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A mysterious subterranean creek buried deep below the bustling streets of Minneapolis' North Loop area has long played an important role in delivering water to the Mississippi River.

It's called Bassett Creek. You can't see it at street level. But pull up Google Maps, and there it is in blue.

Reader Mary Beltrand-Nylen, who lives in the River Towers condos downtown, knows Bassett Creek flows beneath her feet when she walks around.

"I've always wondered why they put it underground," Beltrand-Nylen said. She sought answers from Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's reporting project fueled by reader questions.

Bassett Creek doesn't spend its entire journey underground. It begins at Medicine Lake in the western suburbs and courses freely for much of its route. But most Minneapolitans see it only in fits and starts. It wends sneakily behind Theodore Wirth Golf Course and between the graffitied remnants of the old flour mills and rail lines in the Harrison neighborhood.

Then it vanishes entirely as it approaches downtown — plunging into a tunnel near Target Field.

A view of Bassett Creek as it flows toward downtown Minneapolis, just before it disappears underground.
A view of Bassett Creek as it flows toward downtown Minneapolis, just before it disappears underground.

Tom Sweeney / Star Tribune

The creek was gradually buried as industrial development took off in Minneapolis, decades after the city's founding. Tunneling the creek became a higher priority after the waterway turned into a noxious "open sewer" in the early 20th century.

Burying Bassett Creek was part of a broader trend at the time, said Trinity Ek, whose research about its history was published in the University of Minnesota's Open Rivers journal in 2021.

"Any time there was any sort of water in the way of future development, cities would fill it or pipe it," Ek said. "It was really a short-sighted way of designing and planning alongside water."

1861

Ȟaȟa Wakpadan (Bassett Creek) meanders toward the Mississippi through the recently platted city of Minneapolis.

1892

Within three decades, sections of the creek are straightened out or buried to make way for the growing city.

1903

More of the creek disappears beneath the growing rail yards.

1937

The creek is completely tunneled through downtown. The Sumner Field housing project is built atop the stream's old floodplain. The poor soils plagued the buildings with foundation problems and flooded basements.

Today

The creek's flow is routed directly into the central city stormwater tunnel and discharged into the Mississippi River near Mill Ruins Park.

Burying the creek

Bassett Creek was once a natural, meandering channel. It was not named after the noblest of hounds, but rather for Joel B. Bassett, an industrialist who arrived in Minneapolis in 1850 to make his fortune in milling. In the decades that followed, railroads and causeways crisscrossed Bassett Creek. Developers straightened it and filled it in wherever they could.

It became slow-moving and smelled bad — creating unhealthy conditions in the Near North neighborhoods along its banks.

"Basset's [sic] Creek a long, open sewer," a Minneapolis Tribune headline declared in 1909. "A dozen complaints made to the health department yesterday. Pretty nearly everybody is dumping sewage into it daily."

In 1919, after the Legislature appropriated $100,000 to cover Bassett Creek, a Minneapolis Morning Tribune columnist applauded it as a win for public health.

"For years it was the handiest place near to the center of the city for dumping ashes and noncombustible rubbish," wrote Dr. P.M. Hall. "The periodical flooding of this ... did not tend to promote health conditions."

Workers clean the banks of Bassett Creek during a project to straighten its path in the 1930s.
Workers clean the banks of Bassett Creek during a project to straighten its path in the 1930s.

Hennepin County Library

The initial, 1.5-mile Bassett Creek Tunnel started at Van White Boulevard and ended at the Mississippi River just below the Plymouth Avenue bridge. Even before it was constructed, letters to the editor complained about the cost of consigning the creek to a sewer.

Then came water management headaches and flooding upstream of the tunnel. Engineers warned the city in 1976 that it could fail during a major storm, resulting in "no outlet to the Mississippi River and potentially serious flooding."

So a new tunnel was constructed, several blocks closer to downtown than the old one. The city partnered with the Bassett Creek Water Management Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the new, 2.4-mile Bassett Creek Tunnel, which also collects runoff from Interstate 94. It was finished in 1992.

The "new" tunnel begins near an impound lot, crosses beneath the highway behind the Minneapolis Farmers Market and swings around Target Field. Then it descends through layers of hard bedrock via a "drop structure" that carries the water on beneath the Warehouse District toward the Monte Carlo restaurant. It turns on 2nd Street, passing the River Towers condos and the Depot. Finally, it cuts toward the river under Portland Avenue through Mill Ruins Park and comes out beneath the surface of the Mississippi.

The old tunnel is still there, but Bassett Creek's waters only flow into it during heavy rains. Mostly, it now collects water from the city's storm sewers.

Daylighting the creek

Polluting and burying Bassett Creek made sense to urban planners in the early 20th century, just like doctors of the era thought it made sense to promote cigarettes for sore throats, said Kit Richardson of development firm Schafer Richardson.

Richardson's firm owns the Itasca Building on N. 1st Street, where visitors could once watch Bassett Creek coursing by in the basement.

Paul Chellsen, supervising stormwater technician at the city of Minneapolis, recalls city employees having their holiday gathering at Acme Comedy Co. in the building in the 1980s. The water staff would wander down to the Bassett Creek viewing area in the basement.

They'd take pictures in front of it and joke about inspecting the creek in their off hours. "It was kind of an ugly, dirty creek," Chellsen said.

That access point was sealed with concrete years ago, Richardson said.

A lawmaker led reporters through the old Bassett Creek tunnel in 1973 to document polluted conditions.
A lawmaker led reporters through the old Bassett Creek tunnel in 1973 to document polluted conditions.

Roger Nystrom / Star Tribune

Every few decades, planners float ideas to "daylight" the creek, or open it back up to the sky for public enjoyment. The corridor through downtown could be filled with kayakers and flanked with a leafy greenway for cyclists — catalyzing community assets along the way. That's the dream, anyway.

Richardson has always been intrigued by the vision. "The problem is — well, there are many problems," he said. The bottom of the tunnel in the North Loop is about 19 feet below the ground, for example.

"That's a big trench coming through an urban area," he said. "It's a tunnel that carries rainwater off the freeways. Most of the time it's dry, and now we have a safety issue. What if somebody falls to the bottom of it?"

1892

Nearby residents dump sewage and refuse into Bassett Creek. Covering the creek is considered a public health measure — and it makes room for development.

1937

The creek is further straightened to make way for industry in the Bassett Creek Valley.

Today

Though the creek has historically been treated like a sewer, attitudes about water in urban areas are changing. Recent development has unearthed buried sections of the creek.

New attitudes toward water

In the early 2000s, civil engineers and ecologists worked to daylight a portion of Bassett Creek on Minneapolis' Near Northside. The creek joined a network of ponds, meadows and wetlands as part of the mixed-income Heritage Park development.

Bassett Creek is quite nice to look at as it meanders through the woods of Theodore Wirth Park in north Minneapolis, said Laura Jester, administrator of the Bassett Creek Watershed Management Commission. And many a cyclist has stopped for beer and wildlife-watching where the creek breezes by the patio of Utepils Brewing.

Kids fished for carp in Bassett Creek at Theodore Wirth Park in 2020.
Kids fished for carp in Bassett Creek at Theodore Wirth Park in 2020.

Leila Navidi / Star Tribune

Then it gets ugly.

"The lowest section, which we call the Bassett Creek Valley, is not a nice section," said Jester. "It's through an industrial area along railroad tracks, and there's even an old Superfund site near the impound lot."

The commission has a vision to redo this area, she said. "We envision Bassett Creek Valley being much more accessible and ecologically healthy, but it's gonna take a lot of partners and a lot of funding," Jester said.

Urbanists today have new attitudes toward Minneapolis' water — from the creeks to the falls to the Mississippi River. They are re-envisioning old industrial ditches as assets that enrich city life and offer lessons for future generations about living sustainably within nature instead of fighting it.

"We are in an era where folks are viewing our waterways as amenities to care about," said Ek.

Even an underground waterway like Bassett Creek has plenty to teach.

And now, thanks to Dakota ethnoastronomer Jim Rock, who organized a water ceremony at the Golden Valley banks of Bassett Creek in 2023, the creek's Indigenous name is becoming more widely known: Ȟaȟa Wakpadan.

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