, I stumbled upon one of the most remarkable local web sites I've ever come across: Walk on the Wild Side: Thursday Night Hikes.

An Invitation to Hike

The home page is straightforward: a guy named Chris Olson invites any and all to join a regular series of hikes through different parts of the Twin Cities and suburbs.

"Interested hikers and walkers are invited to join the Walk on the Wild Side Thursday Night hikers," says the introductory text, "an aggregation of hiking enthusiasts from the Minnesota Rovers, the North Star Ski Touring Club, the Sierra Club, and others, for an evening of hiking, conversation, and conviviality. The group schedules hikes Thursday nights March through December, rain or shine and cold or hot." And there's a list of upcoming outings: Olson is leading a hike on the Gateway Trail in Maplewood and North Saint Paul on April 12, for example.

It sounds like good healthy fun. There's a photo of an owl on the page, presumably to underscore the back-to-nature message. But there's a strong historical consciousness at work here too. "The trail follows an abandoned Soo Line (Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Railroad) rail line from just north of downtown St. Paul to a park just north of Stillwater," says the hike description. "The Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Railroad was incorporated in Wisconsin in 1883 by grain millers who thought the transportation rates on the railroad to Chicago were outrageous and it began as a rail line from St. Anthony to White Bear to connect with the railroad to Duluth. The 'Soo Line' reached Sault Ste. Marie in 1887 and, with the construction of the International Bridge, connected with the Canadian Pacific Railroad."

Wow. That's either more than you need to know about human activity on a nature hike or—if you have some historical imagination—a kind of magic spell that will make your walk resonate with 130 years of hoping, planning, building, struggle, success, and failure.

A Plenitude of Trails--and History

There's an archive of something like 140 past hike itineraries--they repeat regularly—ranging from the Walker Art Center's sculpture garden to Crosby Lake in Saint Paul to Black Dog Park in Burnsville. There's even a Minneapolis Skyway hike. But my favorites are the hikes that explore old residential districts, because their pages generally have links that lead to astonishingly detailed descriptions of the architectural and home-ownership history of the area.

Click on either of the two hikes for Dayton's Bluff, for example, and there is information about former and current owners of each house on each street, culled from old directories and other sources by Lawrence A. Martin. Many are simple lists of names and dates of ownership--Mathias Mickelson, a clerk, and his wife, Mary, were living in the 902-square-foot, four-bedroom stucco house at 98 Bates Avenue in 1930.

But there's magical depth in the listing for 104 Bates Avenue down the street, since it includes information for the now-vanished 106 Bates. That ghostly structure was once the home of Andrew Robert Kiefer, and we learn that he was born in Marienborn in the German duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt, settled in St. Paul in 1855, was an inspector and collector of the wharf in 1857, was in the Union Army during the Civil War, became a Republican member of the Minnesota House, was engaged in the wholesale mercantile business from 1865 until 1878, ran a wholesale liquor business, cofounded the Hail Storm Insurance Company, was the unsuccessful Republican candidate for mayor of St. Paul in 1890, a U.S. Representative from Minnesota for the Fourth District from 1893 until 1897, then mayor of St. Paul from 1898 until 1900.

The writeups of the old-neighborhood hikes on the site are positively crammed with data like that--and for me, and I suspect for any other history-head, they make for a dizzyingly rich experience of our neighborhoods--part voyeurism, part deep meditation on times past and people long gone.

"There's Definitely a Social Component"

As for the hikes themselves, I checked in with Chris Olson to learn a little more about the Wild Siders. He told me that the group has been in existence since the mid 90s. He has been a member for about ten years, and last fall took over running the outings from Lawrence Martin, the man who did all the prodigious historical research on the site. Olson said that between five and ten people generally show up for each hike. ("Weather obviously makes a difference," he points out.)

"There is definitely a social component as some members have been participating for over fifteen years," says Olson. "It's also fun to find new trails and spaces in the metro. It goes without saying that the Twin Cities are blessed with great outdoor spaces for recreation. I have lived in a number of places around the country and this is by far the best in that regard. And I've found more cool parks and trails with this group than I ever would have found on my own."

So if you're looking for a convivial bit of trail-trekking, the Wild Siders might be just the ticket. But even for the bookish, the sedentary, the ambling, the Thursday Night web site can provide a pretty amazing hike into our past.

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