Parks—and Water—For the People: The history of Minneapolis’ hand-pump drinking wells

The water pump at Lake Harriet Trolley is just one of over two dozen pumps around Minneapolis // Photo by Kevin Kramer

The water pump at Lake Harriet Trolley is just one of over two dozen pumps around Minneapolis // Photo by Kevin Kramer

When Minneapolis resident Jessica Rosenberg was a little girl, she and her brother had a special ritual they shared with their grandparents.

They would load up the trunk of the car with empty plastic milk jugs and drive from their St. Louis Park home to Lake Harriet. Once there, they’d unload the jugs and walk to the Lake Harriet Trolley hand-pump drinking well. Sometimes, especially on weekends, there would be a line, but eventually the kids would have a chance to pump water for themselves. “The pumping was the best part,” Rosenberg says. “We’d have contests to see who could fill a jug faster, me or my brother.”

Even then, she loved the taste of the water as much as her grandparents did: “It was alive, full of nutrients and it tasted like earth.” She can’t remember her grandparents ever telling her any specific health benefits they attached to the water, but she sees the self-service well water as part of their general ethos. “They were just old school and a couple of tough nuts,” she says fondly.

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Rosenberg’s family, it turns out, was taking part in a refreshing tradition in Minneapolis parks that dates back more than 100 years. The well at the Lake Harriet Trolley, the one frequented by her grandparents, has long been nicknamed “The Fountain of Youth” by many in the area. There are 27 of these hand-pump drinking wells throughout city parks, most of them drawing on water from the Prairie Du Chien and St. Peter Sandstone aquifers, and some of them drilled more than 250 feet in the bedrock. (City of Minneapolis tap water, in contrast, is drawn from the Mississippi River before treatment.) Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Records show one of the first wells being installed at Humboldt Triangle in November 1911. The last was installed at Hidden Park East in July 1999.

Minneapolis hand-pump drinking wells. Green dots are wells that are still open, red dots are wells that have been sealed // Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board

Minneapolis hand-pump drinking wells. Green dots are wells that are still open, red dots are wells that have been sealed // Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board

“The pumps were installed for people who are using the parks for recreation, but we’re aware there are still residents who use them as their primary source of water,” says Debra Lynn Pilger, the Director of Environmental Management at the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, whose department oversees water quality monitoring of the wells. “Some people are attracted to the idea of a source of water that isn’t chlorinated, and others want water that hasn’t been through a water treatment facility,” she says.

While Pilger is quick to describe Minneapolis city water purification system as “state of the art,” and the City of Minneapolis itself describes its tap water as among the safest in the nation, she understands the attraction to such an ancient and pure source of water. And, she notes, some people, like Rosenberg and her grandparents, just like the taste. “It has a little more iron in it than water that comes from the tap, and that gives it a distinctive flavor.”

Theodore Wirth, 1912 // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Theodore Wirth, 1912 // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Democracy through water

The history of the wells involves a few names familiar to local park goers. Charles Loring, commissioner and president of the first Minneapolis Park Board, believed that parks needed to be more welcoming to all citizens. In 1905, he hired Theodore Wirth, coiner of the phrase “Parks are for the People,” as Park Superintendent. At Loring’s direction, Wirth removed park fences and “Keep off the grass” signs, replacing them with new “Please walk on the grass” signs.

What started with the democratization of strollable grass soon extended to free drinking water. In an era before bottled water and refrigeration, Wirth saw a need to offer water to those who were using Minneapolis parks in increasing numbers. A Star Tribune article, “Board Plans Wells for All City Parks,” dated September 3, 1908, states:

Theodore Wirth, superintendent of parks, is determined to have fit drinking water in the parks next season and yesterday he asked the improvement committee of the park board to recommend an appropriation of $1,000 to provide a power well driving outfit that will answer the needs. No money has been available for driving wells this season and in the majority of the parks, particularly those where there are playgrounds, the lack of pure drinking water has caused much discomfort. The committee voted in favor of Mr. Wirth’s plan.

Woman pumping water from pump on Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Woman pumping water from pump on Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

A cool sip of water

Some of the older pumps in the city are around the Chain of Lakes, including the Lake Harriet Trolley site. The water must have been a welcome relief for those who visited what had once been a remote lake resort, but, with the installation of a steam railway motor line in 1880, had become a popular day trip destination. At Lake Harriet, there was a pavilion with restaurants and bathhouse facilities, which was often the site of open-air concerts. (The current bandshell is the fifth pavilion at the site).

Visitors could enjoy a pony ride track, a flock of ostriches on display, and taffy-pulling machines. Everyone wanted to take to the water, and hundreds of rental boats lined the west shore, extending to 44th Street. Even back then, the lanes around the lake were packed with bicycle riders. And all those visitors, eventually, got thirsty. Thanks to Theodore Wirth’s vision, they had a fresh—and free—source of water from the hand-pump drinking wells.

Minneapolis tradition

Stopping at these hand pumps and drinking from the ancient aquifers connects us to the many generations who’ve done the same thing before us. Some of us pause during a training run for the Twin Cities Marathon. Others rehydrate while trekking on state-of-the-art carbon fiber bicycles. We cup our hands and fill them at the pump to make improvised water bowls for our thirsty dogs. And we spend years helping our kids move that heavy handle, until suddenly one day we’re watching them pump water for themselves. No matter who we are or when we use them, hand-pump drinking wells are a lasting—and refreshing—Minneapolis tradition.

These days, Jessica Rosenberg often stops by one of the wells when she’s walking or running the Chain of Lakes: “It’s totally nostalgic to drink from them, and it brings back fond memories,” she says.

 
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