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From Mall to Marsh

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

One thing you can say about those Minnesotans is, they're dependable. If they push your outhouse over on Halloween, just be patient. In a week or so, they'll feel bad and push it back up again. It's that well-honed Scandinavian sense of guilt.

Which has come in awfully handy for Ames Lake, an extensive wetland adjacent to the Mississippi River just east of St. Paul. In the late 1950s, boys fishing in the swampy water were surprised by dump trucks backing up to the lake and unloading piles of dirt. Minnesota had invented the enclosed mall with Southdale in 1956, and the craze was spreading across the United States. Within a year, the Ames Lake wetland had become the Phelan Mall.

Up and down the Mississippi River, other wetlands soon gave way to similar malls. Such flat, cheap, unusable land seemed perfect for such projects. Almost too late, environmentalists stepped in to point out how essential the wetlands were to the health of the Mississippi River itself—providing nesting sites and food for ducks and geese, still water for frogs to lay their eggs, overflow areas for storm waters and river floods, and filtering areas for polluted water before it enters the channel. Today, the marsh to mall movement has all but stopped.

And what about the Phelan Mall, formerly Ames Lake? It lasted only a few years. The mall sat thirteen feet below the adjacent water level, cattails grew up in the parking lot, and more spectacular malls took away its customers. It was eventually abandoned.

Recently, dump trucks again pulled up to Ames Lake, this time to remove the parking lot and the mall. Minnesota has begun returning the mall back to marsh, complete with meandering channels, islands, wildflowers and grasses in between the housing projects that have sprung up. Boardwalks will eventually take visitors through the Phelan Wetlands where they can shop for views of wildlife rather than shoes and fudge.

Minnesota, of course, calls this new development a parkland, and brags about their concern for the environment, but you and I know what's really behind it: that guilty Scandinavian conscience.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.