Reprinted with permission from Minnesota Monthly magazine.
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
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
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
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
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,
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,
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. MM
James Holbrook Johnson is a Minneapolis writer.