By James Holbrook Johnson
August 1, 1998
Reprinted with permission from Minnesota Monthly magazine.
Springs - where water flowing through earth meets air - hold mystery and life. They embody secrets of the earth's hidden places and imply connections, maybe even design, in the rocks and soil beneath us. I had read of such a spring, not far from my home, one renowned for its
clear, cold water. The place was called Coldwater Spring, and lay a mile or so up the Mississippi from historic Fort Snelling. Though it once played a vital role in the state's history, today it is almost forgotten.
Coldwater Spring has been described as Minnesota's Plymouth
Rock. Here members of Colonel Henry Leavenworth's 1819 expedition were
granted a second chance at survival, their first having been squandered
that winter. They arrived in late summer and erected a camp in
Mendota. Within a few months scurvy erupted and killed about a fifth of the company's 220 men. When the snows melted, the survivors moved to a spring on the opposite bank, the site of a traditional Dakota gathering place. They regained their health at a camp they called Coldwater, and began to build a fort.
Springs are fragile, depending as they do on happy accidents of rock structure and groundwater flow, and a proposed expansion of nearby Highway 55 could harm this one. Or it might not; no one can be sure. But I was determined to visit Coldwater before I'd lost my chance.
So, one Sunday morning several months ago, after parking
at the southern edge of Minnehaha Park, I set off on a web of trails
that traversed jumbles of matter; some of it natural, but most of it
manmade. Shattered cinder blocks, shards of storm sewers, chunks of
asphalt, and spurs of rusting metal lay in heaps partially covered by
mat of last fall's leaves. In a few weeks, the ground cover would obscure this refuse, but not my knowledge of it. Continuing south, I walked through ragged savannas of scratchy grasses shaded by ancient and tortured-looking oaks.
I had heard the spring lay adjacent to, or perhaps within,
the Bureau of Mines, a collection of buildings resembling a technical
college campus. These are in turn surrounded by a chain-link fence topped
with rusting barbs, a fence I had now reached. Further north, I knew
Government, No Trespassing" signs studded this barrier. I thought my quest had ended. But then I realized I might outflank the fence, and could thus say with a straight face, "Sorry, officer, I didn't see any signs. I just wandered around and ended up here. Where am I by the way?" I
mentally rehearsed the lie as I walked the fence's perimeter. In a few dozen yards, I came to a hole that looked well used, the links spread wide. Hesitating only briefly, I lowered my head and stepped over to the forbidden side.
The path led into thick stands of buckthorn and sumac.
I came to a small pond, fed on the western end by a stream that might
have been Coldwater. Following the flow uphill, I climbed a road embankment
beyond which lay another pond, this one lined with weathered blocks
of limestone. At one end stood a modest stone-arched structure, beside
which a Minnesota Historical Society sign identified this as the site of Camp Coldwater.
I walked to the water's edge, dipped my fingers in, splashed
a bit on my face, and stroked the silky green algae that waved like
a child's hair in the clear current. I examined the stone-arched structure,
said to date from the 1870s. Beside it, I found a moss-lined cavity,
flowing through earth met air.
For how many years, I wondered, has this spring sustained
life? Not just Leavenworth's men, but the Dakota and their ancestors,
too. How many thirsts were quenched, faces washed, clothes cleaned,
soaked? How much comfort and health has flowed from this plot of earth?
My sense of the site's value inspired boldness. Suddenly I wanted to be arrested for standing here, beside these waters. I wanted a chance to tell a jury of my peers about the magic of all springs and especially this one. I wanted them to know that this place is a gift I felt obligated to find while it still flowed. And they would understand and acquit, and chastise bureaucrats who erect fences and post signs. And people would rediscover this place and picnic here. Children would splash about and giggle as silky green algae tickled their chubby toes. Together we would recover a piece of our past and renew our obligation to a land we claim to love.
But no one arrived to question me, so I sat by the pond alone; no chubby-toed children, no picnic baskets. In silence I absorbed the scene, etching the impressions deep, then slipped back into the underbrush. MMJames Holbrook Johnson is a Minneapolis writer.