St. Cloud Area Then and Now: Lake George

Lake George was once a 50-acre swamp on the edge of the city that harbored wild rice, reeds and ducks. It took several groups and more than 50 years to turn the city’s “eyesore” into “one of St. Cloud’s beauty spots.”

The lake wasn’t an “eyesore” when Stearns County’s first surveyor, R.B. Blake, initially examined it in April 1855. Instead, he described it as “a pretty little sheet” and suggested that any city would give its “eyetooth” to have such a natural feature nearby.

Blake also named Lake George and recorded it as such in the plat book, but no one knows for certain why he chose that name. The lake and surrounding shoreline had originally been given to the city by John L. Wilson.

Early St. Cloud settlers gave little thought to the shallow, spring-fed lake that stretched from Seventh Street South to one block shy of St. Germain Street near St. Mary’s School and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. A small creek meandered into it from the west. Water drained eastward through a ravine north of Fourth Street South to the Mississippi River.

The citizens of St. Cloud used it for fishing, boating, swimming and other recreational purposes. John Coates built a warming house on its shore in 1867 and declared it was the largest skating rink in the state. However, no one sought to preserve it or planned for its future.

By the 1870s, Lake George was drying up. Reeds, muck and scum were on the increase. An 1880 St. Cloud Journal-Press editorial begged the City Council “to secure an estimate of holding and raising the water by damming the outlet and cutting down the reeds. ... The results would be the preservation of a pretty little lake right at our own doors.” It concluded that “the investment ... would pay the city right well.”

A few years later, a group of 120 people led by J.E. West took action. They petitioned the city to acquire the land in and around Lake George for a park and water supply plant. Most owners readily sold or deeded their property to the city because they thought the land was of no value.

Although the water supply plant never materialized on the lake, the City Council, in 1888, approved preliminary work on a boulevard around the lake. After numerous delays, the project was completed around 1900, costing the city $23,000. In addition, individual landowners continued to “own” the boulevard until 1912 when the last parcels of land were obtained.

Ownership of the lake still remained with the St. Cloud Ice Co. and J.O. McConnell, who had previously donated 5 acres toward a park. After much negotiation, the city paid $5,000 to purchase 61/2 acres on the south side from McConnell and $20,000 for almost 21 acres on the north end from the ice company.

By this time, the lake had deteriorated. It became the receptacle of the city’s draining system and had shrank to 23 acres of stagnant water 2 to 3 feet deep. The west inlet had dried up, and the east inlet didn’t flow.

The Journal-Press took St. Cloud city officials to task for allowing Lake George’s “condition to lapse.” The editor wrote: “The lake is a disgrace to the city when it should be a delightful breathing spot.”

In 1927, St. Cloud set out to redeem its lake by dredging it.

The Minneapolis Dredging Co. removed 215,000 cubic feet of mud from the lake’s center and used it to fill in the north and south ends of the lake.

In addition, contractors at the St. Cloud Hospital site offered 25,000 cubic yards of fill from its excavation. Fill from the new fire hall also was used. The project cost the city $57,800.

Consequently, when the dredging company reached the gravel bottom, Lake George was 10 feet deep and the east springs were opened again. The water rose three inches per day, and a storm sewer was added on the west end to handle the lake’s overflow.

When all the work was completed in 1928, Lake George emerged as a 9-acre body of water with an average depth of 35 feet. Eastman Park would take another eight years to complete.

Sources: Times Archive, Stearns History Museum.

by Gena Hiemenz