Tag Archives: Baltrami Park

Memories ofMaple Hill Cemetery Remain in Northeast Minneapolis


One of the entrancing stories of Northeast history surrounds the origins of Beltrami Park, that inviting plot of land at Polk and Broadway, most easily identified by the bocce ball courts, just one of Beltrami Park’s living reminders of the Italian-American heritage of the neighborhood.  The fact is, the Beltrami Park site was Maple Hill Cemetery from 1857 until 1890 when it morphed to Maple Hill Park until 1948.

Although it is of record that the earliest settlers of St. Anthony interred some of their dead in a small tract near the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street Southeast, the first cemetery whose line is unbroken to the comparatively recent day was Maple Hill.  In 1849 Robert W. Cummings obtained some land from the government in St. Anthony township, now part of the city of Minneapolis.  Cummings reserved a twenty acre tract for a cemetery along what is now Broadway.  The dedication of these private burial grounds as Maple Hill Cemetery in February, 1857, gave the people, especially the early settlers of the east side, a resting place for their dead which was not disturbed for more than forty years.  By that time, it is said that no fewer than 5,000 bodies had been laid away on the slopes of Maple Hill,

In time, negligence and vandalism took their toll at Maple Hill Cemetery.  In 1890, with the increase of population, coupled with the rising impact of vandalism, health authorities halted further interments.  The following year the city council condemned land on either side of the cemetery for street purposes; removal of the bodies commenced.”  Many bodies were moved to Lakewood and Hillside cemeteries.  A City Engineers Report from 1894 reports that 1321 bodies and 82 monuments had been removed from Maple Hill.  Clearly, this is a fraction of the 5,000 estimated interred.

Still, because Maple Hill Cemetery was in part a potters’ field there was no great attention to perpetual care, much less record-keeping.  By 1906 the non-denominational cemetery had been abandoned and had become a community eyesore and cause of consternation.  Community members took matters into their own hands.  Actually, they took reins into their own hands, hitched up their horses, and one night cleared the cemetery not only of debris but of all of the tombstones.  The tombstones, including a civil war veterans memorial, were later found dumped in a ditch.  City officials, understandably outraged, made pronouncements about capture and prosecution of the miscreants.

In time, the idea of a quiet urban park tempered the cry for retribution.  Writing in his History of Minneapolis, Reverend Marion Daniel Shutter reflects that “the pretty little park bounded by Broadway, Fillmore, Polk and Summer streets is what remains of the old burial grounds.”  In 1908 the Park Board purchased Maple Hill Cemetery for $8,000.  The City Council contributed $5,000 for the initial improvement of the land.  That improvement included construction of a seven-foot high wire mesh fence around the cemetery to protect the Civil War-era stone monuments from vandalism.  That fence lasted until the early 1920’s when the neighbors declared it too unsightly and the Park Board decided it was too costly to repair.

In 1978 The Minnesota Genealogist (Volume 12, No. 2, 1978)  carried a detailed article about the cemetery, submitted by Barbara Sexton and Lauraine Kerchner.  Sexton and Kerchner report that in 1908 an Improvement Association was formed; the cemetery was restored and fenced in at a cost of $12,000.  Ten acres of the original tract were cleared and used for a playground.  The playground area was eventually awarded to the Park Board and the park renamed Maple Hill Park.  In the first plans for Maple Hill Park Superintendent Theodore Wirth proposed a picnic ground for most of the park, with a small section, where no bodies have been buried, reserved for a school garden for the children of Pierce School across the street from the park.  Early plans also called for a warming house and skating rink which were finally approved in 1913.  The warming shelter was also for “lectures” and a tool room.  Wirth lamented in his 1909 report that the park was not much frequented and probably wouldn’t be as long as it “retains the appearance of a cemetery.”

Wirth, with neighborhood support, continued to propose upgrades of the park for many years.  At some point ice skating was added to the list of park amenities.  One of Beltrami’s claims to fame was that the skating club at the park produced the city’s first qualifier for a US Winter Olympic team.  Though Charles Leighton of the Maple Hill Club qualified to represent the US in speed skating he never got the chance when the 1940 winter games scheduled for Sapporo, Japan, were cancelled because of World War II.

As early as 1915 park enthusiasts had also begun to petition – to no avail — for a tennis court.  The Park Board history of Beltrami indicates there is no firm attribution of the date for installation of the tennis court that currently exists at Beltrami.  Still, the report notes, “the enormous oak tree branch that stretches over the court, removing the lob from the arsenal of shots Beltrami tennis players could use, suggests it has existed at least since the first concrete wading pool was built in the park in 1953.”

Sexton and Kerchner report that, by 1916, vandalism became a serious problem.  “Residents of the area and members of the Dudley P. Chase Post of the GAR and the Rev. Harvey Klinger protested the desecration of the Soldiers Monument.  Again there was debate, legislation, and litigation for much of 1916.  Stones were carried away leaving little or no evidence as to any remaining graves.  In August the old Maple Hill Cemetery-Park was dedicated as Beltrami Park.  When the Park Board started construction of Beltrami Park, concerned citizens protested the bulldozing of broken monuments to the edges of the park.  To this day, reminders of Maple Hill Cemetery remain.  Sexton and Kerchner refer to an earlier article in which Alfred J. Dahlquist reported finding in Beltrami Park a plaque listing names of Grand Army of the Republic soldiers who had been buried in Maple Hill Cemetery. The inscription on the updated tablet reads in part:  “Although men’s thoughtless actions have deprived them of their right to individually marked and cherished graves, the children of future ages will gather here to honor them.” Though the Park Board did maintain records of what could be salvaged,  remains of gravestones were found much later.  Family members continued for some time to protest the moving of their relatives’ graves.

Sexton and Kerchner meticulously combed the files of the Minneapolis Park Board to identify protests and the names and dates of those who were interred at Maple Hill Cemetery..

Beyond the six bocce ball courts, the tricky tennis courts, and the picnic grounds of Beltrami Park lies an intriguing history of one of the city’s oldest memorials to early settlers, known and unknown, families, community leaders, Civil War veterans, children and mothers who died in childbirth.  The memorials, including a statue of Count Giacomo Constantino Beltrami himself, are worthy of exploration.

The story of Beltrami Park also reflects the vision of the neighborhood and of the visionary Theodore Wirth.  Today’s Beltrami Park offers a unique mix of history and of leisure time activities, both of which enhance the life of the city.

Giacomo Constantino Beltrami – A Count Who Counts in Northeast Minneapolis

Residents of Beltrami neighborhood should bask in the glory and aspire to the spirit of one Giacomo Constantino Beltrami!   Over the years I’ve wondered why my nearby neighborhood is called Beltrami, a name shared with the Northern Minnesota county that is, alas, the state’s poorest if you count income, not gusto..  The 19th Century author and explorer, best known in these parts for his claim to have discovered the source of the Mississippi in 1823, is a man with whom to be reckoned.  He made no small plans for himself, as the Beltrami neighborhood makes no small plans of its own.


Born in 1779 in Bergamo in the Northern region of Italy called Lombardy, Beltrami was the 16th of seventeen children.  He must have had a good education in literature, law and other subjects before signing up as a soldier for the Disalpine Republic in 1797.  Since the republic was an extension of France Beltrami was able to work his way into the Napoleonic government and the Masons, both of which were to play an important role in his life.  He spent his early professional life in the Napoleonic judicial system where he established both a sizeable fortune and a liberal world view.

With the downfall of Napoleon Beltrami retreated to his farm where his liberal thoughts soon put him at odds with the papal government.  In 1809 Beltrami befriended Giulia Spada dei Medici; a member of the Medici family.  When she died in 1820 he was distraught.  His distress, coupled with the pressure of the scrutiny and accusations based on his liberal views, spurred Beltrami to embrace a life of adventure.  As an exile, he explored the Continent, ultimately reaching Liverpool, England in 1822.  As the story goes, Beltrami turned his travels to the West, setting sail from Liverpool to the US.  He landed in Philadelphia on December 20, 1822, after what must have been a treacherous Atlantic crossing.

After visiting a number of U.S. cities including Louisville and St. Louis Beltrami began a voyage down the Ohio River with the intention of following it to the Mississippi and then South to New Orleans.  On board he had a life-changing experience when he met the prominent US Indian agent, Lawrence Taliaferro.  Taliaferro’s next plan was to travel up the Mississippi, a plan that intrigued Beltrami who ultimately joined Taliaferro’s expedition.  Eventually Beltrami split from that expedition and set off on his own explorations.  In April 1823 and a small group of Ojibwe Indian guides boarded the steamboat Virginia to begin the seven-hundred-mile voyage for Fort St. Anthony; this was the first steam navigation of the upper Mississippi.

Spurred by a vivid imagination Beltrami pondered the reality that the source of the Mississippi was as yet unknown.  He no doubt entertained a vision of making history by discovering the source of the mighty Mississippi.  In 1823, lured by the possibility of fame and fortune Beltrami left Fort St. Anthon to ventur solo up river, slowed but not discouraged by the fact that he was unable to balance himself in a birch bark canoe which he eventually decided to tow.  His quest led him to a small lake which he called Lake Julia after his friend Giulia who had died;  he named eight other nearby lakes after her children.

Beltrami was convinced he had discovered the source of both the Mississippi and the Red rivers. Though time and modern science indicate he wasn’t quite accurate in claiming the discovery, he deserves credit for a mighty effort.

Beltrami’s claims were largely ignored and sometimes ridiculed.  That didn’t stop his dreams or his studies, however.  After more travels in the Western Hemisphere, Beltrami made a return trip across the Atlantic in 1826.  In 1834 he moved to Heidelberg, Germany, ultimately returning to his estate in Filottrano.  Though he tried to publish his extensive writings, the church-led government denied his requests.  In his final years, he took on the life of Franciscan monks and called himself “Fra Giacomo”. Beltrami lived and worked on his estate where he died in 1855, just five years short of the creation of the Italian nation.

The fact is, the long term impact of Beltrami’s life’s work remain in the records of his learning along the route.  As intellectually curious as he was fearless, Beltrami took time throughout his travels to study the locales he explored and to chronicle his findings for posterity.  His voluminous writings, once banned in Italy, are readily accessible in libraries and archives today.  Among other chronicles Beltrami collected botanical and geological samples and is responsible for the discovery of the only existing texts to provide Latinate translations from the Aztec language.  Throughout all of his travels Beltrami recorded what he learned – whether literary, mineralogical or botanical.  Though his writings were not well received at the time, the record remains intact. When Beltrami died, his nephew left the majority of his written materials to a collection commonly known as Angelo Mai where they remain today. The centerpiece of the library’s holdings of Beltrami materials is the 24 volumes of manuscripts, correspondence and other written work in the Fondo Beltrami. Of particular interest to today’s scholars are Beltrami’s writings about American Indians he encountered in his travels.

Count Giacomo Constantino Beltrami, like his name, is bigger than life, an untapped reservoir of imagination, scholarship and energy. Some have suggested that his relative absence from the American story reflect attitudes about Americans of Italian ancestry.  Never mind, the Italians of Northeast Minneapolis knew a mighty force when they saw one.  In 1947 the park originally called Maple Hill (another story) was re-named Beltrami Park, largely at the request of the predominantly Italian-American residents of the neighborhood.   These Italian-American residents contributed funds for a bronze plaque honoring Beltrami.  Placed in1948, the plaque stands today in Beltrami Park on Polk Avenue and Broadway Northeast.  Today, the Beltrami neighborhood bears the name and remembers a man of courage, scholarship and vision and a proud Italian-American community that continues to keep his name and memory alive.