A thousand years ago the area around the confluence of Trout Brook and Phalen Brook near the Mississippi River was a marshy flood plain. By the early 1900s, the entire delta had been expanded by filling and became an industrial railroad corridor. As rail use decreased in the 1970s, the land was largely abandoned and buildings and tracks were removed.
If you saw it in 1980, it was a barren, fed litter-strewn site that had been the victim of illegal dumping. However, local East Side activists and Lowertown residents saw the site’s potential and in 1997 they began working together as the Lower Phalen Area Project. They joined with the DNR, National Park Service to reclaim a twenty seven acre area to start developing a landmark that combined restoration of the riverfront habitat with public access.
The City purchased the land and restoration work was soon undertaken by volunteers who removed tons of debris that had been dumped over the years. Clean soil was brought in to replace marginal land and invasive buckthorn was uprooted. The goal was to bring back a mix of floodplain forest, prairie and oak savanna tamarack seepage swamps, and four acres of bedrock bluff prairie.
The twenty-seven acre park now contains native plant communities and the wildlife is returning. Two small ponds attract waterfowl and the uplands are home to grassland bird species. Turkey vultures, bald eagles, and red tail hawks are now seen along the sandstone bluffs. Pedestrian paths and bicycle trails have been installed, a series of three wetlands now hold abundant water and a spring-fed stream runs through the property.
On May 21, 2005 the park was opened to the public and was named in honor of Bruce Vento, a native of the East Side, a teacher and a U. S. Congressman who served the area from 1977 until 2000. He was the author of a law that created a Mississippi National River and Recreational Area.
There are a few remnants of the older days, including railroad maintenance pads that echo the importance of trains to the area history and mention the old brewery. The project recreated a number of ecosystems that had existed including oak woodlands, floodplain forests, prairies and oak savannas. Carver’s Cave is protected, but its entrance can be observed.
The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary’s walking and biking paths take visitors through a vibrant habitat with colorful signs that explain and interpret various parts of the site. Volunteers have planted nearly 2,000 trees, and the wetlands and prairie sections are now filled with colorful flowers. While trains occasionally rumble by below the bluff, you are more likely now to see eagles, Indigo buntings, northern flickers and red tailed hawks and other wildlife soaring above the park.