By the 1950s, most of the houses had been removed from Williams Hill. Those that remained were in rough shape. Courtesy MnHS

A Look Back at a Kid’s View of Williams Hill

August 16, 2021 Frogtown, Payne-Phalen, Dayton’s Bluff, Downtown 18.2 Miles

In his 1967 hit “There Is a Mountain,” Donovan sang, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain…” Williams Hill, about a mile east of the Capitol, might be Saint Paul’s manifestation of that tune. More on that after a stop in Frogtown.

Frogtown

Thomas Avenue in Frogtown is flanked almost exclusively by houses. At Avon Street, Ryan Park interrupts the homes, and the magnificent Church of St. Agnes (and its school) provide another full block gap between Kent and Mackubin Streets. A block further east, this time on the south side of the street, the homes give way to a school. With no recollection of having seen this building before, I slowly cruised past trying to determine its name. Not until I rode about three-quarters of the way around the block – on Edmund Avenue – did I see a sign proclaiming it Jackson Elementary School.

The front of Jackson elementary School on Edmund Avenue.
The front of Jackson elementary School on Edmund Avenue. The building was named in honor of President Andrew Jackson.
One of a pair of entrances on Edmund Avenue. Multiple bas-reliefs decorate the entrances. I’m especially fond of the “J”.
One of a pair of entrances on Edmund Avenue. Multiple bas-reliefs decorate the entrances. I’m especially fond of the “J”.
The relief book at the top of the building is the most intricate.
The relief book at the top of the building is the most intricate.
Sitting just in front of the school’s flagpole on Edmund Avenue is this well-worn plaque commemorating Jackson alumni who fought in WWII. It was presented by the class of 1945.
Sitting just in front of the school’s flagpole on Edmund Avenue is this well-worn plaque commemorating Jackson alumni who fought in WWII. It was presented by the class of 1945.

Payne-Phalen

The damage Interstate highways have done to Saint Paul is indisputable. The tragic effect I-94 had (and continues to have) upon the Rondo neighborhood is well-documented. I-35E, while significantly less fractious, also caused great disruptions to neighborhoods and the layout of Saint Paul’s streetscape. Mississippi Street, for example, was a main north-south artery in and out of Downtown. It ran uninterrupted from Grove Street to St. Paul’s northern border at Larpenteur Avenue. Now, Mississippi Street is little more than the 35E frontage road, haphazardly starting and stopping from Case Avenue north to Larpenteur. On the southern end, between Phalen Boulevard and Grove, it’s a decaying and underused road to nowhere.

Overgrown lots, peeling billboards and underutilized buildings past their prime line Mississippi Street between University Avenue and the apparently vacated part of 13th Street.
Overgrown lots, peeling billboards and underutilized buildings past their prime line Mississippi Street between University Avenue and the apparently vacated part of 13th Street.
Looking south on Mississippi at Downtown. These two blocks of Mississippi Street see little traffic.
Looking south on Mississippi at Downtown. These two blocks of Mississippi Street see little traffic.

Williams Hill

The entrance to the Williams Hill Business Center at University Avenue and Olive Street.
The entrance to the Williams Hill Business Center at University Avenue and Olive Street.

Olive Street immediately north of University Avenue is the entrance to the Williams Hill Business Center and it’s where Gary Horn and I met on his lunch break. Gary posted a comment on the blog about my previous trip to Williams Hill in September of 2019. He agreed to talk about his years growing up on the East Side and his recollections of Williams Hill back when it was a hill.

Gary Horn standing at the corner of Olive Street and University Avenue, which was part of Williams Hill.
Gary Horn standing at the corner of Olive Street and University Avenue, which was part of Williams Hill.

Gary began his story when his parents met in college. “My mother was in nursing at Hamline University, and Hamline University had a foreign exchange program where they brought students from Germany over; these were carpenters. It was a work study program where they came from Germany to do their carpentry thing at Hamline University. So they met socially at Hamline University.”

Gary on the porch of the family home, 910 Arkwright Street, circa 1962. Courtesy Gary Horn
Gary on the porch of the family home, 910 Arkwright Street, circa 1962. Courtesy Gary Horn

Gary lived at 910 Arkwright Street, between York and Sims Avenues, from the early to late 1960s. “Back in those days, kids could roam pretty freely around the East Side. And one of the things we’d love to do is to come down York Avenue to the bridge up over the railroad tracks so we could watch the trains and try to hop the trains.”

Gary and his friends spent a bundle of time playing at an empty lot at Cayuga and Arkwright, about a block from his home. “It was an undeveloped block with sumac bushes and a large sandy area that appeared to be used as as sort of quarry for sand. It was a very large bank of sand (to a kid) and we played in it quite a bit. It had a wild, remote feeling for being so close to home.”

And he added, “When we played at the vacant lot, we would see scruffy-looking men walking on Whitall (Street). At the time, Poor Richards salvage yard was located at the corner of Whitall and York. I don’t know if they were yard workers or homeless men that were moving back and forth from Williams Hill.” 

Gary laughed as he brought up another memory. “I think I had my first rolled up leaf cigarettes down there.”

Gary and friends also passed time scavenging for discarded bottles. “One of the things we’d like to do is gather pop bottles and turn them in for cash. I think we got a nickel a bottle. Whenever we find a bottle, we would turn it in at the Case Avenue Market or the Burr Street Grocery and get money for penny candy.”

Gary with his baseball glove. Circa 1964. Courtesy Gary Horn
Gary with his baseball glove. Circa 1964. Courtesy Gary Horn

And like many other boys of that era, Gary played some baseball. “I was on tee-ball teams at the Wilder Playground. We spent a lot of time there. We ventured occasionally onto Payne Avenue. And there was a library on Payne and Arlington, I believe, that we used to go to.”

The Horns lived about a mile from Williams Hill and Gary visited it with friends from the neighborhood or his older siblings “two or three times a summer.” In contrast to the flat topography now, there really was a substantial hill. “It was a very distinct knob of a hill. It was definitely a neighborhood landmark.”

Abandonned homes on Williams Hill in the 1950s. The manhole cover is the only clue that a street once ran by the homes. Courtesy MnHS
Abandoned homes on Williams Hill in the 1950s. The manhole cover is the only clue that a street once ran by the homes. Courtesy MnHS

Growing up, Gary thought of the hill with a mix of fascination and trepidation. “When we walked on Mississippi Street, there was a wooden bridge to Williams Hill that spanned some railroad tracks. You could see the ruins of homes and foundations on the hill – it was a surreal scene for a kid. We never crossed the bridge and explored the ruins. It was too scary.” 

Gary recalled a specific incident at the hill that he’ll never forget. “When we were trying to work up the courage to cross the bridge, we saw a large roll of carpet. We wondered if a body was rolled up in it. My sister claimed she saw it move! We knew she was trying to scare us, but it still did!”

Gary crossed the Mississippi Street railroad bridge to Williams Hill only once, when his mom took him and his five siblings for a picnic. “There’s a picture we have of my mother having taken us for a picnic on the hill when we were really little.”

“The most salient memory of the neighborhood was Williams Hill ’cause it just had this mystique.”

Gary Horn

Gary and the rest of the Horn family left the Arkwright Street home in 1969. “My dad felt it was time to move out and he had an acre property out in rural Stillwater, so he moved us out there. That was his lifelong dream to build his own home…and he’d built it.”

Although he left the East Side some 50 years ago, Gary fondly recalls his exploits there and says he remains interested in Williams Hill history.

Here are some additional historical notes about Williams Hill.

  • Known as Oak Hill Cemetery in the early 1850s, it was Saint Paul’s first burial ground. That ceased a couple years later when Oakland Cemetery opened about a mile northwest, according to The Street Where You Live.
  • About 1857, realtor Brook B. Williams began developing the hill as a residential neighborhood. The streets of Williams Hill were “once lined with comfortable two-story homes” according to a June 24, 1982 St. Paul Dispatch article by Don Ahern.
  • Written accounts say as many as 60 homes were built on Williams Hill. Residents of Williams Hill included a number of successful early Saint Paul residents.
  • Long-vanished hill streets had names including DeBow, Olmsted, Somerset and Williams.
Patent attorney Andrew M. Carlsen owned the large home at 279-281 Williams Street at Pine. Known as the “Swedish Castle,” it was a boarding house.
Patent attorney Andrew M. Carlsen owned the large home at 279-281 Williams Street at Pine. Known as the “Swedish Castle,” it was a boarding house. Courtesy MnHS
  • Patent attorney Andrew M. Carlsen, who owned the home and boarding house at 279-281 Williams Street known as the “Swedish Castle.” (Above)
  • Hardware wholesaler George L. Farwell, one of the founders of what became the OK Hardware chain, lived at the southwest corner of Grove and Olive.
  • Cyrus DeCoster, 59 Grove, was a furniture manufacturer, Capital Bank board member and principal of Jefferson School.
  • The hill’s heyday didn’t last long. By the early 1900s the railroads were buying land on the hill for future expansion.
An aerial view of Williams Hill in 1923. Courtesy U of MN John R. Borchert Map Library
An aerial view of Williams Hill in 1923. Courtesy U of MN John R. Borchert Map Library
An aerial view of Williams Hill in 1957. Notice the lack of houses compared to 1923. Courtesy U of MN John R. Borchert Map Library
An aerial view of Williams Hill in 1957, with noticeably fewer houses than in 1923. Courtesy U of MN John R. Borchert Map Library
A lonesome home on Williams Hill in the 1950s. Courtesy MnHS
A lonesome home on Williams Hill in the 1950s. Courtesy MnHS
  • The decline of Williams Hill, sometimes called “The Badlands,” continued for decades. A 1948 article in the Minneapolis Star described “the ‘jungles’ of Williams Hill where tramps and hobos often camp in the woods or in the ruins of abandoned houses.”
A June 20, 1949 article in the Minneapolis Star newspaper about the murder of seven-year old Harlow O'Brien. Harlow's body was found under a wooden bridge on Williams Hill.
A June 20, 1949 article in the Minneapolis Star newspaper about the murder of seven-year old Harlow O’Brien. Harlow’s body was found under a wooden bridge on Williams Hill.
  • The shocking and sensational June 1949 murder of seven-year old Harlow O’Brien further diminished the reputation of Williams Hill. Harlow’s body was found under the bridge that connected Mississippi Street to Williams Hill.
This article in the June 24, 1982 Saint Paul Dispatch reported on the final demise and history of Williams Hill. Courtesy Gary Horn
This article in the June 24, 1982 Saint Paul Dispatch reported on the final demise and history of Williams Hill. Courtesy Gary Horn

The leveling of Williams Hill was completed in the 1980s. By 1992, Kaplan’s Metal Reduction, Mississippi Street Metals and concrete recycling operations of Ashbach Construction Company were the main occupants of area. (January 1, 1992 St. Paul Pioneer Press). The Saint Paul Port Authority already had its eye on redeveloping the 40-acre parcel to create new jobs, but it took until August 1996 for the city and Port Authority to secure and allocate the money to begin work (August 15, 1996 St. Paul Pioneer Press.) Aries Precision Sheet Metal was the first business to open in the new Williams Hill Business Center in September 1999.

Dayton’s Bluff

Moving south from Williams Hill Business Center, the neighborhood between University Avenue on the north, East Seventh Street to the south, I-94/35E on the west and Lafayette Road to the east, is unusual. A jumble of buildings – warehouses, medical facilities and governmental structures – and parking lots, dominate the area.

Ramsey County Commitment Court, Mental Health and Chemical Health Services are located in the 402 University Building at the southeast corner of University and Olive.
Ramsey County Commitment Court, Mental Health and Chemical Health Services are located in the 402 University Building at the southeast corner of University and Olive.
The light colored building on the left is the Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center at Olive and 13th Street. The four story brick building behind it is the James S. Griffin Building, headquarters of the Saint Paul Police.
The light colored building on the left is the Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center at Olive and 13th Street. The four story brick building behind it is the James S. Griffin Building, headquarters of the Saint Paul Police Department, at 367 Grove Street.
James Griffin, sitting at his desk in police headquarters in the 1960s. Courtesy MnHS
James Griffin, sitting at his desk in police headquarters in the 1955. Courtesy MnHS

James Griffin broke many barriers during his four decades with the Saint Paul Police Department. He was the first African American sergeant, captain and deputy chief on the Saint Paul force. Griffin was born and grew up in Rondo. He became a patrol officer in 1941 and retired in 1983. The stadium at Central High School is also named for him.

Looking west from Lafayette Road and Grove Street at the Saint Paul Police headquarters. The cement barriers topped with barbed wire fencing were put up following the riots that stemmed from the murder of George Floyd.
Looking west along Grove Street from Lafayette Road at the Saint Paul Police headquarters. The cement barriers topped with barbed wire fencing were put up following the riots that stemmed from the murder of George Floyd.

To call the history of 367 Grove Street interesting is selling it short. It was built as a factory for Ramer’s Candy about 1920. By the ’30s George Benz and Sons Liquors were rolling out the barrels there. At one time 3M used the building and in the mid-2000s, then it was renovated for the Saint Paul Police Department. (Inside the Griffin Building, although not open to the public, is the Saint Paul Police Department museum, which I toured in 2015 and blogged about.)

Long before its renovation for the police department, Ramer's Candy made its confectionaries in the building. This photo is from 1925. Photo by Charles P. Gibson and courtesy MnHS
Long before its renovation for the police department, Ramer’s Candy made its confections in the building. This photo is from 1925. Photo by Charles P. Gibson and courtesy MnHS
George Benz Liquors took over 367 Grove by 1934. Courtesy MnHS
George Benz and Sons Liquors took over 367 Grove by 1934. Courtesy MnHS
A worker fills barrels at the Benz and Sons Distillery in 1937. Courtesy MnHS
A worker fills barrels at the Benz and Sons Distillery in 1937. Courtesy MnHS
Bottling spirits at George Benz and Sons Distillery in 1937. Courtesy MnHS
Bottling spirits at George Benz and Sons Distillery in 1937. Courtesy MnHS

Several streets in the neighborhood just south of Williams Hill Business Center bear the names of trees. Pine, Balsam and Grove (OK, not a species, but a group of trees) were all named in the early 1850s, while Olive and Spruce were named in 1872, according to Don Empson’s The Street Where You Live.

Pine and Spruce are two of the tree names on streets in the neighborhood.
Pine and Spruce are two of the tree names on streets in the neighborhood.
STS, 311 Spruce Street, is an outpatient treatment facility for adults with chemical dependencies.
STS, 311 Spruce Street, is an outpatient treatment facility for adults with chemical dependencies.
The Lafayette Park sign at Pine and Grove Streets is misplaced by a couple of blocks based on my research.

The Lafayette Park sign at Pine and Grove Streets is misplaced by a couple of blocks based on my research.
Lafayette Park and its distinctive fountain in about 1888.
Lafayette Park and its distinctive fountain in about 1888.

The place billed as “Historic Lafayette Park” at the corner of Pine and Grove Streets is wishful thinking. There is nothing historic or park-like about this spot. It consists of a triangular parking lot edged by a couple of slices of grass. Strangely, Lafayette Park and the elaborate fountain depicted on the sign stood at least two blocks to the east of where the sign is.

A block southeast is the intersection of Pine and Balsam. The block-long Balsam Street has languished since I-35E severed its connection with Downtown.
A block southeast is the intersection of Pine and Balsam. The block-long Balsam Street has languished since I-35E severed its connection with Downtown.
The elements have rendered the Tenth Street sign barely legible.
The elements have rendered the Tenth Street sign barely legible.

Anchor Paper’s buildings take up the entire block bounded by ninth, tenth, Pine and Broadway Streets.

The back or Tenth Street side of Anchor Paper.
The back or Tenth Street side of Anchor Paper.
At Ninth and Pine, the Anchor Paper garage.
At Ninth and Pine, the Anchor Paper garage.
The address of Anchor Paper’s main building is 480 Broadway Street although it's at Ninth and Broadway Street.
The address of Anchor Paper’s main building is 480 Broadway Street although it’s at Ninth and Broadway.
Despite at least one addition, the building retains many of the features it had in 1948 when Murphy Transfer and Storage owned it.
Despite more than one addition, the building retains many of the features it had in 1948 when Murphy Transfer and Storage owned it.
The I-94/35E commons skirt Broadway Street. The din of vehicles rushing past at 50 or 60 miles per hour didn't stop while I was nearby. The buildings across the freeway are on the eastern edge of Downtown.
The I-94/35E commons skirt Broadway Street. The din of vehicles rushing past at 50 or 60 miles per hour didn’t stop while I was nearby. The buildings across the freeway are on the eastern edge of Downtown.

The restored former Great Northern Railroad warehouse at eighth and Pine Streets looks much like it did when it was built in 1917. Today it is an office building.

The former Great Northern warehouse is called the Meritex Building.
The former Great Northern warehouse is now called the Meritex Building.
The Great Northern Freight Depot about a year after it opened. Courtesy MnHS
The Great Northern Freight Depot about a year after it opened. Courtesy MnHS
After the Great Northern, the St. Paul Terminal Warehouse Company purchased the building. Meritex Company and the McNeely Foundation are both descendants of the St. Paul Terminal Warehouse Company and have their offices in the building.
After the Great Northern, the St. Paul Terminal Warehouse Company purchased the building. Meritex Company and the McNeely Foundation are both descendants of the St. Paul Terminal Warehouse Company and have their offices in the building.

By far the most attractive and unexpected building is Schurmeier Lofts condominiums and apartments at 330 Ninth Street East. Built in 1885 for the Schurmeier Wagon Company, the exterior and what little I could see inside were stunningly restored.

The front or Ninth Street and west side of the Schurmeier Lofts building.
The front or Ninth Street and west side of the Schurmeier Lofts building.
The pediment above the main entrance.
The pediment above the main entrance.
From the tin ceiling to the brick walls and wood floors, the Schurmeier Lofts lobby is lovely.
From the tin ceiling to the brick walls and wood floors, the Schurmeier Lofts lobby is lovely.
The renovation of the back was treated to the same level of attention.
The renovation of the back was treated to the same level of attention.
This sprawling Meritex Company warehouse sits on three blocks of land near eighth and Olive. The SPPD headquarters are on the far right.
This sprawling Meritex Company warehouse sits on three blocks of land near eighth and Olive. The SPPD headquarters are on the far right.

Downtown

On the way home I rode on the Capital City Bikeway on Jackson Street for the first time. At the intersection with Seventh Place East I hit the brakes for an unexpected site. Renovation of Ramsey County’s Metro Square building revealed the beautiful decorative reliefs from when it was the Emporium department store. The left half of the building, which remained covered with glass panels, is scheduled for renovation in 2022.

The scaffolding caught my eye first but after a more careful look I spotted the real treasures - the reliefs.
The scaffolding caught my eye first but after a more careful look I spotted the real treasures – the reliefs.
Behind the glass skin and supports the beautiful original look of the building remains recognizable.
Behind the glass skin and supports, the beautiful original look of the building remains recognizable.
A closer look at the original facing of the building shows its detail and the deteriorated condition.
A closer look at the original facing of the building shows its detail and the deterioration. Exterior glass panels, which were removed for the project, were reattached to the horizontal and vertical metal bars.
The Emporium department store in 1955 with its original terra cotta exterior intact. Courtesy MnHS
The Emporium department store in 1955 with its original terra cotta exterior intact. Courtesy MnHS

A project manager for Ramsey County told me the damage to the original building facade was too great to be economically feasible to refurbish it. It’s intriguing to consider what other secrets will be revealed when the renovation work resumes later this year.

Below is the map of this enlightening trip.

12 comments

      1. We had lots of adventures. We went (almost) everywhere, and my parents appreciated that! 🙂

  1. My brother and I knew Harlow and his brother from the Gospel Misson boys club. The guy that
    MURDERED HARLOW WAS OUR AIR RAID WARDEN DURING THE WAR AND LIVED JUST A FEW HOUSES AWAY FROM US ON 12TH STREET. I REMEMBER HIM COMING INTO OUR HOUSE AND GOING INTO THE BASEMENT AND HE HAD A HELMET WITH A CD EMBLEM ON IT. HE LIVED WITH HIS MOTHER.

  2. My memory is not so good anymore but as I remember Harlow was in our group at the Union Gospel Mission camp at Snail Lake. They broke us up into squads. I knew his older brother better at the time and my younger brother was closer to Harlow. I did not really know the murder guy but would see him around the neighborhood. He was a short guy and was like someone you would stay away from. I dont think he had a normal job. His mother lived at 63 and we lived at 57 e.12th st…I remember her coming up behind me and hitting me with her cane because I was sitting on their front wall that had little flowers on it. As I remember I think they sent him to a nut house as we called them for the murder.

  3. Hi Wolfie! You did a great job of capturing my childhood experience of Williams Hill. It was always a place of dread and fascination to us. I love your blog! We share a love for St. Paul.

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