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Ghost towns of the southwest metro

  • 14 min to read

It’s interesting how the southwest metropolitan area of the Twin Cities grew into a patchwork of cities, but there might have been more today if a few more places had survived.

Today, we consider them ghost towns. They died for many reasons. Some had bad soil. Some didn’t survive the change from river transportation to railroads. Some faded away before hardly anything could be recorded.

But their stories of hope are fascinating. The eight newspapers of Southwest News Media present a look at a handful of ghost towns from Scott, Carver and Hennepin counties:

John L. Merriam home

A photo of John L. Merriam’s home in Saint Paul. Merriam and Merriam Junction were named after the Minnesota legislator.

MERRIAM JUNCTION

BY MAGGIE STANWOOD

People at the time were probably hoping Merriam Junction would end up being more than it turned into.

For instance, Chicago and Kansas City boomed after the introduction of railroads nearby. Merriam Junction? Not so much.

A railroad from Minneapolis to Merriam Junction, previously known as just Merriam before a small move, was completed in 1871 and extended to Albert Lea in 1877, according to the 1887 annual report of the Railroad and Warehouse Commission of Minnesota.

The junction still retains the name Merriam for railroad purposes, and it is where two Union Pacific tracks meet 2,000 feet northwest of the Minnesota Valley Garden Center on U.S. Highway 169. 

H. H. Spencer started a depot store at Merriam Junction in 1871, which closed after he died. In 1872, there was a post office, but the postmaster soon resigned, and the post office closed in 1873. The post office opened again in 1880 but closed permanently in 1905.

Merriam Junction had a two-story hotel, built by Gerath Franken in 1879 and another two-story building built in 1881 by Corneilus Schmidt, according to Scott County archives.

Merriam was named after John Merriam, a Minnesota legislator who organized the First National Bank and the Merchants' National Bank of St. Paul, according to "Minnesota Geographic Names: Their Original and Historical Significance."

Louisville boat

A boat stops in Louisville by the Minnesota River. Louisville boomed until it had about 30 or so houses because of the traffic from the river and then quickly became vacant as businesses left.

LOUISVILLE

BY MAGGIE STANWOOD

As with many other cities across the nation, Louisville boomed as a result of traffic from the Minnesota River.

Louisville Township still exists today, but Louisville, the village, no longer exists. It was platted in 1854 along the river in Section 20 across from modern-day Carver and "grew well during four or five years, until it had 30 houses or more," according to "Minnesota Geographic Names: Their Origin and Historical Significance."

Both Louisville and Louisville Township were named for Louisville, Kentucky.

Louisville collapsed a few years during and after the Panic of 1857, one of the first worldwide economic crises. After the panic was over, most buildings had been moved to Carver or were torn down and the land returned to a farming status. It was completely gone by 1868.

Originally, Shakopee incorporated Jackson and Louisville. However, Louisville was removed from the southern portion.

Louisville was settled by a Frenchman, Louis La Croix, who build a log cabin and established a trading post in 1850. H.H. Spencer bought La Croix's buildings and land and moved his family there, establishing the post office in 1854 and becoming postmaster. Spencer also named Louisville as he had lived in the Kentucky namesake previously.

Spencer then built the first store in Louisville in 1855 on the banks of the river.

The first birth in Louisville was that of Joseph Monnie, born Aug. 4, 1855. The first wedding was that of Christina Johnson in 1856.

Spencer also built a grist mill in town in 1856, with Ezra Gibbs and J.W. Sencerbox building a sawmill later that year. The sawmill was out of operation by 1860 and Spencer's was out of operation in 1863.

Spencer, who owned most of Louisville, and Frank Gifford, who owned the rest, agreed to have the town vacated.

Louisville Township was formed in 1858 and is a reminder of a long-gone village.

Spring Lake

Bellefontaine used to exist on the banks of Spring Lake.

BELLFONTAINE

BY HANNAH JONES

Bellefontaine was established in 1856. According to Battin and Hamilton, it was right on Spring Lake, “on the main road leading from Shakopee to the Big Sioux or Dodd road.” The lots were described as “60 by 142,” and the streets “60 feet in width.”

Little is recorded about Bellefontaine during the boom times. According to “The Minnesota Handbook for 1856-7” by Nathan Howe Parker, “Bellefontaine [was] situated on the bakes of Spring Lake, eight miles from Shakopee.”

The entry in the handbook goes on to praise Bellefontaine’s abounding natural resources:

“This lake contains myriads of fish in the finest quality; the adjoining woods abound in wild game of various kinds, while from its banks gush forth, in never-failing springs, an abundance of pure cold water.”

According to the final line in the entry, “the proprietors offer great inducements to mill-wrights and mechanics.”

But Bellefontaine couldn’t quite keep its footing as a town. According to a presentation by the Scott County Historical Society, like many other mid-1850s towns, Bellefontaine came up short against competing settlements.

Mount Pleasant

Mount Pleasant used to sit on the banks of Long Lake, six miles from Shakopee.

MOUNT PLEASANT

BY HANNAH JONES

Mount Pleasant, established in 1856, was described as a neat, little, up-and-coming place by R.B. Odell in that same year:

Lots were “laid off with regard to neatness — likewise the streets. The proprietor offers every inducement possible to those who will settle in and improve the place.”

Not much is recorded about Mount Pleasant. According to “The Minnesota Handbook for 1856-7” by Nathan Howe Parker, Mount Pleasant was “situated on Long Lake, about six miles from Shakopee, and [was] represented as being eligible for a town.”

Not that it truly made it. A presentation by the Scott County Historical Society marked it as one of the many 1850s towns that simply couldn’t hack the competition. 

Long Lake is an older name for Lower Prior Lake.

The entry in “The Minnesota Handbook” is rife with apparent optimism:

“On the outlet of this lake is a saw and grist-mill, doing well,” it said. “This town has recently been laid out, and offers a chance for beginners.”

Of course, not all chances end in success.

St. Lawrence

Samuel Burton Strait’s house exists as a historical structure. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources maintains the house that rests on a state trail.

ST. LAWRENCE

BY BRITT JOHNSEN

In the 1850s, businessman and Pennsylvania native Samuel Burton Strait had a vision for a town near Jordan.

Strait already had done a lot during his life. He had managed a flour mill, a sawmill and a pail factory. He also worked in the mercantile industry, spent time as a blacksmith and owned cattle stock. He owned about 1,000 acres in the area, according to the Scott County Historical Society.

Then, in 1856, he accomplished something new: He platted the town of St. Lawrence at what today is south of the junction of Park Boulevard and W. 195th St. In 1858, the land was surveyed and found to land partially in Carver County and Scott County, considering it was on both sides of the Minnesota River.

St. Lawrence

Not long after St. Lawrence was built, a railroad was installed nearby, replacing river travel. But construction skipped St. Lawrence by at least a mile, which ultimately led to the town’s failure.

People who traveled along the river could access Strait’s house via Bristol’s Ferry. Visitors would stay there, making for a profitable business for Strait. He built a school and a three-story hotel, which garnered a lot of attention — particularly from dancers.

“Belles and gallants came from as far away as Mendota and St. Anthony to dance the minuet and Virginia reel on its smoothly polished floor and to rub elbows with comely maids and bronzed giants of the frontier,” says an article in the Belle Plaine Herald from June 25, 1925.

Not long after St. Lawrence was built, a railroad was built to  Brentwood, which today is part of Jordan. The train replaced river travel and skipped St. Lawrence by at least a mile, which ultimately led to the town’s failure.

Though he had a thriving cattle stock, he couldn’t use his land for any other type of farming. That’s because the soil was made of what’s called “blow sand.” According to the Scott County Historical Society, homeowners say they have to re-sod their yards every spring because the grass doesn’t survive.

In the 1950s, the beloved hotel that Strait created was destroyed by a fire that burned the entire structure to the ground. It was close to 100 years old when it burned.

Today, Strait’s house exists as a historical structure. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources maintains the house that rests on a state trail in the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area.

CORBEL

BY BRITT JOHNSEN

Near St. Lawrence was another town that never took off: Corbel.

Phillip Corbel owned limestone quarries in St. Lawrence. He lived about a half mile from Samuel Burton Strait’s house. Corbel’s home can no longer be tracked down, but the Scott County Historical Society says his house rested on the very wagon road that connected to Strait’s door.

The road also connected to a man, Abraham Bisson, who owned the quarries with Corbel.

Very little information exists on these people. According to the Scott County Historical Society, Corbel once might have been considered part of St. Lawrence, but right now Corbel and Bisson’s homes stand outside the land that was platted.

It goes to show that some ghost towns fade faster than others.

Helvetia

Reinhold Zeglin operated a general store in Helvetia. Pictured is the Zeglin family and other community members outside of the store circa 1878.

HELVETIA

BY ALEX CHHITH

The former town of Helvetia may have the spookiest past of all Carver County ghost towns.

Helvetia was founded by John Buhler in 1856 on the western side of Carver County near the city of Mayer. For most of its existence, the town’s residents struggled to survive, and, by 1884, most of the population had died out from disease.

The first immigrants were from Switzerland and named the town Helvetia, the ancient name of Switzerland, according to Carver County Historical Society documents. Not to be confused with the typeface Helvetica, which was developed in 1957 by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger.

While many towns in Carver County were started by immigrants from Germany and Sweden, Helvetia was the only one started by Swiss immigrants, said Heidi Gould, the Carver County Historical Society’s curator of education and exhibits.

However, the town’s name was short-lived, and by April 1860, the residents renamed it to Hollywood to attract other people who weren’t Swiss and for what was thought to be an abundance of holly bushes in the area.

It was discovered afterward that hollywood bushes did not grow there, according to “History of the Minnesota Valley.”

Buhler built the town’s first store where he sold groceries and produce. Later, Jacob Lahr opened a sawmill and built a bridge over Crow River for easier travel in 1869. Lahr then operated the town’s first post office in 1875 and was succeeded by his wife and August Ninnemann.

The first school was organized in 1862 and at one time there were six schoolhouses within the limits of the town, according to “History of the Minnesota Valley.”

However, the residents of the city struggled to survive.

The name change from Helvetia to Hollywood did not attract more residents and roadways remained trails. Families didn’t have many resources and struggled to survive, according to the Carver County Historical Society.

While the residents were at peace with a Dakota tribe that lived near one side of the town and an Ojibwe tribe on the other side, they were caught in between when the two would fight with one another, according to the historical society.

In 1884, an outbreak of diphtheria killed much of the town’s population and those who survived moved to Mayer.

The post office was also moved to Mayer in 1889.

“Helvetia (Hollywood) was dying out as Mayer was getting started,” said Gould, noting people moved to Mayer because of a railroad that was built though it.

“When you had a railroad line you became the bigger town,” she added.

Today, there are farms where Helvetia used to be, but the old town is not listed as an organized city.

Scandia

All that remains of the Scandia community is its historic cemetery.

SCANDIA

BY UNSIE ZUEGE

Scandia, just east of the city of Waconia, was first settled in 1853 when Swedish immigrant Andrew Bergquist staked his claim. The former trumpeter in the Swedish Army sent word to friends back in Sweden about this beautiful, fertile farmland he found in Minnesota.

The history of Scandia is told in the book “Andrew Peterson and the Scandia Story,” by historian Jo Mihelich of Victoria. Her book is a rich resource of the Swedish settlement’s history, its early residents and their stories.

Among the fellow Swedish immigrants who joined Bergquist were the Rev. Frederick Olauf Nilsson, a Swedish minister eager to leave behind the tyranny of the state-run Swedish Lutheran Church, and Swedish farmer Andrew Peterson. Peterson is famous among Swedish-Americans and in Sweden for his emigrant story, which he documented in his daily diaries. The Swedish author and journalist Wilhelm Moberg used Peterson’s diaries as inspiration for his book series “The Emigrants.”

Scandia1

Andrew Peterson's final resting place is in Scandia Cemetery, Waconia. 

Peterson also dabbled as a horticulturist, grafting and growing varieties of apples and grapes.

In her book, Mihelich writes that it was in Andrew Peterson’s log cabin home that Nilsson founded the Scandia Baptist Church, which eventually became the mother church of the Minnesota Swedish Baptist Conference.

"The congregation continues today,” said Heidi Gould, curator of education and exhibits at the Carver County Historical Society and Museum, “as Oakwood Community Church on Highway 10, Waconia, the oldest Baptist church in Minnesota.”

According to Oakwood’s website, “The church’s first building — a 20-by-26-foot log structure — was constructed in 1857. It was remodeled in 1875 and hit by a tornado in 1904. Because of its historical significance to the denomination Converge North Central of Converge Worldwide, the building was moved in 1973 to Arden Hills, where it now stands on a hillside overlooking the campus of Bethel Seminary. It’s known as the Scandia Chapel and was restored in 1983 as much as possible to its original state.”

Nilsson and his family returned to Sweden in 1860, Gould said, while Peterson and a small group of Swedish immigrants remained, establishing a community called Scandia. Never formally incorporated, Scandia wasn’t considered a “town” so much as a place, Gould said.

“It was a community that had a church, a cemetery, a school and a post office.”

Scandia came to an end when schools began to consolidate, and nearby, faster-growing towns began absorbing the smaller ones like Scandia, Gould said. In Scandia’s case, it was absorbed into Waconia and Laketown Township.

Today, parts of the historic Andrew Peterson’s farm have been restored and the grounds overseen and cared for by the Carver County Historical Society. The rest of the former Scandia community is now home to the Island View Golf Club, Hennepin Parks, the Carver Park Reserve, the Lakeside Ballroom and residential housing.

But the Scandia cemetery still remains, on the edge of the golf club grounds. There, a commemorative rock from Andrew Peterson’s town of Ydra, Sweden, is dedicated to Andrew Peterson and the Swedish settlers of Scandia. And it is where the early Scandia pioneers have been laid to rest.

'Hennepin'

The plat for ghost town of Hennepin was registered in Ramsey County in June of 1853, according to author Helen Holden Anderson.

HENNEPIN

BY PATTY DEXTER

There were visions of a riverside town when John. H. McKenzie took a claim along the Minnesota River in the future township of Eden Prairie in 1852.

The land would be platted and modeled on town sites in the east, but the town of Hennepin would never germinate into the big city its creators envisioned.

According to the Helen Holden Anderson book "Eden Prairie: The First 100 Years," McKenzie and the Alexander Wilkins, the territory's secretary, platted McKenzie's claim into village lots and called the fledgling city Hennepin.

Other men were brought into the venture: James A. Case, Ramsey County surveyor; George Becker, the first state railroad and warehouse commissioner; J. Van Eton, manager of Wilkins' land office; attorney Charles Willis, who would later become a district judge, and land speculators C.L Filmore, Miras Abbott and Calib Lovering. J.H. Case surveyed the town site.

"On the plat all lots were numbered, the streets and boulevards were also named. There was a seminar square plus two public squares," Anderson wrote.

The plat was registered in Ramsey County in June of 1853 and was registered in Hennepin County on May 17, 1854.

Eden Prairie's Ron Case, a former Eden Prairie School District teacher for over 30 years, used to take his sixth grade students on bicycle field trips down to the Hennepin site, where he shared stories about it. He said the Hennepin site is south of Eden Prairie's present-day Riverview Road between the street's westernmost end and Spyglass Drive to the east. This is an area where the Minnesota River curves sharply to the north.

Many people don't realize that part of Eden Prairie's beginnings include the now ghost river town, Case said.

"It was a great spot; it just didn't take," he said.

Anderson's book states that Hennepin had a store built by Dunn and Howe, a gristmill, sawmill, blacksmith shop and a warehouse by the ferry. The river bluff had multiple houses and a hotel. Abundant crops of grain were grown on the prairie land above the town and more grain was shipped from Hennepin Landing than any other place in the county.

"Piles of cordwood and hay were piled on the wharf and taken down the river by barges operated by Peter Ritchie, who also ran a ferry across the river," the book states.

According to Anderson, multiple factors contributed to Hennepin's failure to grow into a booming town. She said Hennepin's location was a factor with the high bluffs to the north, making delivering crops and goods to and from the river difficult. Its proximity to Shakopee, Chaska and Carver, which were on level ground, prevented its growth.

The Panic of 1857, which saw a depreciation in currency, a paralysis of business and a drop in real estate value, and the construction of the Minneapolis-St. Louis Railroad in the northern part of the township in 1871 and the Hasting-Dakota Railroad in 1881, were cited by Anderson as other factors affecting Hennepin's decline.

Case believes the railroads were one of the biggest factors in Hennepin's failure to grow. Had Hennepin been large enough to attract the railroad, things might be different today, he said.

"Had Hennepin been big enough … we today would have been living in Hennepin, not Eden Prairie," he said.

Today, the early surveyor's maps, plat of the town and historical accounts are some of what remains to show Hennepin's existence.

San Francisco

The ghost town of San Francisco, along the Minnesota River.

SAN FRANCISCO

BY MARK W. OLSON

San Francisco is a big name for a small city.

The site sits along a set of Minnesota River rapids, a few miles south of Carver. During low water the “Little Rapids” would have marked the end of navigable steamboat travel from St. Paul.

Carver Rapids

The Little Rapids (or Carver Rapids) are easily visible with low Minnesota River levels. Historically, the rapids prevented steamboats from traveling any farther upstream. The town of San Francisco was founded along these rapids.

According to the 1882 book “History of the Minnesota Valley,” by Edward D. Neill, the town was settled circa 1854. One of the European founders, William Foster, named the village after the city in California.

However, the area was settled long before the 1850s. Inyan Ceyaka Otonwe, translated from the Dakota Indian language as “Village at the Rapids,” was just across the river in Scott County, according to archaeological and eyewitness accounts. As reported in “Lost Minnesota,” by Jack El-Hai, explorers in the 1830s and 1840s described a village of 325 Wahpeton Dakota near the rapids.

By the early 1850s, town sites such as Carver, Chaska and Shakopee began popping up along the Minnesota River. Land speculators slated towns for both sides of the Minnesota River at Little Rapids — San Francisco on the Carver County side and Little Rapids on the Scott County side.

William Foster

William Foster

Foster attempted to develop San Francisco with his business partner, Louis Robert, according to research by former Carver County Historical Society Director Paul Maravelas.

At one point the buildings in the town included a 40-foot-long one-story warehouse for transferring freight “on account of the rapids”; a one and one-half story 20-by-25 foot store; “and a few shanties uninhabitable in inclement weather,” according to “History of the Minnesota Valley.”

The San Francisco town site never panned out, perhaps because it was prone to flooding. “The flood of 1863 swept away the warehouse and several other buildings, and the town was abandoned,” Neill wrote.

The county seat was originally located in San Francisco, but moved to Chaska the following year.

Foster had his own intriguing story. About 10 years earlier, he was snowbound with his family in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, members of the legendary Donner Party. Unable to find food, and in the depths of starvation, the settlers began to eat fellow dead settlers. Among the bodies cannibalized was William and Sarah Foster’s 1-year-old son Jeremiah. William Foster played an infamous role in the affair when he killed two Indians, Luis and Salvador, for food, though it was said he wasn’t in his right mind.

Now, all that remains of San Francisco village are the rapids, visible only during low water. The site is accessible via a trail from the Rapids Lake Education and Visitor Center, 15865 Rapids Lake Road, Carver.

PERKINSVILLE

BY TIM ENGSTROM

Brothers John S. and Needham Perkins each built a house on the south shore of Lake Independence just north of Maple Plain in 1859. They platted a village they called Perkinsville, according to the Maple Plain city website.

It had a sawmill, a country store and a blacksmith. A brick kiln existed for a spell, but the clay had too much limestone, so the brick making ended.

Lake Independence got its name because settlers from Lake Minnetonka’s Maxwell Bay, taking a exploratory walk, discovered it on Independence Day in 1854. The log cabin of Irvin Shrewsbury became the first post office in the area in 1856, with the first Independence Township meeting coming in 1858.

John Perkins lost in a race for the first Minnesota Legislature to Irwin Shrewsbury. The two were active in the early growth of Maple Plain in 1868, and Perkins moved his Perkinsville store to Maple Plain. The St. Paul, Pacific and Manitoba Railroad went through the city in 1968 and 1869. Perkins sold his store in 1870.

Maple Plain garnered its own post office in 1871 and was incorporated as a village in 1912. It celebrated its centennial, however, in 1968.

Today, the railroad through Maple Plain is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and there still is an east-west road called Perkinsville Road south of the lake and north of the town — a reminder of a town that is no longer there.

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