Edgewater: the transition from junkyard to city park

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 1, 2003

North Edgewater Park is now a tranquil place of snow-covered grass and fairly young trees, but for nearly a century the area just to the west and northwest of Pavilion Two was used as a sand and gravel pit, a railroad salvage yard, the city sanitary landfill, a place to dump dredge tailings, and even a rifle and pistol range.

One Albert Lea resident who lived through the evolution of this place from a badly used and abused part of the landscape to a city park was the late Van Chase.

&uot;Back in the 1930s I used to sit up on a sandpile out there and watch them make scrap out of old railroad cars,” said the third generation railroad man, as he told of the park’s history during a 1986 Tribune interview.

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About a century ago the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad (M. & St. L.) ran a sidetrack from the main line north of the present Omnium buildings to the east. The short spur line crossed what’s now State Highway 13 and County Road 101 (733rd Avenue), went through the then undeveloped Rutherford subdivision, and ended in the present location of North Edgewater Park. The original intent was to use the line to remove sand and gravel for railroad construction and maintenance.

In the 1930s, Chase said, the open pit area was converted into a yard for cutting apart railroad cars and engines and converting them into scrap.

“We used to go in there on the rickety track, pushing in some old rolling stock to be cut up, and sometimes wonder if we’d ever get the switch engine out again.” he said.

The scrap yard was operated by the Hyman-Michaels firm of Chicago and became the final destination for a good portion of the M. & St. L.’s older rolling stock.

Perhaps the most unusual use for this particular plot of ground was as a rifle and pistol range just before, during, and for a few years after World War II. This target shooting against a sand bank had to take place when the salvage yard wasn’t operating.

Also, in 1939 and 1940, the Albert Lea unit of the Army National Guard used the lakeside site for their weekend firearms training and target practice.

The first firearms match at this location for small bore (.22 caliber) target shooting reportedly took place on Sept. 17, 1939. Members of the Albert Lea Rifle and Pistol Club eventually constructed a small clubhouse and concession stand at their shooting range on the on the north shore of Edgewater Bay.

In 1951 a grass fire swept through the area and destroyed the clubhouse, concession stand and target stands.

As a result of this fire, the Albert Lea Rifle and Pistol Club decided to relocate to a new area. A few years later the club found a somewhat larger and more isolated location in an old gravel pit about a mile north of Bancroft and the Good Samaritan Center. This is the present site for their target shooting range.

When World War II started, the nation needed all the scrap iron and steel it could get for military use, and the salvage operation northwest of Albert Lea became even more vital. However, as the war ended, so did the yard’s usefulness, and by the time Chase and the other veterans returned to Freeborn County, the sidetrack was gone and scrap operations had ceased. All that was left at the north end of Edgewater Bay was a large area of sandy slopes and some odds and ends of scrap and assorted junk where the sand and gravel had been dug out years earlier. By this time the place was actually being used as a rifle and pistol shooting range.

Sometime after World War II, the city of Albert Lea took over the former railroad property and had a limited gravel pit operation.

In 1954, according to the late Dick Johnson, then the city engineer, the decision was made to start filling in the unsightly open pit area. Thus, the place became the city dump, or sanitary landfill. And when Edgewater Bay was being dredged, all the scars of the past were hopefully covered over with tailings from the lake’s bottom.

The sixth use for the area came with the development of North Edgewater Park in 1971 with the construction of Pavilion Two, according to city records.