The ancient voice that, centuries ago,
Sounded between thy hills.
—William Cullen Bryant
The poet Tennyson has said in one of his poems that "Many a million of ages have gone to the making of man," and in another that "Many an aeon moulded the earth before her highest man was born." These lines are not fanciful. They agree with the researches and conclusions of science. The earth is the oldest story book, and this story is an autobiography. It is not told in words but in panorama and picture. It portrays nature's own work.
In Rome, it is said that one of its largest buildings is standing above four ancient levels where other older buildings rested but have crumbled away and have been covered in the advance of the overwhelming years. In somewhat the same way, the earth is fashioning and refashioning its ever changing surface.
"Where rolls the deep, there grew the tree.
O earth, what changes haw thou seen!
There where the long street roars hath been
The stillness of the central sea."
Aside from the effects of the great grinding glaciers, River Warren had the most transforming influence in making the landscape features of our city. We can easily believe that the boys and girls of St. Paul, when it was young, found pleasure in coasting and tobogganing down the slopes in the vicinity of Central Park or east of Wabasha Street. It would, however, require an exercise of the imagination on the part of those boys and girls or for us to understand how these terraces were Conned and to realize that, here, where the laughter of play has arisen or where the din of traffic is now heard, at one time, perhaps twenty thousand years ago, a great waterfall about a mile and a half wide and forty feet high had come thundering down these slopes with a roar that must have resembled that of the great Niagara.
We stand in awe in the presence of this majestic wonder. But stars grow dim and cold, and River Warren, too, was destined to fail. As the glaciers receded, its waters grew less and less until it ceased to flow. When men came, a city arose.
But let us delve a little deeper into the history of River Warren. We have already explained that great streams were formed as the ice of the retreating glacier melted. The glacier that was the source of River Warren came from the region of Hudson Bay and followed the course of the Red River and the present Minnesota. Along this pathway, naturally flowed the great Amazon of the Northwest. At Fort Snelling, it turned eastward. A study of the land formations along the Minnesota River and in the vicinity of St. Paul shows us clearly that the River Warren was wide and deep, far exceeding the limits of the present Mississippi channels.
Down stream, a little beyond Wabasha Street bridge, there was an ancient river channel that the glacier had filled up with gravel, sand, silt, and clay, sometime before River Warren had come into being. When that river grew into its great volume, it washed out the old channel and exposed a very ancient bluff capped by limestone at the upstream end of the old channel, which bluff extended from the present Mississippi channel to Wabasha Street, along Wabasha northward to Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Streets, then east by north to Cedar, Minnesota and Robert Streets to University Avenue and beyond. The water running over this wide bluff made River Warren Falls.
In its upstream movements, the falls hollowed out the soft sandstone underneath the limestone, and big slabs fell off into the river. Such blocks of limestone may yet be seen at the north end of the High Bridge. The pathway made by the retreating River Warren Falls formed a beautiful rock-bound trench, or channel, which may be suitably called the St. Paul Gorge.
Passing Mendota, the falls invaded the present Minnesota River valley for about two miles to a point where all the limestone had previously been removed, and then came to an end, as the sandstone was too soft to allow the formation of a hard crest.
On the river flats of the St. Paul Gorge, are two lakes that are remnants of former river channels. One is near the High Bridge and is called Pickerel Lake, and the other is close to the northern bank, about a mile farther upstream, and is called Crosby Lake.
There are four islands in the gorge. They are:
Raspberry Island, near the Wabasha Street Bridge. The Club House of the St. Paul Boat Club is located on it.
Harriet Island, a short distance south and west of Raspberry Island. The St. Paul Municipal Bath Houses are on it.
A third near the Omaha Bridge is occupied by the power plant of the Northern States Power Company.
Pike Island, near Fort Snelling, is the largest of all and is named in honor of Lieutenant Pike who bought the Fort Snelling Reservation from the Sioux Indians, in 1805.
All these islands consist, for the most part, of sand and silt. They are simply river deposits. The first three are enlarged sandbars, and Pike Island is the delta of the Minnesota River.
River Warren is responsible for the formation of numerous terraces in St. Paul. These consist of a series of benches beginning near the channel or water surface and rising upward and outward. These are either sand and gravel (alluvial) or rock benches. Most of the alluvial terraces have been destroyed by the grading of streets, the filling of low places, and the building of railroads along the Hood plains of the Mississippi. One of these terraces can still be seen near the shore of Pig's Eye Lake.
As the great ice sheet melted more and more to the north the main supply of water gradually became less and less. River Warren began to diminish, and was confined to a narrower channel, the old flood plain was left some twenty feel above as an alluvial terrace. There are four terraces extending from the river flats to Summit Avenue. There are others near South Robert and George Streets.
There remains unmistakable evidence of the course and wonder work of this ancient river. As we look out over the terraces and the deeper gorge, we can plainly see the widest course that it carved for itself and again the steps it made as it grew less and less.
"On thy broad terraces of old
No more the Indian's fires
Flare upward to the sky.
Domes, temples, and their spires,
Are lined against the sunset gold
And toiling thousands vie."
How can you account for this great river?
Where has it left traces in St. Paul?
What caused this river to dry up?
How were the islands formed in its gorge?
Where can you find some striking terraces in the city?