I stumbled upon the existence of the ghost parks in a singular way.
I was returning home from the post office on West 7th, driving north up Lexington Pkwy., when a startling notation on the map in my Ford’s dashboard navigation system caught my eye.
It indicated that just to my left, west, was a triangular patch called Dawson Park.
I was more than a little taken aback. That’s my surname. I had never heard of any Dawson Park.
A U-turn took me south on Lexington. I was looking for an entrance to the purported park. There was nothing: just houses lining the west side of the road. The map seemed to show the park bordered on the north (to the west of Lexington) by Otto Ave. — but on the ground Otto does not extend west of Lexington.
I headed for home having made two resolutions: (1) to take to the Interwebs and learn about this alleged Dawson Park, and (2) to bring Katharyn there on a surprise visit, destination unannounced.
My research quickly turned up the fact that one man was behind the existence of both Dawson Park and Dawson, Minnesota.
I was already familiar with this latter town. In Feb. 2012, while on a visit to Katharyn’s family in the Twin Cities, we had trekked out west near the South Dakota border to check out Dawson, because, why not? This was more than three years before we moved here from Massachusetts. It was such a slow news day in Dawson that our visit made page 2 of the Dawson Sentinel — with photo!
The progenitor of both of my namesake locales was William Dawson, Sr. (no middle name known). He was an 1861 transplant to St. Paul, a banker, a land speculator, city councilman, mayor from 1878 to 1881, one of the founders of the Winter Carnival, and the developer of the Gladstone neighborhood in Maplewood, Minnesota. As well as the town of Dawson. He was the first Irish mayor of St. Paul — born in County Cavan in 1825 — but very far from the last.
(It is unlikely that this William Dawson was any near relation of mine. My father, grandfather, great-grand, and great-great-grand were all named William — but that branch of the family had been on US soil long before Mayor William was born in Ireland.)
Here is a capsule description of Dawson Park from Donald Empson’s indispensable book, The Street Where You Live, subtitled “A Guide to the Place Names of St. Paul”:
(Confession: while I do possess a paper copy of Empson’s book, I found the above passage via a Google Books search.)
And here is Dawson Park’s entry in StPaul.gov’s list of parks:
The entry on Walsh Park, the nearby ghost park to the south, elaborates further on the rationale behind leaving these areas undeveloped:
The cynical among us may assume that the ghost (passive) parks’ origins were neither so noble nor so scientifically motivated. All of the parks exist on steeply wooded slopes or spring-riddled wetlands, leading one to the suspicion that Mayor Dawson and his compatriots, who (perhaps under civic suasion) bestowed land on the public domain, first made sure it was land that could not be developed.
I was curious where exactly the boundaries are for this ghost park. I don’t have access to “the city map” to which Empson refers (he was for years the map librarian of the Minnesota Historical Society), and I didn’t find any such definitive resource online. I did find a couple of sites that claim to show the extents of Dawson and Walsh Parks. They disagree radically:
On the left is Bing Maps’s idea of the park boundaries. (Google Maps knows nothing of any of the ghost parks.) Whatever the raw data source is for Bing Maps, I believe that the navigation system shipped with Ford vehicles uses the same source. Dawson Park is pictured as a triangle anchored at the north by the extension of Otto Ave. and to the east by Lexington Pkwy.
This makes no sense for a couple of reasons. First, the houses along Lexington, and their yards, are shown inside the boundaries of this ghost park. Second, read what Donald Empson has to say about how one goes about visiting this ghost:
We did this. We walked west off the end of Deer Park and assumed there exists a public right-of-way between the townhouses on either side (no signs anywhere). We entered through that gate and stood, waist-deep in wild grasses, in what may have been Dawson Park; we captured the iPhone snaps at the top of this post. That gate is 1,000 feet south of where Bing claims the park’s southern boundary lies.
The rightmost map image above is Pope Architects’s idea of the extent of Dawson and Welsh Parks. (This map image comes from a 2017 Ramsey County document on proposed changes to Lexington Parkway to accommodate a new senior community development.) Pope turns out to be correct, as verified by this map from StPaul.gov — many thanks to Sean Ryan for the link.
When one crosses through that gate off of Deer Park, one isn’t in any public space: Dawson Park is off uphill to the right (north) and Walsh downhill to the left (south). Which raises the question: Who owns the rest of that steep, un-buildable land on the hillside, the entire one-mile span between Randolph and Montreal? [Note: this question was answered, also by Sean Ryan, in the comments below.]
(For the record, here was my best guess as to the parks’ boundaries, as originally published here, before Sean unveiled the facts.)
Donald Empson is the coiner of the term “ghost parks.” In 2007 he penned an op-ed titled “Supernatural Settings of St. Paul”; I commend it to you for background on these “unmarked, unkempt, and largely unappreciated” civic resources. Empson’s book lists all the St. Paul ghost parks he has discovered. They are thirteen in number. There are also ghost streets and ghost walks. To explore further, buy Empson’s book, please.