By Roger Bergerson
Late on a July afternoon in 1912, Albert Woods, dean of the agricultural college on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, and Willard Boyd, the college veterinarian, were walking home along Raymond Avenue when they were hailed by two teenage boys.
The youths frantically related that they had been swimming in the nearby lagoon when their friend, Arthur Johnson, 15, got in trouble and disappeared under the water.
The four hurried back to conduct a fruitless search for Johnson, during which Woods almost came to grief himself. A non-swimmer, he fell off a log into 10 feet of water and had to be dragged to shore. The body of Johnson, who lived at 1529 Van Buren Ave., was recovered later.
The misadventure occurred in a remnant of what had once been Lake Sarita, located approximately where the Commonwealth Terrace Cooperative student housing is today, on the northeast corner of the intersection of Cleveland and Como avenues.
Sarita, presumably the diminutive for Sarah, appeared on maps as early as 1850.
The lake was on the eastern edge of a large wetland complex that included the nearby Kasota/Bridal Veil ponds, all of it ultimately draining southwest to the Mississippi River.
The lake was gone by the early 20th century, although there was still water in the area, some of it due to dredging conducted by the adjacent Minnesota State Fair. Several years earlier, the fair had leased 40 acres of lake and marsh from the university to complement some of its own land in a “canals of Venice”-style attraction, the centerpiece of ill-fated plans to host a World’s Fair. (Park Bugle, May 2015, “World’s Fair in Minnesota? That is so yesterday”)
But keeping water in the canals proved difficult and the fair managers abandoned the project, converting some of the reclaimed land to the entertainment area that became known as the Midway.
The lagoon was gradually filled in, although a small wetland remained, largely ignored and neglected. By the 1960s it was hidden away behind the campus power plant’s coal piles. (Today, Fire Station 23 is directly south of it, across Como Avenue.)
It’s not clear why the Sarita remnant survived, according to Scott Alexander, research scientist with the university’s Department of Earth Sciences, but he’s glad it did.
“I don’t know if they ran out of material or if someone realized that what remained was the de facto storm-water basin for the St. Paul campus,” he says.
Campus growth, particularly in the post-World War II period, added acres of impervious surfaces and increased the potential for flooding.
Beginning in 2005, improvements in on-campus storm-water management were implemented, including the addition of basins to trap sediment and moderate water flow.
“By reducing the sediment load and large fluctuations in water level, the whole Sarita area has a much better chance of favoring native plants,” Alexander said.
Visitors on a morning this past summer saw a sharp-shinned hawk glide through, a gray catbird skulk in the underbrush and hummingbirds dart among the jewelweed. goldenrod, asters and bee balm grew in profusion.
No longer a forgotten swamp, today the Sarita wetland is recognized as an important resource by students, researchers and nature lovers.