LOOKBACK: Battling the flashy Dobbins Creek
Flour mill, crossing near today’s East Side Lake dam proved challenging with flashy creek
In 1854, Robert Dobbins got his feet wet — literally — while trying to help establish a new community that later would be called “Austin.”
Dobbins, one of Austin’s first settlers who arrived that year, fell into a creek on present-day Austin’s east side (near today’s East Side Lake dam). He was crossing the stream with his oxen but the creek was flowing high and the crossing involved a high streambank cut down to give a roadway for teams.
“Mr. Dobbins, fording the creek with his ox team, could not follow the cut in the bank and drove his cart up on one elevation, with the result that the car was upset and Mr. Dobbins drenched,” wrote the Austin Daily Herald in a historical article published July 26, 1911.
U.S. government surveyors camped along the creek after mapping that section of the county, helped Dobbins to the streambank.
“Amid the laughter that followed, one man exclaimed, ‘We’ll call this Dobbins’ Creek,’ and so the name was sent into Washington,” the Herald wrote.
That stretch of Dobbins Creek holds much history, especially with stories of challenging and unsafe crossings of the creek roughly where the Oakland Place Northeast bridge crosses it today.
Mower County replaced the Oakland Place’s 1932 bridge with a new, larger bridge completed in spring 2017.
Known for flash flooding since the time of the early settlers, Dobbins Creek also has invoked plenty of damage to bridges and dams for mills operating in that area.
While Mr. Dobbins, who later moved to Kansas where he died in 1884 at age 65, is the namesake of Dobbins Creek, which flows into the Cedar River not far downstream from East Side Lake, he did not have much other association with the stream.
Dobbins was part of a second group of settlers who came to the future city of Austin in 1854, a year after the arrival of the first settlers. Dobbins actually built a log home along the Cedar River, just northeast of today’s Roosevelt Bridge (4th St SE) in Austin, not far downstream from the Dobbins-Cedar confluence.
While his name was spelled as Dobbins (just like the creek’s spelling today), newspapers in the late 1800s often spelled it with an apostrophe: Dobbin’s Creek or Dobbins’ Creek.
History of the East Side Lake dam area
In 1867, what was likely the first bridge built over Dobbins Creek was constructed by a railroad company for the line running north-south on Austin’s east side. At the time, the railroad built bridges across the Cedar River and Dobbins Creek to connect with a depot on what was Austin’s eastern limits.
Not far east of the depot, the Truesdell brothers already were harnessing Dobbins Creek’s water power at the site of today’s East Side Lake dam. Quincy Truesdell and William Truesdell started Austin’s first sawmill and furniture factory in the fall of 1856 by using the creek’s water power to run their small factory, according to the “History of Mower County” book from 1911 and a Mower County Transcript article from Jan. 20, 1904.
Dobbins Creek, however, eventually overwhelmed the brothers, who abandoned their factory at some point to relocate to downtown Austin after their dam on Dobbins Creek failed during a flood or what was called a “freshet” back then, according to the “History of Mower County.”
At the time of William Truesdell’s death in 1870, the Mower County Register spoke highly of the brothers and their furniture factory along Dobbins. “They improved the (water) power and set a turning lathe to work.”
In 1871, Herman Warner then was reported to be seeking to “improve the water power, which he owns on Dobbins Creek” at the site of the Truesdell’s factory, wrote the Mower County Register on Feb. 16, 1871, adding, “We hope this is true.”
This took some time, however.
Three years later (June 1874), the Mower County Transcript reported that “parties in Austin contemplate building another grist mill” that would be located on “Dobbin’s Creek east of the (railroad) depot.”
Challenges with crossing the creek near the mill site — just like Robert Dobbins experienced in 1854 — might have played a role in the delay of Warner opening a mill.
On Oct. 8, 1874, the Mower County Transcript strongly urged Mower County to build a safe crossing over Dobbins Creek.
“Winter will soon be upon us again, hence we take the liberty to refer to the condition of Dobbins Creek, east of the depot,” wrote the Transcript.
At the time, Dobbins crossed “one of the most important avenues leading into the city,” the Transcript wrote, “and, in cold weather, safe passage is completely obstructed by the formation of ice on the banks.”
Transcript staff wrote that the “public suffer great inconvenience, and many persons met with severe accidents last winter for want of a bridge there. Will the proper authorities give the subject the attention which its importance demands?”
Two months later, the Transcript wasn’t pleased with the response to its efforts.
“Are we going to have a bridge over Dobbin’s Creek, east of the depot?” asked the Transcript on Dec. 10, 1874. “We have propounded this conundrum several times, and we shall keep doing so until we get a favorable answer.”
Later that winter — February 1875 — Warner opened a flour mill on Dobbins Creek near today’s East Side Lake dam.
“Just completed, (it) is one of the finest structures in the Cedar Valley, and is now open and doing a fine business,” the Transcript wrote Feb. 25, 1875 .
The mill featured “all the modern appliances” and was expected to “compete vigorously for public favor,” with the owners sparing “no pains to satisfy customers.”
Warner’s Mill, also called Red Jacket Mills in some ads, was “about 60 rods east from the Depot,” (more than three football-field lengths away). The mill manufactured flour often putting out newspaper ads calling for 5,000 bushels of wheat, with the “highest prices given, also cash paid for.” It also took corn and oats.
A little more than a month later, Warner — who had tried to plan for flooding when opening the Warner, Crane & Co. mill — experienced the volatile side of little Dobbins Creek.
“A large portion of Warner’s Mill dam on Dobbin’s creek, east of the depot, was carried away last week by the pressure of high water,” the Transcript wrote on April 1, 1875. “The dam was new and supposed to be proof against floods.”
Warner and partners had experience with stone dams and thought they had a “very fine piece of masonry on Dobbin’s Creek but it slid out with great ease.”
The mill owners planned to start soon in building a dam made out of wood or timber.
“Nothing else seems to answer the purpose as well,” the newspaper wrote.
Locals planned to repair the dam “as soon as possible” and build it out of wood. At the time, the estimated to rebuilt the dam was $2,000 or about $47,350 in today’s dollars.
“Work resumed in the mill, which has done a good business so far,” the article stated.
By summer 1875, Mower County still had not addressed the need for a bridge over Dobbins.
Transcript staff once again called on the county to address the crossing need near Warner’s mill.
“We do not think that the county should assume the whole burden of building a bridge there but it should aid, and the work ought to be done before winter comes again,” the Transcript wrote on July 15, 1875.
A month later, Warner was working on building a bigger dam on Dobbins for his flour mill. This one would be built to a height of 16 feet. A notice of petition went out to upstream landowners on Dobbins in relation to property that would be damaged by Warner raising the level of the dam’s backwaters for running his mill.
Just before Christmas Day in 1875, the Transcript wrote that it often had called attention to the county commissioners about the need for a bridge over Dobbins at Warner’s mill but nothing had come from it.
A few weeks later, Mower County’s commissioners invited proposals for building a bridge and approaches over Dobbins Creek at the mill, according to a Transcript article on Jan. 13, 1876.
By early March 1876, the Transcript still was advocating for a bridge.
“Public convenience requires a good bridge at that point and it will be cheaper to build one there than to pay the damages which are likely to result from a continued neglect to do so,” the newspaper wrote March 2, 1876.
By March 30, 1876, the county had awarded a contract to an Iowa company to build the long-needed bridge over Dobbins, with plans to have the crossing in place by June 1 that year at a cost of $800 (about $19,500 in today’s dollars).
Work on the bridge went longer than planned, however, with workers nearly finished with the iron bridge over “Dobbin’s Creek” as of June 29, 1876. It was expected to be ready for travel “as soon as the filling is done at the ends.”
At long last, the new bridge was completed as of Aug. 3, 1876, and opened for “teams” to cross Dobbins Creek at Warner’s mill.
“It is probable that no structure in the county is more needed than this one, and the value of none will be more highly appreciated,” the Transcript wrote.
During the previous 20 years — dating back to the first European settlers — the county’s residents had crossed the creek, “sometimes when they were obliged to swim their teams, and, at others, when the ice was 2 feet high at the banks, and the water flowing in the bed between.”
At the crossing, teams were injured and wagons were broken and stuck.
“There they have committed many times a breach of the fourth commandment (rest on Sunday),” the newspaper wrote.
“Happily, that is all in the past now,” the Transcript wrote,” and hereafter Dobbins will be approached by the teamster not with a feeling of fear but gladly for it is a thing of beauty, and with this new means of transit it will prove to be a source of perpetual delight.”
Exactly two weeks later, “violent” rains severely damaged the new bridge by washing out much of the dirt on its east end at Warner’s mill.
“Unless something is done soon, the bridge will be impassable,” the Transcript wrote on Aug. 17, 1876. “A stitch in time saves nine.”
Two years later, rain storms again wreaked havoc on the site.
“The sweeping away of the dam at Warner & Crane’s mill entails a loss of $3,500 upon the owners,” the Transcript reported July 25, 1878. It also destroyed the new bridge below the dam.
By Aug. 29, 1878, a new bridge was being built across Dobbins below the Warner mill to replace one washed up by “the late freshet” or flood, the Transcript wrote.
“We understand that a part of the old bridge was recovered and is being used in the new, and that the bridge will probably be completed this week,” the article stated.
A month late, the Transcript reported the dam at “Crane’s mill” (same as Warner’s mill) was “being rebuilt in a substantial manner,” according to a Sept. 26, 1878, article.
Changing hands at mill
In November 1882, Herman Warner, who was experiencing health issues, joined his family in selling the Herman Warner & Bros. roller flouring mill on Dobbins Creek to Charles Sorentz of Minneapolis. This included the mill, water power and about 5 acres of land.
“The consideration was $15,000 in Minneapolis property,” the Transcript wrote on Nov. 29, 1882.
This business trade happened two weeks earlier but Sorentz, who had possession of the property, had not yet been “on the ground in person we believe.”
“We hope the trade will prove beneficial to both parties,” the newspaper added.
Herman Warner then moved in 1884 to Minneapolis, where he died in 1886 at age 72 in 1886. He originally came to Austin around 1857 but only for a few months. Warner then came back with his family from Saratoga, N.Y., to Austin in 1866, establishing a homestead north of the railroad depot.
Sorentz ran the mill for 18 months under the new name “Austin Roller Flouring Mill,” operated by his employee C. Anderson. An ad from December 1883 promoted it as “refitted and furnished throughout with all the best machinery and appliances for making good flour.”
Rye flour, rye meal, corn meal and mill feed were products of the mill, which promoted its “flour for sale at all the leading grocery stores in Austin.”
In May 1884, Sorentz traded the mill to a Mr. Detlefson, of St. Paul, to run the business with the option of possibly buying it.
The following year (May 1885), Sorentz sold the mill property to Jas E. Merritt of Minneapolis.
Drama unfolded in summer 1886 at the mill when LaCrosse, Wis., man Charles Petty tried to “take forcible possession” of the former Warner mill that was operating under a sublease.
“There is some dispute about the title of the property but Nels Peterson has been in possession under a prior lease,” the Mower County Transcript wrote on Aug. 4, 1886. “Petty, revolver in hand, threatened violence to Peterson, and after an arrest and examination before” local officials held on $125 bond for threatening assault on Peterson.
By spring 1887, the well-known Austin millers the Campbell Bros. began operating the mill along Dobbins Creek.
“They are making extensive changes, putting in the new centrifugal system,” the Transcript wrote on April 8, 1887.
At the same time, locals — or “the boys” — were dreaming of putting in a “drive” along the Cedar River from today’s Roosevelt Bridge (“south bridge” back then) going upstream to the Cedar-Dobbins confluence and following Dobbins to the mill’s backwaters called Beaver Lake.
“It is a location for a beautiful drive. Let us have it graded and put in order,” the Transcript wrote on April 20, 1887, although that plans doesn’t seem to have come to fruition.
Bridge issues then arose once again at the crossing over Dobbins by the mill. In February 1888, the Transcript reported that the bridge’s east end was made “very dangerous” by the previous weekend’s thaw and freeze.
“The team of Eddie Bemis’ fell and cam very near going over the bank on Monday,” the article stated on Feb. 22, 1888.
A few weeks later, a petition was given to the Mower County Board by a “large number of freeholders and legal voters” requesting a new iron bridge be built across Dobbins near the mill.
It’s not clear if this bridge was upgrade from that point and when the city and state built a new, concrete bridge in 1932. That one was replaced with new, wider bridge in 2017 with decorative lighting and new overlook area where the flour mill once stood.
Dobbins continued to wreak havoc with a large snowmelt flood in April 1888 leading to bridge damage near the Campbell’s mill (present-day East Side Lake dam). By September 1889, orders were made to repair the bridge because it was deemed “unsafe.”
Then the little creek delivered a fatal blow to the flour mill when it blew out the dam in June 1892.
In the June 17, 1892, edition of the St. Paul Globe, an article titled “The Raging Cedar” reported the Dobbins Creek dam at the “East Side roller mill was washed out, and it is reported that the dams of the Red Cedar and McAfee mills are both gone.”
Heavy rains led the Cedar River to rise 12 feet in two hours. In a historical article printed Aug. 18, 1961, the Herald wrote that Dobbins “swelled by rain, broke through and tore out the Campbell dam, Beaver Lake disappeared, leaving swampy lowland area, creating an eyesore.”
That “eyesore” would linger for nearly five decades.
Lake-less period of Dobbins in Austin
If not for the City of Blooming Prairie’s recruiting of the Campbell Brothers that same year in 1892, there seems a decent chance that the brothers might have rebuilt the dam on Dobbins Creek to recreate the backwaters called Beaver Lake.
“The East Side flouring mill owned by the Campbell brothers is being taken down and the greater part of the machinery will be taken to their new mill in Blooming Prairie,” wrote the Mower County Transcript on Oct. 12, 1892.
Throughout that year, Blooming Prairie and the Campbell brothers had worked on an agreement for the brothers to build a flouring mill in that village. Blooming Prairie citizens and businessmen had courted the Campbells, including by investing $2,000 in the enterprise run by steam along on a railroad track, according to a Dec. 28, 1892, article by the Mower County Transcript.
By the following spring, there was talk in Austin about a big plan to buy the Campbell’s former mill along Dobbins to convert into a factory for creating starch from potatoes.
“The land in this vicinity is excellent for potato raising, the yield being large and the quality excellent,” wrote the Transcript on May 24, 1893.
Some businessmen were interested in a stock plan for the mill property — land and power — that would need about $500 in repairs for the dam on Dobbins and about $7,000 for the starch plant.
“For starch making, clear, pure water is essential, and the water in Dobbins Creek is fed by springs and is cool and clear at all seasons,” the Transcript wrote.
The proposed plant’s location was desirable as “the bluff at the mill admits of dumping the loads of potatoes as they are brought to the factory, thus saving handling,” the article stated. One idea was to build a side railroad track from the Milwaukee Road to go to the new mill.
None of that seems to have come to fruition based on news archives.
During the following winter, the Campbell brothers tore down what remained of the mill on Dobbins, with plans to rebuild it as a grain warehouse near their other mill along Austin’s Water Street next to the Cedar River’s downtown dam, according to the Transcript on Jan. 31, 1894.
A large fire then caused heavy damage to the downtown Campbell Mill in the spring of 1895, including the old Warner mill structure that was used for extra storage space along the Cedar, the Transcript wrote on May 8, 1895.
Some Austin residents still missed the days of having Beaver Lake behind the Dobbins dam — even though the local newspapers rarely referred to it. When there was a Beaver Lake mentioned, it usually was the lake to the northwest of Austin near Ellendale, Minn.
In July 1897, the Transcript promoted the idea of damming Dobbins once again to create a lake — keep in mind that Mower County is one of a handful of counties in Minnesota without a natural lake.
“Austin has a first-class opportunity to have a fine lake by damming Dobbins Creek at the old Warner mill site,” the article stated.
Like other hopes for this part of Dobbins Creek, that dream didn’t take off but, in the summer of 1900, the Transcript encouraged people at least to check out the springs in the former bed of Beaver Lake behind the old Warner’s mill.
Springs were found in “good supply of excellent water” there, the Transcript wrote on July 11, 1900. “Our citizens should drive out and see them.”
In August 1901, the Milwaukee Road was preparing to put in a steel bridge in Austin over Dobbins Creek. This project was completed in May 1902 with a new iron bridge spanning Dobbins. “The work went on as if by magic, the iron replacing the wood with hardly the delay of a train,” the Austin Daily Herald wrote May 27, 1902.
Other bridges over Dobbins
Another troublesome area was “Railroad” or “Railway” street bridge over Dobbins downstream from the railroad bridge. On May 16, 1903, the Austin Daily Herald called it a “troublesome bridge.”
“Every year — and usually two or three times every year — it is washed out,” the Herald wrote. “The difficulty comes in trying to confine the Dobbins into too narrow limits. Usually, the little creek flows along so that a child can wade across it but rains or freshets (floods) change it to a torrent, overflowing its banks and flooding the bottom lands.”
High water that past week had washed away the bridge’s approaches again. When repaired, the Herald wrote, another span “should be added to it, allowing the water to flow through and not over it.”
In February 1914, Austin City Council ordered condemnation proceedings for right-of-way and approaches for a new bridge (12th St SE) that would allow Division and Slavin Streets to connect over Dobbins Creek, just downstream from the Oakland crossing.
Swimming pools and, finally, a lake
In August 1916, the City of Austin opened a “swimming pool” in Dobbins Creek in what was called the East Side Park, or what today is known as Sutton Park, to “hundreds of people gathered to watch the proceedings,” the Mower County Transcript-Republican wrote on Aug. 9, 1916.
“Many enjoyed a swim in the pool, and there was music by the East Side band.” Women sold ice cream cones, with proceeds to be added to a fund already started to have a dam put in.
City officials were interested in buying the old Campbell mill property to build an 8-foot dam.
The following summer (June 1917), Dobbins caused major damage the 12th St SE bridge after a big storm.
Herzog leads long effort to create lake
Jacob “Jake” Herzog, a machinist for the Milwaukee Railroad who served on the Austin City Council, Mower County Board and later as a state legislator, was on the city council in the 1910s. He lived along Dobbins Creek, upstream from the former mill and dam, and worked extensively for many years to get another dam in place there.
His numerous efforts eventually led to the creation of today’s East Side Lake in the 1930s.
In 1961, the Herald described Herzog’s role in East Side Lake’s creation as “more than any other man responsible for building the present lake.”
East Side Lake was a Depression-era project in the 1930s that came from the mind and hard work of Herzog, who tried to dam Dobbins Creek to create a lake for many years leading up to that. Herzog lived along present-day East Side Lake’s southwestern shoreline on what used to be called Herzog Street (that changed to 13th St NE when the city switched to a numbered system for roadway names).
During those years without a lake, Herzog thought many times that it seemed like there never would be another lake on that stretch of Dobbins. This all was despite the fact that the former Beaver Lake area was left as a muddy, marsh considered by the public as an eyesore, including a large hole where there used to be a dam.
In 1910, Herzog read an article out of Fairmont, Minn., claiming that a lake was worth $1 million to a city (nearly $28 million in today’s dollars adjusted for inflation).
“That seemed like a lot of money at the time,” Herzog told the Herald in 1961.
That night, Herzog spoke with a local barber, Martin Lee, who used to swim and fish in Beaver Lake. They decided to rebuild the dam but ran into opposition and abandoned the idea.
In 1915, Herzog, who was serving on the city council, talked with fellow council members about purchasing the former Beaver Lake dam site to rebuild a similar dam on Dobbins. Despite many opponents, the city purchased the property.
While Herzog was on the county board in the early 1930s, the Civil Works Administration (CWA) approved a dam-building project for Dobbins Creek at the site. Work began Aug. 3, 1934, not far from Herzog’s backyard. CWA labor built the dam and WPA labor (directed by Herzog) did most of the work for creating the lake bottom for the future East Side Lake.
He started his political career in 1912 as a 3rd Ward alderman on the Austin City Council followed by 12 years on the Mower County Board of Commissioners (1923 to 1934) — including 10 years as board chairman — and then as the District 5 state representative from 1949 to 1958 in the Minnesota Legislature. He was an active member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party.
Mr. Herzog also worked 10 years for the U.S. government starting in 1935 as the appointed Minnesota director of the Division of Employment of Works Progress Administration (WPA) and then as a consultant in the War Manpower Administration (WMA) during World War II. After the war, he returned to work with the Milwaukee Railroad.
As that project was completed, work continued for a couple of years on the lake bottom, with fill taken from the site to be placed in sloughs (muddy or marshy areas) at Austin’s Driesner and Sutton parks — both on the city’s east side along Dobbins Creek. This fill from the lake bed of the former Beaver Lake also was used in 1930s to build Austin’s Community Bandshell Park and its lagoon.
“The operation gave the city three parks, usable land and a lake bottom,” the Herald wrote in 1961.
Again, all that work connected back to Herzog’s push for a lake on Austin’s east side, which — as the WPA continued — became known as “Herzog’s mud hole.” In all, 140,000 cubic yards of dirt were removed but the completed dam remained open for the creek’s normal flow due to the litigation threats of an upstream property owner if the city ever formed a lake.
Herzog made efforts to work with the property owner, including trying to get the city to buy the land. After no success with that approach, Herzog approached the state’s highway engineers about rerouting the new Highway 16 (which was in the planning stages at the time) to be closer to the new dam. Being doing that, Herzog argued, the state could use the lake bottom (remember that this area still was just a small creek at the time) for gravel and fill for building the new highway.
State engineers liked the idea of having material so close to the new highway that they agreed to it. Under this plan, the opposing, upstream landowner agreed for the state to buy his property as part of the highway project.
Bids for the new highway project opened in December 1937, and work began soon after removing another 60,000 cubic yards of dirt from the lakebed. Austin’s new, eastside entrance was completed on Aug. 2, 1938. The Herald in 1961 referred to the highway entrance along the lake area as “one of the most beautiful in the country.”
While the future lake still lacked water, skeptics continued to hound Mr. Herzog for the “mudhole.” Although the dam was completely closed off, Dobbins Creek wasn’t providing enough water.
On Nov. 5, 1939, heavy rain fell near Brownsdale (the upper part of the Dobbins watershed) and filled the lake overnight. Before that rain, experts believed it would take weeks or months to fill the lake.