Formation and early history of Lakes Pepin and St. Croix of the upper Mississippi River

Dylan J. Blumentritt, Herbert E. Wright, Vania Stefanova

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Study of Lake Pepin and Lake St. Croix began more than a century ago, but new information has permitted a closer look at the geologic history of these two riverine lakes located on the upper Mississippi River system. Drainages from large proglacial lakes Agassiz and Duluth at the end of the last glaciation helped shape the current valleys. As high-discharge outlet waters receded, tributary streams deposited fans of sediment in the incised river valleys. These tributary fans dammed the main river, forming riverine lakes. Lake Pepin was previously thought to be a single long continuous lake, extending for 80 km from its dam at the Chippewa River fan all the way up to St. Paul, with an arm extending up the St. Croix valley. Recent borings taken at bridge and dam locations show more than a single section of lake sediments, indicating a more complex history. The Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers did not always follow their current paths. Valleys cut into bedrock but now buried by glacial sediment indicate former river courses, with the most recent of these from the last interglacial period marked at the surface by chains of lakes. The morphology of the Mississippi valley bottom, and thus the morphology of Lake Pepin as it filled the valley, is reflect in part by the existence of these old valleys but also by the presence of glacial outwash terraces and the alluvial fans of tributary streams. A sediment core taken in Lake Pepin near Lake City had a piece of wood in gravels just below lake sediments that dated to 10.3 ka cal. BP, indicating that the lake formed as the Chippewa River fan grew shortly after the floodwaters of Lakes Agassiz and Duluth receded. Data from new borings indicate small lakes were dammed behind several tributary fans in the Mississippi River valley between the modern Lake Pepin and St. Paul. One tributary lake, here called Early Lake Vermillion, may have hydraulically dammed the St. Croix River, creating an incipient Lake St. Croix. The tributary fans from the Vermillion River, the Cannon River, and the Chippewa River all served to segment the main river valley into a series of riverine lakes. Later the growth of the Chippewa fan surpassed that of the Vermillion and Cannon fans to create a single large lake, here called late Lake Pepin, which extended upstream to St. Paul. Sediment cores taken from Lake Pepin did not have significant organic matter to develop a chronology from radiocarbon dating. Rather, magnetic features were matched with those from a Lake St. Croix core, which did have a known radiocarbon chronology. The Pepin delta migration rate was then estimated by projecting the elevations of the top of the buried lake sediments to the dated Lake Pepin core, using an estimated slope of 10 cm/km, the current slope of Lake Pepin sediment surface. By these approximations, the Lake Pepin delta prograded past Hastings 6.0 ka cal BP and Red Wing 1.4 ka cal BP.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)545-562
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Paleolimnology
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 2009

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgments Access to the records of the borings of the US army corps of engineers was provided by Kevin Nelson, Rebecca Soileau, and Grant Riddick and to those of the Minnesota Department of Transportation by Charles Howe. Carrie Jennings, Howard Hobbs, John Mossler, and Richard Lively of the Minnesota Geological Survey aided in the interpretation of geologic maps. James Almendinger, Andrew Breckenridge, Carrie Jennings, Howard Hobbs, and John Mossler reviewed the manuscript. The authors are obliged to all these persons.

Copyright 2009 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Holocene
  • Lake Pepin
  • Lake St. Croix
  • Mississippi River
  • Sediments

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