More than just a pretty view: Pilot Knob named to National Register of Historic Places
For Gail Lewellan and her fellow preservationists, historic Pilot Knob is much more than a spectacular view.
The site that overlooks the Minneapolis and St. Paul skylines, Historic Fort Snelling and the Minnesota and Mississippi river valleys is of cultural importance to Native Americans and significant in Minnesota’s statehood, Lewellan notes.
“It’s a gem in our midst,” said Lewellan, co-chair of the all-volunteer Pilot Knob Preservation Association.
Now 112 acres of the site are federally famous, having been added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 14. It’s a designation more than a decade in the making and one that will usher in renewed public awareness and education, said Lewellan, whose group spearheaded the nomination process.
“People know about this site because it has a beautiful view or because as teenagers they used to go up there and neck with their boyfriends or girlfriends in their car,” she said. “Or, people know the name Pilot Knob because there’s a road named Pilot Knob Road. But I think people do not understand that this site is of historic and sacred significance, and that’s the thing that changes with it going on the National Register of Historic Places.”
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.
Because Pilot Knob was such a distinctive landmark for early settlers, U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas in 1848 proposed it as the place for the territorial capital.
But its rich past did not stop developers from targeting the site, which comprises public and private land. 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 area residents.
The prospect of development led to the formation of the nonprofit Pilot Knob Preservation Association, which in 2003 began fighting for protection of the land as a cultural and historic resource. Within months, the group nominated the site to be listed with the National Register of Historic Places and was told that it would be eligible, Lewellan said.
But the group did not have the backing of the majority of the private owners, some of whom were bound to contracts with the developer, Lewellan said. The group eventually withdrew its application.
A 15-year push to keep developers away from historic Pilot Knob and restore the land to its natural habitat was just beginning.
After the developer’s plan faltered, 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 governmental entities, organizations, Dakota County and individuals.
Over the past decade, the city’s land has been undergoing restoration to oak savanna by St. Paul-based Great River Greening, an effort to reflect the native vegetation that existed before European settlement.
A trail system, which includes interpretive signage, allows visitors to experience the site’s impressive historic vistas.
Although the federal status does not give the land any extra protection, it does “add strength to our position” in case a developer has interest in building on certain areas of the site once again, Lewellan said. Some public areas of the site are protected by terms of grants awarded to the city, while others — like the off-leash dog park — are not.
“I would argue that if a developer came in with a proposal that (we would) come back in full force and say, ‘Um, this is part of the sacred area, too. And that it’s also now been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places,’ ” Lewellan said.
TOP Photo: In a July 2013 photo, Josie Huss, 16, of Lakeville leads her palomino Cotton, left, and Holly, a dun, off a parcel of land at historic Pilot Knob in Mendota Heights. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)