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Mendota Heights weighs the future of Pilot Knob
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Views from Pilot Knob takes in the Mississippi and Minnesota river valleys. (MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)
When riverboats approached the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers a century and a half ago, boat captains often used the top a nearby hill as a navigational reference point. By the time the hill was named "Pilot Knob," it had been a regional landmark for generations of natives and explorers. Now, city officials in Mendota Heights are considering a developer's plan to build town homes near the top of Pilot Knob. The development would be an impressive addition to the tax base of the Twin Cities suburb. But opponents consider Pilot Knob a historic site that should be left untouched.

Mendota Heights , Minn. — Mendota Heights does have a business park. But since incorporating as a village in 1956 -- and a city 18 years later -- residential property has been its prime selling point. The location adjacent to St. Paul and near Minneapolis gives occupants of the well-kept homes on its curved, wooded streets easy highway access to both downtowns, the airport, the megamall and other southern suburbs.

About 98% of Mendota Heights' land is spoken for. But one of the few available tracts might be the most coveted. In a city hall conference room, administrative assistant Patrick Hollister runs a pencil tip over a map showing the steep elevation at the north end of Pilot Knob Road.

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Image Pilot Knob, circa 1847

"The best thing going for this site is the views," Hollister says. "The views here are fabulous. We've had some people offer the opinion that this is one of the best sites in the Twin Cities in terms of the views."

Pilot Knob Road climbs the hill's south side, passes Acacia Cemetery at the summit of the peak, and comes to an end just over the hilltop. Today's view has a highway in the foregound but beyond it are Fort Snelling, the Minnesota and Mississippi river valleys, and the hills and plains of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Historian Bruce White says Minnesota's first governor, Henry Sibley, once enjoyed the view from this spot, which almost became Minnesota's territorial capital.

"When Sibley first arrived in Minnesota in October of 1834, one of the first things he did was to climb up to Pilot Knob and look out over the valley. And he has this great description of how you can see the fort and the valley and where the rivers come together," White says.

The place where waters meet -- or Mendota -- was sacred to the Dakota bands that lived in the region when U.S. troops built Fort Snelling in 1820. Bob Brown says his tribal ancestors also applied spiritual status to the overlooking hill, where treaty signings, burial ceremonies, and other solemn events were marked.

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Image A plaque commemorates an 1851 treaty

"This place is called O-he-ya-wa-he," he says. "It means 'much visited hill,' because of the existence of the burial places here."

In July of 1851, leaders of five Dakota villages -- Shakopee, Black Dog, Kaposia, Red Wing, and Wabasha -- converged at Mendota. In negotiations that began at the American Fur Company post, the Dakota agreed to relinquish their remaining lands on the west side of the Mississippi River. As the talks became more serious they were moved, at the tribe's request, to Pilot Knob, where Governor Alexander Ramsey and the chiefs consummated the treaty with a pipe ceremony.

Today's Pilot Knob may not be the region's most visited hill, but it is one of the most visible. Hollister says the site's high profile is a consideration as Mendota Heights officials weigh its future.

"The city has long considered this to be the primary gateway site for people coming into the city, especially from Minneapolis," says Hollister, the Mendota Heights administrative assistant. "They want vews that are good not only from this site, but views that are good to this site."

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Image The marker was dedicated in 1922

Grass and shrubs predominate on the 23 acre slope where developer Ronald Clark hopes to build more than 150 town homes priced in the $225,000 - $500,000 range. Charles Mertensotto, who is finishing 16 years as mayor, says the development would be an excellent use of Pilot Knob. In an older, inner-ring residential suburb with little available land, Mertensotto says opportunities to add to the tax base are rare and important.

"We know there's going to be increased demand for revenue from the city to keep up with increases in payroll, costs for services, inflation, equipment, what have you," Mertensotto says. "Now, if we get into a stale tax base from the standpoint that we don't have any new development coming in or a redevelopment project, what happens is if you need more money you've got to raise the tax rates."

Mertensotto says the developer has offered to make a public overlook part of the project. The mayor also notes that the site, which is privately owned, has been on the real estate market for several years. He says alternative suggestions for use of the land have been lacking.

"No one has said 'Wait a minute. You can't develop this site, this should be preserved and this is how we're going to preserve it and this is where the money's going to come from,'" Mertensotto said.

The debate about whether to restrict future use of a site in order to pay homage to its past is a familiar one in Minnesota. State Archaeologist Mark Dudzik says it's not unusual for calls for preservation to come at the eleventh hour.

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Image Fort Snelling from Pilot Knob

"Frequently, sadly too frequently, you'll hear claims of significance of a site or that there's some neat archaeological stuff there or there's a pioneer burial on the site, just when the project has been proposed. Which makes the information a little suspect in a lot of cases -- as though it's identified late in the game in an effort,in some cases, to thwart the development process," Dudzik said.

Dudzik has not studied the Pilot Knob site in particular. He says there are standard ways to gauge the archaeological significance of a location. Measures of historic value or sacredness, however, are more elusive.

Historian White insists Pilot Knob belongs on the list of historic sites in the Mendota and Fort Snelling area. He says constructing town homes would damage the historic character of the hill.

"You'd stand at Fort Snelling and you'd say 'Look across the valley and there's Pilot Knob behind those houses.' That's not the same as it is now. So, despite the fact that there are a lot of changes, obviously -- we have the airport and the Mendota Bridge and the highway here -- which means not that we should abandon the historic resources because there've been changes here. But that we should fight to save the portions that are left," White said.

Mendota Heights city officials are considering whether to complete an environmental assessment worksheet outlining the effect of of the housing development, known as "The Bluffs." A vote is expected at the city council's first meeting of the new year, on January 7th.

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