Katharine Ordway Natural History Study Area
Jerald J. Dosch
Visiting Assistant Professor, Biology
9550 Inver Grove Trail
Inver Grove Heights, MN 55076
Excerpts from a history written by Kelly M. Paulson in 2001 as her Honors Project
Native Americans, probably of the Mound Builders group (sometimes known as the Dakota), once occupied the land that we now know as Ordway. Near present-day Ordway is an area called Pine Bend, where archeological research by the University of Minnesota has discovered Native American artifacts, and it appears that there was a culture along the river that was quite dependent on the native mussel populations for food and other uses.
In 1852, the townships of Inver Grove Heights and Rosemount were settled, mostly by European immigrants of German and Irish heritage. With the arrival of European settlers, the impact on the land changed drastically. From 1850-1870, it was used mostly for mixed subsistence farming. However, it soon became valuable property for rail transportation as well as residences. By 1871, according to the plat book of that year, two railroad lines, the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railroad and the Chicago and North Western Railway were already criss-crossing the land that is now Ordway. These railroad lines are still there and still carry trains through the land. Nearer the road, according to Richard Christman, there was once an electric passenger streetcar line that was put in after WWI, about 1923, and which was abandoned in 1929 because of the stock market crash. This streetcar went from St. Paul to Hastings and was evidently destined to continue to Rochester, although that portion of the line was never completed. In fact, when the driveway at Ordway was blacktopped, they found a culvert buried under the drive that had been used under the old streetcar rails.
The land has been grazed, cultivated, and harvested. At one time (probably in the first half of the 20th century) the land was “a holding area for shipping cattle to slaughterhouses in St. Paul…30-35 years ago you could see remnants of the old holding pens out there. In 1919, the Rand family purchased the land, and after Mr. Rand’s death, the Hulmes purchased the land. Both of these owners used the land for cattle grazing and small-scale farming, and there was also a Boy Scout camp established by Mr. Rand on the property in the first half of the 1900’s. According to Christman, the Hulmes harvested the watercress that grew near the spring down by River Lake and brought it into the city on a truck to sell to restaurants and at the farmer’s market. In the 1950’s, the land was incorporated into Inver Grove Heights, and the increased taxes made farming even more impractical. In 1965, the City of Inver Grove Heights was formed.
In 1967, Macalester College purchased the parcel from the Hulmes. Since the Macalester purchase, the land has been equally subject to human-effected changes, but this time with a different intent. According to Christman, several prairie burns targeted at sumac control were performed with the cooperation of the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department in the 1970’s. From 1981-1997, most of the land was burned several times. An intensive property-wide sumac clearance project took place in 1988, and prairie seeds were sown in several areas as recently as 1990.
The current Katharine Ordway Natural History Study Area is a nearly 280-acre parcel of land including at least four distinct types of plant communities and frontage on the Mississippi River. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’s Natural Heritage Program, the area encompassed by Ordway now contains diverse native plant communities, such as a dry prairie, an oak woodland-brushland, mesic prairie, and a black ash swamp.
The topography and geology of the area were influenced greatly by the last great glaciation, which ended about 10,000 years ago. The Mississippi River valley was carved out by the floods resulting from the melting glaciers, and most of the regional soils are glacial till. The bedrock geology of southeastern Minnesota consists of Paleozoic marine shale and near-shore sandstone deposits, and the larger surficial boulders that dot the Ordway property are also a result of what the melting glaciers left behind. There are a few temporary ponds and wetland areas at Ordway, as well as Pratt Pond, which contains water year-round. Indeed, for a relatively small area, KONHSA boasts a great variety of different types of landscape, which makes it an interesting template for educational and research purposes.
Ordway has frontage on River Lake, a 110-acre, shallow backwater lake of the Mississippi River, and Macalester owns the peninsula that projects out between the lake and its river. River Lake, once known as Kellerman’s Slough, used to be even more shallow before the dam was built near Hastings, when the water level was raised by about three feet. Currently, River Lake is at most three to four feet deep, mostly silted in, and full of carp but with little other aquatic life such as mussels. Macalester College also owns the peninsula that juts out into the Mississippi to create River Lake. This peninsula is, during wet seasons, an island, and is essentially always an island in many ways since it is isolated and has very rarely been ventured onto.
In the late 1980’s there was a mayfly hatch on River Lake and in the nearby river; mayflies are indicators of good water quality, and a hatch like that one hadn’t happened since the 1960’s. One such hatch occurred in 1966, during the Wabasha Steamboat Days carnival. The results of this “indicator of river health” were disastrous (and disgusting, probably) for carnival-goers: “By 11 p.m., six inches of squirming insects covered the carousel. 45 minutes later, mayflies clogged the radiators of the diesel-powered generators, and the carnival shut down.” Studies of mayflies in the Mississippi from 1958-69 found that the critters were conspicuously absent from the Twin Cities all the way south to Lake Pepin due to the sewage inflow from the Twin Cities. With the advent of better and more sewage treatment plants, the mayfly population increased, and the summer (June-August) of 1986 witnessed 22 large mayfly hatches on the upper stretches of the river.