Wally Bratt, Becketwood Member
A note to readers: Becketwood Member Wally Bratt served on a citizen’s task force in the 1970s that helped lay the groundwork for the Hiawatha LRT line. As a task force member and a professional geologist, Wally helped persuade the Minnesota Highway Department to abandon its plan for a Highway 55 tunnel that could have badly damaged Minnehaha Falls. This is his story:
I remember coming home from work one day, opening the front door and smelling the ammonia.
Right away, I knew the Highway Department had been there, and delivered the blueprints for Highway 55. Back then, they used ammonia to prepare blueprints, so that’s why the odor had filled the house.
There were 150 pages of blue prints and another 150 pages of explanation. As I started reading through the plans, I realized that my hunch had been right all along. The tunnel, which would have reached 30 feet below Minnehaha creek , posed a very real threat to Minnehaha Falls.
Our task force had been embroiled in a huge battle over the plan to convert Highway 55 to a full-scale six lane freeway, similar to the one that had been built for I 35W, only a few miles away. Several of us had opposed the freeway plan. Instead, we advocated for an at-grade parkway, with right-of-way set aside for an eventual light rail transit line. But we had to contend with other task force members who wanted the full-scale freeway and the immediate construction jobs that it could provide.
Under the original plan for Highway 55, a corner of Minnehaha Park would have been sacrificed to make room for the freeway. But when that plan ran into resistance from the Park Board, the highway planners came up with the idea for a tunnel under the park at the point where Minnehaha Creek approached the falls.
As a geologist who was familiar with the geological formations below the creek, I was concerned about the potential impact of the tunnel on the falls. I kept voicing those concerns at our task force meetings, but the planners kept brushing me off, saying that they had already dealt with that issue. That didn’t satisfy me, and I didn’t back down. Finally, I told them I wanted to see the full set of plans, and that is when the smelly blueprints arrived at our house.
The plans showed a tunnel, with a 1,000 foot ramp descending down below the creek, then a 1,000 foot flat segment directly under the creek and, finally, a 1,000 foot incline , back up to grade; 3,000 feet in all. Keeping this enormous roadway project dry during construction would have meant drilling eight dewatering wells. The roadway tunnel would, in effect, act as a subsurface dam holding back the subsurface water flowing to the Minnehaha gorge. Under normal conditions, everything would most likely have worked as planned. However, there could have been a total washout with the 10-inch “storm of the century,” which we experienced here in the Twin Cities. The risk was too great, particularly when an irreplaceable natural resource like Minnehaha Falls was at stake.
I kept pushing against the tunnel idea.
Eventually, the Highway Department backed off. Later, I was elected to the Minneapolis Park Board, representing the district around Minnehaha Park. A new task force was appointed that came up with the plan for a berm built over Highway 55, in place of the tunnel under the creek. The new task force also adopted our earlier plan for the at-grade parkway and a light rail transit line along the roadway. That plan is in place today, more than 30 years after those odorous blueprints showed up in my living room.