New access opens below Ramsey Dam Wednesday

Over the years, numerous paddlers have flocked to a sandy area below Ramsey Dam to launch a canoe or kayak for a float on the Cedar River to downtown Austin.

Staying dry while launching watercraft, however, could be tricky due to river flow and an immediate drop into a few feet of water.

Now there is a rock-surface, public access that gradually slopes into the river to help paddlers launch a canoe or kayak more easily without getting in the water or dealing with mud.

Wednesday, officials from public and private entities gathered to celebrate the opening of the Cedar River State Water Trail’s newest access for canoes, kayaks and even standup paddleboards, which have increased in popularity on the Cedar in recent years. It’s also a shoreline-fishing site for anglers.

Cedar River Watershed District led the project that included the access being designed by the City of Austin’s assistant engineer Mitch Wenum; Hormel Foods Corp. funding the nearly $3,000 worth of materials; and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ trails crew building the access earlier this month.

Mower County, which owns about 20 acres of flood-mitigation property at Ramsey Dam, allowed the access to be built on its land, which is just outside the city limit that ends in the middle of the river. The access is just below the 11th Place Northeast bridge and across the river from The Old Mill Restaurant.

CRWD outreach coordinator Tim Ruzek said the response from the community for the new access has been overwhelmingly postive. CRWD staff knew firsthand the need for a better access below Ramsey from after-work floats that started there. One time, an intern flipped into the river while trying to launch a kayak.

Hormel Foods agreed to provide a grant for the access as part of its overall work since December 2022 on strengthening the foundations of Austin’s historic Ramsey Dam.

Crews removed trees and added chunks of rock or riprap on both sides of the dam and below it, including filling a large scour hole. This will help protect the wing wall and both ends of Ramsey Dam, which has created Mower County’s largest body of water for about 150 years. Warning signage also was installed above the dam, and rock was added in spots to address streambank erosion.

Hormel Foods, a Fortune 500 global-branded food company, has owned Ramsey Dam since 1974, acquiring it likely to protect its downstream sources of groundwater for the company’s production facility. The company, however, no longer uses independent wells because Austin Utilities supplies its water.

Monitoring systems also were installed to survey monuments in the spillway and monitor water levels and seepage at the south abutment. These efforts will help track changes in flow or seepage that would indicate the need for more repairs or maintenance.

Ramsey Dam creates nearly one mile of backwaters on the Cedar known as Ramsey Mill Pond, which – at about 53 acres – is the largest body of water in Mower County, one of four Minnesota counties without a natural lake. It also is Mower County’s most-popular destination for ice fishing, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources maintains a boat ramp and parking area above the dam.

Originally built in 1871-1872, Ramsey Dam provided river water to power a flour mill that operated until 1933 in the building that has hosted The Old Mill Restaurant since 1949.