As a city of Minneapolis blacksmith, Nick Bounds plies his throwback craft in a century-old building that’s become far too small for the duties of a booming city.
“I’m always hitting this wall, that machine,” he said, describing a job in which he hefts 20-foot lengths of steel pipe. “This building is way too small.”
Bounds works in the little-known East Yard, helping crews maintain a sprawling network of water pipes and hydrants around the city.
Replacing that maintenance yard is the last major unfinished piece of a 25-year-old master plan for updating city Department of Public Works facilities. But finding a new place for Bounds and his co-workers to hang their tools has brought years of challenge and plenty of political obstacles.
Now there’s hope on the horizon. The city wants to expand its major South Side base at 1901 E. 26th St. to accommodate the water crews. Then city property officials want to move the water maintenance base to the adjacent Roof Depot property, forming one large public works base.
The City Council would need to authorize that, something its predecessors did years ago as part of an initiative that was never completed. But the City Council member representing the area, Alondra Cano, opposes that plan.
For now, Bounds does his job at a facility that dates back almost 120 years. The 2.4-acre East Yard complex is tucked into a bend of E. Hennepin Avenue. One brick building there dates to 1898; it was formerly used to stable the sturdy horses that pulled water maintenance crews and equipment around the city to build and repair water mains. The hayloft of that post-and-beam barn is still sturdy enough to serve as a boneyard for hulking metal valves that await their turn in a city water system nearly 150 years old.
The place is so cramped that about two-thirds of the division’s outdoor storage is at two suburban plants in Fridley and Columbia Heights. That hinders efficiency, said Marie Asgian, the city’s water distribution supervisor.
“You guys have been talking about moving out for decades,” her boss, Glen Gerads, joked recently.
Cano, the council member, said shifting the water base to her neighborhood ignores long-festering concerns about the health and neighborhood impacts of heavy industrial use nearby. Even though the area is zoned for industrial uses, Cano said she favors creating a green zone there of more eco-friendly enterprises.
It is a battle is being played out far above Bounds’ pay grade. The 47-year-old graduate of North High School and the Dunwoody College of Technology is a 15-year city employee who has spent the past four years at the East Yard.
He makes simple but specialized tools that allow water crews to operate valves deep in manholes, open hydrants, level sections of pipe and scrape off corrosion. His job is mostly welding — the fusing of pieces of steel together — but occasionally he also heats and beats metal as a blacksmith would.
Sparks spray when Bounds welds, but the creosoted wooden floor is too dense to ignite. There’s a horseshoe print burned into one doorway of the room by a long-ago blacksmith.
“We’re going to have to take a little bit of this wood to the new place for nostalgia,” said foreman Brian Olson.
The pluses of moving
Another reason water officials would like to move the yard is to get the entire maintenance division under one roof. About 75 people work from the base, most heading out shortly after 7 a.m. to tend to the city’s 986 miles of water pipes, the 17,597 valves that control them and 8,053 hydrants, returning in midafternoon. Another 22 workers repair meters in Fridley.
There’s also not enough indoor garage space for the division’s maintenance vehicles, many of which hold valves or computers that can’t be left in freezing weather. Trying to squeeze as many as possible inside buildings is a daily jigsaw puzzle.
Moving could also help transform an increasingly vibrant corner of the East Side, where developers are eyeing new business and living space. Leaving would open a new site for Fire Station 11, giving it better access to Hennepin. That might free part of the site, notably the two 19th-century buildings, for private redevelopment.
‘I love welding’
While the East Yard’s fate is determined, Bounds will continue fabricating tools. His specialty is welding the long stems that water crews use to open and shut subterranean valves. Crews in the field muscle aside a 205-pound manhole cover, reach 8 or so feet down with the long stem Bounds crafted to engage a valve’s control hub, and rotate it to constrict the flow of water to mains or hydrants when repairs are needed.
“In all honesty, it’s not hard to me,” Bounds said about his job. “I’ve been doing it so long. I love welding. I love fabricating. It’s like art.”