Lake Harriet is the southernmost portion of the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes
, connecting to Lake Calhoun
by a short parkway on its northern side. To the south, the lake feeds into Minnehaha Creek
. In terms of shape and size, Lake Harriet resembles a smaller version of Lake Calhoun -- it has a surface area of 335 acres and is slightly less than three miles in circumference. It is named for the wife of explorer Colonel Henry Leavenworth, the man in charge of the first military garrison stationed at Fort Mendota (later renamed Fort Snelling
). Leavenworth was so distraught at being separated from his wife in Detroit
that after coming across the lake by accident, he was so taken by its beauty that he could only think of her name. As a gesture to her, he named the lake in her honor. Even though Leavenworth was later replaced by Colonel Josiah Snelling, early maps of the area show that Leavenworth's name for the lake stuck. His hope that Cedar Lake
would become Lake Leavenworth did not, although he did not leave this world empty-handed
As with Lake Calhoun, a bustling Dakota
village sat just off Lake Harriet's northern shoreline. Relations between the Dakota and incoming settlers appear to have been amiable -- throughout the 1820s and 1830s, Christian missionaries took a particular interest in the village and constructed a schoolhouse and church nearby for use by the Dakota community. These same missionaries constructed some of the first private homes near the lake as well. In 1839, the Dakota fought a particularly bloody battle against their longtime enemy the Anishnabwe
. Fearing the possibility of an even bloodier Anishnabwe counterattack, military forces stationed at Fort Snelling requested that the Dakota relocate to a position nearer to the fort for their own protection. Written accounts from the missionaries living nearby speak of a large ceremonial gathering around a massive bonfire by the Dakota on the final night before their relocation.
Lake Harriet remained a quiet and largely isolated place throughout most of the 19th century. By virtue of its distance from the more settled areas of the region, the lake attracted only the occasional picnicker or sightseer. During a population boom in the 1870s, interest in the lake began to increase. William King, a former congressman for Minnesota
, and player with railroads
, built a small train station
on the lake's northern shoreline in 1880. To capitalize off the traffic this station generated, he also built a small restaurant nearby. When both structures burned to the ground
in 1885, the misfortune was widely attributed to the "curse
" invoked by the Dakota during their departing ceremony.
After the loss of his station and restaurant, King decided to try something different: he donated his lakeshore property to the then-fledgling Minneapolis Park Board. He envisioned that the lake could perhaps become a park
that would attract people to the area. Thomas Lowry, the father of Minneapolis's extensive streetcar
system, further promoted King's hope by extending streetcar service to Lake Harriet and constructing a bandshell on some of his own lakeshore property. Lowry often funded concerts as a way to encourage people to come to the area -- and, of course, to gain more streetcar riders. The Park Board would later claim Lowry's land through eminent domain
and further develop the bandshell as the key attraction of the lake.
Theodore Wirth, president of the Minneapolis Park Board from 1905 to 1935, had perhaps the largest influence on what became of Lake Harriet. He extensively renovated the recreational facilities located along Lake Harriet's northern shore, rebuilding the lake's bandshell twice when it was destroyed by fire and windstorms. He cleared a large area of land just north of the bandshell for a spacious picnic
area and playground
. On land near the lake, he created a rock
garden and a rose
garden (one of the first public rose gardens in the nation) and linked them by a network of paths and open commons. He took the parcel of land that lay between the lake and these public gardens and set it aside as a nature preserve and bird sanctuary. Many of Wirth's improvements continue to define Lake Harriet's character today.
In 1970, the Minnesota Transportation Museum approached the Minneapolis Park Board with a somewhat unorthodox offer. Minneapolis's streetcar network had been dismantled
during the 1940s and 1950s, but one fragment of its once vast network still remained: a scenic right-of-way running from the north side of Lake Harriet to the southeastern side of Lake Calhoun. With the park board's blessing, the Minnesota Transportation Museum leased the rights to this right-of-way and spend the better part of the 1970s reconstructing the streetcar line that had once run on it. New rails and overhead lines were built and the city's old streetcars were tracked down
and fully restored. By 1977, it was once again possible to ride the streetcar from Linden Hills Station near the Lake Harriet bandshell to the southeastern edge of Lake Calhoun. In the decades since, the MTM has recovered and restored several more streetcars from various eras of Minneapolis's transit history.
Today, Lake Harriet feels much like the family destination Theodore Wirth had hoped it would become. While Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun are arguably the more visited of Minneapolis's lakes, Lake Harriet seems to be traveled mainly by young couples
with children in tow who live nearby. The fact that it is surrounded on all sides by quiet residential streets lends it an insular quality, almost as if it was the shared backyard
of thousands. On the lake's northern side, the lake's bandshell is still a prime attraction and plays host to free concerts
during the summer months. Between May and October, the MTM's restored streetcar line runs at 15 minute intervals during the evening hours on weekdays and from noon to dusk on weekends. The public rose garden and rock garden (which is now fancied a Peace Garden) are prime strolling grounds, with the rose garden's peak blooming season falling around the months of July and August. The Roberts Bird Sanctuary attracts a variety of interesting species during the late spring and early summer months; if some locals are to be believed, even more interesting species
appear there in the hours after dusk.
The lake itself is encircled with walking and biking paths that are graciously complemented with benches, water pumps, and grassy commons. It offers two beaches and fishing docks -- one pair on the northern side near the bandshell and the other pair on the southern side near the outlet to Minnehaha Creek. As on the rest of the city's lakes, crappies and sunfish
are the primary catch with the occasional northern pike
for good measure. A small elf
lives inside an ash tree
on the lake's southern side near the intersection of Lake Harriet Parkway and Queen Avenue South -- just look for a tree with a small door built into its trunk. If you leave a note inside the door, you'll find a response waiting for you the next day.