A discussion of the history of Lake Phalen may surprise you. After all, not every lake can include a historic murder mystery in its story!
The second-largest lake in St. Paul, Minnesota, Lake Phalen is the undisputed centerpiece of the Phalen Regional Park System. The southernmost lake in a chain of lakes, it drains into the Mississippi River via Phalen Creek. Few would be surprised to learn that the lake appears in surveyor notes, photos, and maps from the mid- to late-1800s, but most are likely unaware that complaints about its name date back to at least 1876. Why were some people displeased? The man who was the source of the lake’s name was also a suspect in one of the area’s oldest murder mysteries . . . Are you ready to explore the history of Lake Phalen?
The History of Lake Phalen
Edward Phalen: Soldier, Settler, Statesman, and Murder Suspect
A hot-tempered Irish immigrant who came west with the army, Edward Phalen was only in his late 20s when he left the military and partnered with John Hayes to claim two choice tracts of land in 1838. These tracts were impressive, covering most of what is now downtown St. Paul. The two men launched a farming operation, but it wasn’t an amicable partnership. Then, in September of 1839, Hays vanished. When his badly beaten body was found three weeks later, fingers pointed to Phalen.
Phalen was arrested and tried for the murder, but he wasn’t convicted. Shunned by neighbors who suspected that he’d gotten away with murder, Phalen eventually moved to a new farm in the vicinity of what is now Swede Hollow. In 1848, he served as a delegate at the Stillwater Convention, a meeting that propelled Minnesota toward statehood. When he set out for California a few years later, Phalen left behind several landmarks that were named for him, including Lake Phalen, but he never reached the West Coast. He died en route. Was Phalen responsible for Hays death? While a warrior from the Dakota tribe supposedly confessed to Hays’ murder on his deathbed, a cloud of suspicion still lingers around Phalen.
The Establishment of Phalen Park
Although its name might have been a source of discontent, Lake Phalen has long been considered a natural treasure. Throughout the history of Lake Phalen, residents and visitors have enjoyed this lovely lake. In 1899, the Saint Paul Board of Park Commissioners established Phalen Park with the goal of supporting water recreation and preserving the native woodlands in its uplands. During the next three decades, the board focused on improving water recreation and building a boulevard around the lake. Dredge machines dragged sediment and vegetation from the lake’s bed, and the material was used to fill in the wetlands surrounding the lake. These areas were seeded to create a lawn that stretched right to the shore, and rocks were placed along the shoreline in a practice called rip-rapping in an attempt to control erosion. In 1917, sand was trucked in from nearby hills to construct the beach on the southwest shore. Elsewhere, sheep were used to maintain the manicured landscaping. Meanwhile, the lake itself was used for swimming, sailing, boating, rowing, and fishing.
In the 1990s, the approach to maintaining the lake changed. Recognizing that the use of rip-rap and the practice of mowing right up to the shore were actually counterproductive, the Parks and Recreation Division let vegetation along the shoreline grow tall. Unfortunately, most of the plants that flourished were invasive weeds that did little to control erosion. Then, in 2001, a switch to modern natural shoreland management techniques led to efforts to replace the rip-rap with native vegetation. Today, this offers an attractive natural look that provides long-term erosion control and is useful to native fish and wildlife.
Lake Phalen Today
Lake Phalen is a popular place to visit in St. Paul. It is encircled by a 3.1 mile path that is frequented by walkers, joggers, cyclists, roller skaters, and rollerbladers. As people of all ages travel around the lake, they encounter many amenities. Lifeguards man the well-maintained beach throughout the summer months. At the Lakeside Activities Center, visitors who want to venture out onto the lake can rent kayaks, paddleboats, and sailboats. People who prefer to picnic while watching children play can continue around the lake to the picnic grounds and playground. On the northern edge of the lake, a boat launch offers a place for fisherman interested in catching walleyes, tiger muskies, northern pike, largemouth bass, crappie, or sunfish to set out, and a nearby viewing platform lets those onshore observe birds and other wildlife. Nature lovers who continue farther around the lake will encounter areas of wetlands and untamed vegetation along the southern edge of Lake Phalen before ultimately finding themselves back at the beach.
The history of Lake Phalen is surprisingly colorful, but its present is equally interesting. With the beautiful scenery and the impressive array of amenities available, a visit to Lake Phalen is sure to please.
If you’re looking for a new home in the area where you can enjoy your sunset years, check out The Shores of Lake Phalen in Maplewood, Minnesota. Surrounded by a gorgeous wooded setting between two lakes (one of which is Lake Phalen, of course), our residence offers the community and accessibility of apartment-style housing with the atmosphere and elegance of a resort. Thanks to the team of dedicated staff members, residents enjoy a care-free lifestyle without the common worries of running a household. We offer numerous health and safety amenities, fun events and activities, a friendly and accommodating staff, and so much more. Schedule a tour of the community to explore our spacious apartments, elegant dining room, and more. We look forward to hearing from you!