PUBLISHED: January 28, 2019
Pilot Knob/Oheyawayhe is on the National Register of Historic Places, but visitors to the Mendota Heights site wouldn’t know.
With no entrance sign, some have a hard time finding the historic site, which comprises 112 acres of public and private land on the east end of the Mendota Bridge, south of Minnesota 62.
“You have to be looking for it to know it’s there,” said Gail Lewellan, a founder and former board member of the all-volunteer Pilot Knob Preservation Association.
After the site was named to the National Register in March 2017 because of its cultural importance to Native Americans and significance in Minnesota’s statehood, Pilot Knob preservationists saw the need to enrich the experience for visitors.
Improving visibility, signage, access and visitor amenities on the 25 acres open to the public is the impetus behind the “Oheyawahe/Pilot Knob Landscape Plan,” a 73-page document drafted over the past year by a group of representatives from the Pilot Knob Preservation Association, the city of Mendota Heights, Dakota County and Great River Greening, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that manages Pilot Knob on behalf of Mendota Heights, which owns the public portion of the site.
The plan, which is still in draft form and includes $930,000 worth of recommendations, was prepared by SRF Consulting Group for Great River Greening. It is being funded by a $40,000 grant from the American Express Foundation.
Other contributors to the planning process included members of the Mendota Dakota Tribal Community, Jim Bear Jacobs of Healing Minnesota Stories, and Sherry Kempff, coordinator of the Center for Equity and Culture for St. Paul Public Schools.
Public comments will be accepted until Feb. 20 before the final design plan is presented to the Mendota Heights City Council for approval, possibly this spring.
“As soon as people arrive at the parking area they should be able to identify that this is a sacred place, a place to learn about Dakota stories, ecological stories and stories of Minnesota history, and in a way that is meaningful,” Lewellan said.
THE ‘HILL MUCH VISITED’
For centuries, the land was an indigenous gathering place and sacred burial ground, earning its Dakota name “Oheyawahi,” or the “hill much visited.” American Indians signed away land to the U.S. government on this hill in the 1851 Treaty of Mendota, and some may have been buried there, outside the two recognized cemeteries in the area.
But its rich past did not stop developers from targeting the site. In 2002 a developer was given conditional approval by the Mendota Heights City Council to build 150 townhomes on 25 acres, raising the ire of the Dakota and Ojibwe communities, historians, archaeologists, environmental organizations and nearby residents.
In 2003, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota identified Pilot Knob as one of the 10 most endangered historic places in Minnesota.
Pilot Knob in Mendota Heights was added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 14, 2017. Fort Snelling’s in the foreground and the Minneapolis skyline in the background, photographed in 2010. (Courtesy of Bruce White)
The prospect of development led to the formation of the nonprofit Pilot Knob Preservation Association, which began fighting for protection of the land as a cultural and historic resource.
“It was almost a miraculous time in terms of diverse groups working together for a common goal,” Lewellan recalled last week.
After the developer’s plan faltered amid strong pushback, community groups and residents nudged Mendota Heights to start investing in the property. From 2006 to 2008, the city acquired 25 acres using grants and funding from individuals, organizations and governmental entities.
A 17-year push to keep developers away from historic Pilot Knob and restore the land to its natural habitat was just beginning.
WHAT IS PLANNED?
Over the past decade, the city’s land has been undergoing restoration to oak savanna, an effort led by Great River Greening to bring back the native vegetation that existed before European settlement.
A gravel trail allows visitors to experience the site’s historic vistas, including the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi river valleys, the Minneapolis and St. Paul skylines, and Historic Fort Snelling. But it isn’t accessible to all visitors because of slopes and uneven surfaces.
The proposed plan recommends a paved looped trail off the entrance, connecting to existing trails. Along the trail would be interpretive features, as well as areas for seating and enhanced native plantings.
A gateway area would be built off the main entrance at Pilot Knob Road and Acacia Boulevard, with a monument entry sign, a bus drop-off area, and an expanded parking area.
Pilot Knob is adjacent to the county’s Big Rivers Regional Trail that runs along Sibley Memorial Highway, but a ditch and steep bluff prevent most bikers from accessing the site, said Al Singer, the county’s land-conservation manager.
The pull-off has been identified for future funding in the county’s 2019-2024 parks capital improvement program, Singer said.“Greenways are more than getting from A to B,” Singer said. “They’re designed to have these proverbial jewels that people can experience along the way. And Pilot Knob is certainly one of them.”
Deborah Karasov, executive director of Great River Greening, said the overriding principle in improving the site is retaining the sacred and historical characteristics of the landscape.
“It’s really related to accessibility and education,” she said. “This is a never going to be a developed park.”
Besides what Dakota County has set aside, funding has not yet been identified, Karasov said. The plan is to seek grants and private funds to carry out the vision, she added.
To plan can be viewed online at pilotknobpreservation.org/.