Cherokee Park: James J. Hill’s gift to Saint Paul

CherokeeParkRealized as a potential recreational and natural green space in the early 1900s, Cherokee Regional Park has since developed into one of Saint Paul’s most visited parks, bringing in over 300,000 visitors a year.

(City of Saint Paul website)

 

 

James J. Hill is known as the Empire Builder for his vast network of railway, extending from Saint Paul, Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest, which created prosperous towns and cities along the way, changing lives and offering opportunities. Emphasis on Hill’s personal financial success overshadows what he gave back to build communities – gifts to institutions, groups, and individuals, along the railway, throughout the country, and especially at home in Saint Paul.

In October 1905, James J. Hill gave $13,000 ($335,364 in 2016 dollars) to the City of Saint Paul. Hill donated the money for the express purpose of “…acquiring by purchase or condemnation, for park and parkway purposes, a certain strip of land lying…west of the High Bridge, east of Chippewa Avenue, and between Cherokee Avenue and the foot of the bluff on the south side of the Mississippi River.”

A donation letter, dated October 23, 1905, outlines the specifications of the gift. Hill kept precise records of all financial transactions – taking as much care to document a ten-cent travel reimbursement as he did for a $13,000 donation. It is fascinating to see the “rough draft” of this letter, with handwritten edits and notes in Hill’s own hand, as well as that of Hill’s private secretary, John Toomey. If the City of Saint Paul Board of Park Commissioners was unable to secure the site and establish a park within two years, the money would need to be returned to Hill.

This would not be necessary. Fresh air and open space welcomed the citizens of Saint Paul to Cherokee Park. The original park plan included camping areas, a bathhouse, picnic shelter and plenty of trees. Later improvements to the park included basketball and tennis courts, a playground, two large picnic shelters and walking trails.

Storm hits High Bridge, 1904. (www.wikipedia.com)
Storm hits High Bridge, 1904. (www.wikipedia.com)

The spectacular views from the Mississippi River bluff are a focal point of Cherokee Park. These views existed long before James J. Hill sent his check to the Board of Park Commissioners, and they are the same views visitors enjoy today. The City of Saint Paul was important to Hill. He was committed to giving back to the town which had given him so much. Cherokee Park stands today as tangible evidence of Hill’s dedication to the city and her residents.

The donation acceptance letter from the Board of Park Commissioners sums up the importance of the both the gift and the giver:

RESOLVED, That it is the confident expectation of the Board that, with the help of this generous donation, the land in question will be soon acquired for a parkway; and that thus, this portion of the west side bluff, which is one of the most conspicuous of the natural beauties of St. Paul, will be preserved to its people for all time to come; and add one more to the many benefactions which owe to the bountiful good will of Mr. Hill towards the City, which has been so long his home, and the primary center of his activities in building up the northwest; and which have so greatly benefited this City as the terminus of his great Continental Railway System.

(Hill Family Collection, Minnesota Historical Society)

 

 

  • Click here for current information on amenities and facilities of Cherokee Park.
  • To see a lovely photograph of present-day Cherokee Park, as well as photos of other Saint Paul parks, click here.
  • For the fascinating history of the Smith Avenue High Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River near Cherokee Park, click here.

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