In 1860, John Kaydon Ayd, a German immigrant, built a house and gristmill at the south end of a wooded ravine near today’s intersection of I-35 E, Jefferson Avenue and Lexington Parkway. Fresh springs seeped from the surrounding hillsides and bubbled from the floor of the ravine. A pond just up the hill emptied into the ravine and powered the mill, which could grind up to 22 sacks of corn a day. Ayd’s mill gave its name to the road that now runs past the old mill site just a few hundred yards from my home.
Completed in 1960, Ayd Mill Road was intended to link I-35E at the south end of the ravine to I-94 in St. Paul’s Midway district, two-and-half miles to the northwest. But neighbors blocked that final connection, and the ravine retained some of its wild charm. At night I could glide down a ramp into darkness that swallowed the noise and lights of the city.
By the time I moved here, the freeway link had essentially become a neighborhood street in St. Paul’s west end. Locals nicknamed it the Shortline after the railroad tracks that ran alongside the road; the name also designated its use as a shortcut. Some of us had another name for it too: The Phantom Highway. It was a highway that began and ended nowhere, a road whose scale far outweighed its use as a local thoroughfare – three concrete overpasses, eight ramps and four paved lanes jammed into just over two miles.
On autumn nights when the fog rolls in and pools across the floor of the ravine, these shapes loom like abandoned ruins, the hubris of another civilization. It’s not hard to imagine this valley already reverting to its former state of woods and wetlands, slowly eroding the roads and overpasses and burying them in a jungle of brush.
In 1887, the St. Paul Board of Park Commissioners began making plans to turn the mill site into “one of the finest parks of its class in the country,” but the 1893 depression made financing nearly impossible. In 1998, a citizen task force recommended converting the 40-acre Ayd Mill Road corridor into a linear park, but in 2002 the city instead opened the connection to I-35E. Now a flood of traffic pours through the ravine. Yet sometimes on a hot summer night when the traffic’s hushed, I can still feel the rugged ravine release its dampness, filled with the sweet musk of leaves and pollen, composting plants, and new shoots creeping alongside the pavement and quietly reaching for the overpasses.