Hidden Treasures Of Minneapolis: Nicollet Island

July 12, 2017

Summertime brings Minneapolitans out in droves. We explore beaches and bike trails, hit the campgrounds, host grill-outs and take advantage of every patio, rooftop and café table our beautiful city has to offer. And we enjoy every foot of Minneapolis’ beautiful parks, lakes… and islands.

But, recently, it has been surprising to learn how few people know that Nicollet Island is part of the park system. The area has quickly become a personal respite from the hustle and bustle of city living, which largely consists of traffic and crowds and concrete. It’s quiet and lush along the web of trails that dance around the river banks. And the historic homes, street lamps and cobbled streets make Nicollet Island is one of the few places in Minneapolis that can make you feel like you’re traveling back in time. Inspired by the homes, I decided to do a little bit of research and was floored to find that my favorite little neighborhood has quite the history behind it. (And, yes, I have major #goals of living there one day.)

An old railroad truss bridge that has been changed into a walking path. It also marks the entrance onto Nicollet Island from Boom Island Park.

The Island’s History

Over the years, Nicollet Island has been home base for the homeless and destitute, the Minneapolis bohemian movement, a massive restoration effort and more. This quote from architectural historian Larry Millett sums up the island’s history nicely:

“Nicollet Island is a peculiar little place that has managed to accommodate a staggering amount of history, much of it cockeyed, since the time when Indians roamed its maple forest and wolves howled in the night. It’s been home to hippies, hoboes, multimillionaires, mushroom growers, sawmillers, speculators, slumlords, generations of schoolboys, artists, writers and more than a few lost souls, not to mention two donkeys and a telephone-answering parrot.”

In the 1950s Nicollet Island became an extension of Washington Avenue, which was lovingly known as Minneapolis’ skid row. My grandfather still tells stories about how Nicollet Island was part of his Northeast paper route and he remembers it as a scary place. He would bike as fast as possible through the area, chucking papers onto stoops to get away from the drug dealers, addicts and degenerates that took over the streets in the early morning hours.

Rumor has it the City of Minneapolis and Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board came under intense pressure from DeLaSalle High School in the 1980s to clean up the area or else the school would relocate. In response, the area became part of the St. Anthony Falls Historic District and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board offered 99-year land leases to homeowners who would help clean up the area, return the existing homes to their former glory and help preserve the unique history of the area. In fact, some homes were even moved onto the island from other parts of Minneapolis, including this 1860 home that hit the market for 1.1 million in 2016 and this Greek Revival home.

A sampling of the historic homes lining Nicollet Island.

Get Exploring!

One of the walking trail paths winding through Nicollet Island.

It’s incredible to learn about the rich history of this small parcel of land, especially one that’s so easy to pass by in the throes of a commute into (or out of) downtown. Maybe next time you’re in the city, you’ll indulge your inner flâneur and stop to smell the roses – or walk the trails on Nicollet Island – and get to know our beautiful, historic city.