Our Lake Area History

History of Lake Byllesby Area

In pre-settlement days the Lake Byllesby area was probably used as a hunting ground by the Mdewakanton Band of Sioux Indians, who were based primarily to the East in the Red Wing area. Numerous Indian mounds found near Prairie Creek on the Southwest side of Lake Byllesby suggest that the area was at one time heavily populated by bands.

The portion of the Cannon River Valley that is now covered by Lake Byllesby was an unusually wide area of bottomland along the Cannon River, and was a good place for hunting and trapping in past centuries.  French trappers and traders, and their Yankee successors, accessed the area by paddling canoes up the Cannon River from the Mississippi River. In recognition of this use, the French referred to the Cannon River as the “Riviere aux Canots” or River of Canoes.

At the time of pioneer settlement the land was nearly all prairie and fires were reported to have swept across the area frequently. The only timber in the area was along the lower portion of Chub Creek and on the bluff on the South side of the river.  Pioneer settlement of the Lake Byllesby area began in 1855. The first settlers came to the Byllesby area from the East, via Red Wing and Cannon Falls.  The pioneers who first settled in Randolph Township were mostly from Wisconsin and Illinois, while the first pioneer settlers in Stanton township, on the South side of the river, were from New England.

The Cannon River

In the1850’s, flour and saw mills began operating in the Cannon River Valley. By 1877, there were 15 mills along the 19 mile stretch of river between Faribault and Northfield.  At Dundas, travelers can still see the aging limestone walls of the Archibald Mill, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

West of Faribault, the Cannon River winds quietly through farmland dotted with lakes and marshes. Below Faribault the river twists and turns, at times wide and quiet, at times narrow and fast. From Faribault to its mouth, the Cannon falls 280 feet, an average of 4.8 feet per miles. Above Faribault the river has less gradient.There are a few rapids but none are difficult. Several dams must be portaged and downed trees and snags can be hazardous in high water.

The Cannon River is one of six designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in the state.  Bounded by rolling hills, bluffs, farmland and woods in its upper reaches. The Cannon enters a remnant of the Big Woods ecosystem downstream of Faribault, in Rice county’s Cannon River Wilderness Area. Below Cannon Falls the river enters a broad picturesque gorge with bluffs that rise up to 300 feet above the valley floor. The Cannon’s waters harbor walleye, catfish, northern pike, smallmouth bass, crappies, striped bass, and a few species of rough fish.

The Cannon River is underlaid with a variety of sedimentary rocks. The most common outcrops near the river are St. Peter sandstone, Prairie du Chien group of dolomites and sandstone, and near the river’s mouth, Jordan sandstone and St. Lawrence and Franconia formations. Stream flow usually peaks in early April, however, very heavy rains can cause high water or flooding anytime during the canoeing season. Because there are few rapids to cause problems in low water, the level is usually sufficient for canoeing except during very dry periods.

River water is good for all recreation, but it is not drinkable without treatment.

(Reprinted from A Water Trail Guide to the Cannon and Straight River-Minnesota DNR)

The Cannon River Watershed

Southern Minnesota comes together in a 1,460-square mile area called the Cannon River Watershed. It lies between the Twin Cities metro area and rural southern Minnesota. Biologists call it a “transition zone.” Its a mix of eastern hardwood forests (the big woods), tallgrass prairies, recently glaciated lands, and the driftless (unglaciated) area along the Mississippi River.

Surface water unites the varied landscape, flowing into tributaries like the Straight River, which joins the Cannon River near Owatonna, and eventually the Mississippi River.  Glaciers covered the land along the upper Straight and Cannon Rivers 10,000 years ago, creating the lakes and marshes of the upper Cannon River and leaving behind large glacial erratics (occasional rocks) which can still be seen in farm fields and along the Cannon and Straight rivers. Compared to other parts of the corn belt region, the Cannon River Watershed has a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Minnesota’s dwarf trout lily is a federally endangered species that is found only along the Cannon, Straight and Zumbro rivers and their tributaries. Because it is found only in this small area the dwarf trout lily is considered a Minnesota “endemic”-i.e. A species that grows in Minnesota and nowhere else on earth. Other rare plants include the glade mallow (found in flood-plain forests), prairie bush clover and kitten-tails (found on bluff prairies). Among the rare wildlife species found in the watershed are the landing’s turtle, wood turtle, red-shouldered hawk, and prairie vole. The river valleys and adjacent bluffs tend to harbor concentrations of natural communities where these rare species can maintain a foothold.

Other wildlife found in the watershed, typical of southeastern Minnesota, include deer, beaver, otter, raccoon, red fox, gray fox and coyote. Songbirds and waterfowl are especially plentiful during spring and fall migrations. Bald eagles and osprey can be observed fishing along the rivers.

Resource protection efforts in the Cannon River Watershed are coordinated by the Cannon River Watershed Partnership, a non-profit organization founded in 1990 to protect and improve the surface and groundwater resources, and the natural systems of the watershed. That mission is carried out through landowner assistance, educational
programs, volunteer coordination and the facilitation of small watershed groups. The partnership sponsors an annual river clean-up, and participates in the DNR Adopt-a-River program. CRWP offices are located in Northfield, Minnesota.
The City of Randolph

Township governments were quickly organized in the early 1800’s.  Both Randolph Township in Dakota county and Stanton Township in Goodhue County were established in 1858. A log school house was built in Randolph in 1858.  The cemetery in Randolph (Lakeside Cemetery) was started in 1857. A sawmill was built on Chub Creek in 1859, and a cheese factory followed in 1871. In Stanton township, the Prairie Creek area had land characteristics that made it particularly attractive to settlers. In early years William Stanton established a popular roadside inn for persons who traveled between Faribault and Red Wing.

The first houses were dugout sod homes.  Farms established in the 19th century were about the same size as farms that exist today, and surprisingly, the types of crops produced were also quite similar to those produced today.  The population of Randolph Township in 1881 was 144 persons, or 12 people per square mile. With the building of the railroad in the 1880’s the village of Randolph became a permanent settlement.  At one time three railroad lines served Randolph: the Chicago-Great Western, Minnesota Central Railroad, and the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad.  In the early years there was railroad passenger service in Randolph nearly every hour of the day. As early as 1896, the village area included a railroad depot, creamery, elevator, stockyard, and two large warehouses. When Randolph was incorporated into a city in 1904, a tornado roared through the city and nearly caused the end of Randolph as a viable center. The pioneer spirit prevailed however, and the city was quickly rebuilt.  That “spirit” is still present in the city today.

The Settlement of Cascade

The city of Randolph fared much better than did the town of Cascade. The now-abandoned townsite of Cascade was a locally important commercial area in the latter part of the 19th century.  Cascade, whose development plat was filed at the county in 1883, had over 300 acres of land platted into city streets.  The village, divided by the Cannon River, was connected by an iron bridge that crossed the Cannon River. The Cascade dam was built 100 yards upstream from that bridge, and created a millpond to harness the river for water-powered milling purposes. Cascade had several residences and featured a flour grinding mill, copper shop, cooperage, blacksmith shop, grain elevator, chapel, and other facilities. But with the advent of steam power and railroads, Cascade was quickly abandoned. Today, nothing remains of the settlement except for a few concrete foundations, the stone buttresses of the old iron bridge, piles of stone from the mill pond dam, and thousands of clam shells in the field that was once under the mill pond. Cascade was located approximately 3/4 miles West of the current Highway #56 bridge over the Cannon River.

The Lake Byllesby Dam & Dakota/Goodhue Regional Parks

Four miles down river from the Cascades was another series of rapids, known locally as the “big falls”. In the late 1800’s many proposals were discussed in regard to the construction of a hydroelectric dam at the big falls site.  F.B. Seager of Cannon Falls, T.T. Comstock of St. Paul, A.L. Osberg of Chatfield, and others envisioned a large electrical power plant damming the Cannon River just below the big falls, and a consolidation of electric service to surrounding communities.

Henry M. Byllesby and his company from Chicago started the project.  Byllesby, after whom the dam and reservoir were named, originally lived in St.Paul and purportedly designed many power plants for Thomas Edison, both in this country and abroad. Within weeks after Byllesby took control, surveyors had marked the land to be purchased to accommodate the water backed up by the dam. In March, 1910, many carloads of machinery and men arrived in Cannon Falls and derricks, cableway towers, and other construction equipment were installed on the North bank of the river next to the big falls. Buildings for mechanical work and camp purposes were erected, and temporary family homes were built. Most of the workers on the dam were immigrants from Sweden, along with several local laborers.

Work on the Byllesby Dam started in March of 1910, with the construction of a coffer dam to temporarily shift the channel of the river. In June, after removal of 38,000 cubic yards of earth, the first concrete was poured. The cement was mixed at a site on the South side of the dam, and a steam engine ran a cable that carried the cement from the mixer to the area to be filled. The cement was all shoveled by hand. 23,500 barrels of concrete and 750,000 pounds of steel-rod were used in building the power house and the 1,125’  dam.  The construction of the dam was a major attraction and topic of conversation for the surrounding community. Nine months later, where once picnic blankets had been spread, a 1,000’ concrete dam stood. Where once farm buildings had stood and corn and wheat had grown, five billion gallons of water from over 1,100 square miles covered the ground. Thus, Lake Byllesby, with a water area of approximately 1432 acres, was born.

After the completion of the 33,000 volt line to Northfield and Cannon Falls, and the construction of the Cannon Falls power development, individual electrical plants at Faribault, Northfield, and Cannon Falls were removed. The Consumers Power Company began purchasing properties in the neighboring small towns and continued expanding the system until it owned properties from Stillwater to Mankato. In 1916 the Consumers Power Company became the Northern States Power Co. NSP owned the dam and ran the power station both summer and winter from 1916 until 1967. NSP also owned a narrow strip of land all around the lake as a buffer zone to separate the lake from neighboring land uses and to serve as liability protection from potential flooding.  The year-around electrical generating work sometimes caused major fluctuation in the water level of the lake as well as wintertime ice jams downstream from the dam. 

Time passed, and the dam served the regionals’ electrical needs well through the roaring twenties, prohibition, the depression, and both world wars. Then came larger generating facilities throughout the Twin Cities under control of North States Power and later, nuclear power generating plants. The usefulness of the plant on the Big Cannon River diminished, and its use was discontinued in 1967. 

It was at that time that the Cannon Falls Newspaper-BEACON sounded the alarm with a newspaper editorial by Editor George E. Dalton stating that NSP intended to drain the lake and abandon the dam.  Several area residents, and particularly lakeshore homeowners, responded in 1967 by forming a  citizens group on January 14th called the LAKE BYLLESBY IMPROVEMENT ASSOCIATION. The first officers were President-Dr. Robert Haman, Vice President-Dr. M.R. Williams, Secretary-Harold Tuthill, Treasurer-D. Fay Case, and Program Director-Dale Wisherd.  This group was successful in helping to engineer the transfer of ownership of the lake and dam from NSP to public ownership by the two counties within whose boundaries the lake lies (Dakota and Goodhue Counties).

In 1968, NSP abandoned the dam and began negotiations to have Dakota and Goodhue counties take over the dam and manage the lake for recreational purposes.  In 1969, NSP deeded the dam, the powerhouse, and all its land holdings under and around the lake to Goodhue and Dakota counties( 40% and 60% ownership) for  $10,000.  By basically giving away the property, NSP was able to avoid substantial financial losses because the dam was in need of major repairs. Additionally NSP donated $125,000.00 to Dakota and Goodhue Counties for recreational development and to help with maintenance of Lake Byllesby, the seventh largest lake in the twin city metropolitan area. Very shortly after acquiring the dam Dakota County received a H.U.D. (Housing Urban Development) Grant for acquisition of 873 acres of land adjacent to the dam. In 1971 the Lake Byllesby Park Commission was formed by the state legislature and thus the beginning of the Lake Byllesby Regional Park.

In December of 1977 the lake was drained for repair/maintenance on the Byllesby Dam at a cost of $367,000.00. The repairs and improvements included installation of trash racks on the dam, installation of stop-logs, rebuilding of sluice bay #1, resurfacing of the concrete on the side of the dam, and installation of post tensioning bars to strengthen the buttresses. New sluice gates were also installed. The lake was refilled in July of 1979.

In 1982, a subcommittee of L.B.I.A. members composed of Dale Wisherd, Earl Benson, and Bill Foss met with Dakota County officials and began legislative negotiations to transfer lakeshore property from Dakota county to individual adjacent property owners. As a result of this legislative action Dakota county sold most of its narrow strip of lakeshore (elevation to 856.5 feet above sea level) to adjacent residential landowners to clear property titles and to discard forever the former NSP land that was unsuitable for public recreational use.  Goodhue county continued to retain its ownership of similar land given to it by NSP, and negotiations regarding a similar property transfer for Goodhue County residents on the lake have remained stalled since 1982 with Goodhue county still owning lakeshore property between homeowner residences and Lake Byllesby.

In 1984 the lake was drawn down once again and the non-overflow section of the dam was raised by 5.5 feet. An additional 130’ section of earthen dam with a fuse plug was added, and a perimeter dike 3/4 mile upstream from the dam was raised in order for the dam to safely pass a probable maximum flood quantity of water. Two new crest gates were also constructed at that time. 

In early 1987, the lake was drawn down 20 feet in order to repair the ten North Amburson Bays and to replace the seals and make other repairs to the sluice gates. This was one of several drawdowns which have occurred over the years in a continuing effort to make the dam completely safe, and to insure its’ longevity. Lake Byllesby is basically a 1,500 acre reservoir, created by the Byllesby Dam on the Cannon River. The lake contains 8,000 acre feet of water and is fed by the Cannon River, Chub Creek, and Prairie Creek. The western third of the lake averages less than 10 feet deep, while the eastern portion of the lake averages approximately 20-30’. The deepest part of the lake is next to the dam on the North side of the lake where depths reach 40-50’. Sixty-eight percent of the lake is less than 15 feet deep. Lake Byllesby is three miles long and has 12.75 miles of shoreline. Sixty percent of the shoreline and adjoining shoal areas are sandy, 20% are covered with gravel and rubble, 10% with sand and rubble, 5% with sandstone ledge, and 5% with sandy muck. Marshland covers portions of the west and southwest shores of the lake.  In 2009 a proposal was forwarded to Goodhue/Dakota Counties to “reclaim” (dredge) a substantial portion of the lakes’ West end to help preserve the depth of the reservoir in the lakes western area and to increase water flow through the reservoir. It is estimated that this improved water flow could have a significant effect on the quality/clarity of water in the reservoir. This dredging proposal continues to be a long-term goal of the L.B.I.A.  

Lake Byllesby is classified by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a Recreational Lake as a result of the Minnesota Shoreland Management Act.  The Shoreland Zoning Regulations on the North side of the lake are administered by Dakota county. Shoreland Zoning Regulations on the South side of the lake are administered by Goodhue county. On the North side of the lake, zoning is also regulated by Randolph Township. The boundary line between Goodhue and Dakota Counties runs through the middle of the reservoir.  The Lake Byllesby Improvement Association (LBIA), an organization of lakeshore property owners and other interested citizens, from both Goodhue and Dakota Counties, is actively involved in resource management issues as they arise.

Fishing is a popular activity in both summer and winter months. Lake Byllesby contains several species including northern pike, walleye, crappies, perch, sunfish, catfish, white bass, and assorted rough fish. The lake accommodates water skiing, sailing, windsurfing, swimming, and just plain lolling on the beach. The Dakota County Regional Park (North shore) offers a beach, boat landing, picnic grounds, and shelter, and playfields. Camping is available and several RV sites with water and electricity. In addition, tent sites,  a dump station, restrooms, and a camp store were added to meet campers’ needs. The Goodhue County Park (South shore) provides facilities for swimming, boating (boat launch), fishing, picnics, and a playground. There is no admittance charged at either park location with the exception of RV sites/camping site fees (Dakota County Park).

Thus, the Lake Byllesby Improvement Association and area residents continue to meet the many challenges associated with the reservoir. Goodhue Counties portion of ownership in the dam (40%) was transferred to Dakota County in 2010. The sole owner of the dam from 2010 forward will be Dakota County. The Byllesby Dam will now be maintained by Dakota County funds and thousands of Minnesota residents will continue to enjoy picnics, camping, fishing, swimming, canoeing, and those activities so enjoyable in the environment of Lake Byllesby.

There have been many proposals through the years for the continuing development of the Lake Byllesby area for public recreation purposes. Dakota County prepared a Parks and Recreation Facilities Plan in 1970. The plan called for the creation of a large intercounty park running from the Cascades to the State Highway #52 bridge, including all of the property South of County road 88, except for the Ellsworth Shores subdivision and the Illa Lakeview subdivision. This park, as proposed, would have encompassed over 2,000 acres of land. In 1975, Dakota county prepared a Regional Park System Plan, and in 1980 prepared a Park System Policy Plan, as part of its long-range comprehensive planning program.  Park land acquisition and development efforts have been underway for the past twenty five years, and still continue. The relationship between L.B.I.A. and the Goodhue County Park/ Dakota County Regional Park and county officials continues to be positive. 

In 2010, the L.B.I.A., in cooperation with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, arranged for commercial fishermen to resume regular-scheduled rough fish removal from Lake Byllesby. These efforts, to rid the lake of undesirable species, and most notably fish noted for uprooting plant life from the bed of the lake, have paid dividends in increased water clarity and algae reduction in recent years. (Regular scheduled rough fish removal was conducted in the mid 1900’s by local-commercial fisherman Bob Ferguson and discontinued with his demise). 
Additionally, the Cannon River Watershed Partnership continues to monitor silt deposits along with water clarity and quality in the entire watershed. CRWP is a very important agency for monitoring and improving water quality issues in the entire watershed, and in particular Lake Byllesby. CRWP, along with other state agencies have acquired GPS photos of the entire Cannon River Watershed District and will be moving forward in the near future to identify and enforce required 50’ buffer strips along the rivers and creeks in the watershed. Thus, continuing to enhance the quality of our waters. 


Over 10,000 years ago Archaeologists believe prehistoric families pass through what is now Dakota and Goodhue counties, hunted down large mammals and then carved up their “kill” with tools made of stone. (St. Paul Pioneer Press, March 18, 1988)

It may be of interest to new residents of the Lake Byllesby community that a few years ago (1988) during a drawdown of the lake, hundreds of tools were found which were left behind by earlier inhabitants of the area. These tools were buried in the lake bottom under the surface of the water on the South side of the lake and were only revealed as the lake level receded for Byllesby Dam repair.

Mr. Vernie Vagness, a Red Wing farmer,, and his friend Keith Klindworth indicated that they “simply went out and picked them up.” Found  were several bison teeth and stone tools used by prehistoric man.  Experts became aware of the Vagness’ findings in the shallow lake bed and after studying the remains indicated that these items were not simply aged tools, but the earliest evidence of people in Minnesota. (Sr. Research Archaeologist Clark Dobbs).

Mr. Elden Johnson, Director of the Institute for Minnesota Archaeology in Minneapolis, commenting on the discovered items, indicated that “there have been singular tools found in other places that are about as old, but this is the oldest documented site we have in the state.”  Before the discovery at Lake Byllesby the earliest evidence of people in Minnesota were giant bison bones found in the Itasca State Park. These bones were over 7,000 years old.

(Portions of this article reprinted from St. Paul Pioneer Press/Dispatch Newspaper of Wednesday, May 16, 1988)


Additionally, the Cannon River Watershed Partnership continues to monitor silt deposits along with water clarity and quality in the entire watershed. CRWP is a very important agency for monitoring and improving water quality issues in the entire watershed, and in particular Lake Byllesby. CRWP, along with other state agencies have acquired GPS photos of the entire Cannon River Watershed District and will be moving forward in the near future to identify and enforce required 50’ buffer strips along the rivers and creeks in the watershed. Thus, continuing to enhance the quality of our waters. 

In 2015 Governor Mark Dayton conducted an “open forum” at the Dave Legvold farm in the Northfield area. L.B.I.A. President Earl Benson was present at this meeting and spoke in support of the Governors’ Buffer Strip proposal for rivers, lakes, and streams in Minnesota. In the Fall of 2015 the Governors’ Buffer Strip Initiative was made into law for the State of MN.

2015 was a banner year for Dakota County as the Byllesby Dam was outfitted with two additional spillway gates and the refurbishment of the South spillway. This new 9 million dollar addition to the Byllesby Dam was successful in maintaining consistent lake water levels during heavy rain events in 2015 and is a welcome addition to the dam structure. Additionally, the lake level was reduced 8.5’ in the Fall of 2015 to accommodate additional spillway base repair and upstream dam resurfacing. The lake “refill” to Summer recreational level will begin in April of 2016.

2016 will mark the opening of the Bicycle/Pedestrian Bridge across the Cannon River just East of the Byllesby Dam thus connecting Dakota and Goodhue County. It is anticipated that mutual cooperation will now focus on sharing various amenities(law enforcement, joint projects) between Goodhue and Dakota Counties. It was also announced late in 2015 that the Dakota County legislative request for several million dollars to replace the 115 yr. old turbines was approved and work will begin in 2016. The Dakota County 10 yr. Master Plan will also begin in 2016. The L.B.I.A. continues to lobby for the inclusion of removing significant silt from selected locations of the lake, including Western area of Lake Byllesby, in this long range county plan.

2017 will find the L.B.I.A. leadership focusing on monitoring the completion of the Lake Byllesby Parks Master Plan.  The two additional focus points of the organization still remain the siltation occurring throughout the reservoir and the drawdown/fill up schedule adopted by the DNR so many years ago.  Lakeshore owners and visitors to the lake remain steadfast in their resolve to begin the lake refill each year on May 1 rather than May 15 to accommodate fisherman desiring a full reservoir for the Minnesota fishing season opener.  These two issues continue to plague the organization moving into 2018.

2018 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Lake Byllesby Improvement Association.  A number of significant improvements, advocated by the L.B.I.A., have been made through the years resulting in a dramatic improvement in the water quality of the reservoir.  Bi-Annual DNR fish stocking has been implemented in addition to annual rough fish seining efforts.  The seining of carp, buffalo, and various non-desireable species have improved the fishing on Lake Byllesby, and have improved the clarity of the water.  The Implementing of a “neighborhood watch” program has also helped law enforcement agencies as well during the past few years.  This year will also begin the three year process of “replacing” the 110 year old turbines at the Byllesby Dam.  Legislative funding in 2017 has provided the necessary funds to completely renovate the power house and add two state-of-the-art turbines in the next few years.  The completion of the Lake Byllesby Regional Parks Master Plan in 2017 will also commence with improvement in both Goodhue/Dakota parks as early as 2018.