Brownie Lake is the smallest lake in the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes, with a surface area of only twelve acres and a maximum depth of 47 feet. It is connected to Cedar Lake by a narrow channel on its southeastern side. The exact origin of its name is unclear, but it is believed to have been named for the daughter of a local landowner during the 1860s or 1870s. Before that, the lake was either left off of local maps entirely or referred to as Hillside Harbor.

In truth, the lake's small size and close proximity to Cedar Lake make it feel more like a harbor or a bay than an actual lake. During the early years of Minneapolis's history, Brownie Lake was largely ignored. In the 1880s, an embankment needed to shore up a nearby railroad sheared off nearly a third of the lake's area and dramatically altered the nearby geography. As a lake fed exclusively by runoff, these changes led to a sharp decrease in the lake's water levels. The lake nearly met its demise in 1917, when a canal connecting it to Cedar Lake was opened. In the days thereafter, Brownie Lake's water level dropped by more than nine feet and its already shrinking surface area fell from 22 acres to barely 10.

Perhaps realizing their error, the Minneapolis Park Board spent the following decades trying to restore Brownie Lake to its natural size and state. Starting in 1933, a process of pumping groundwater into Brownie Lake began -- it was hoped that this would allow the city to control not only Brownie Lake's water levels, but the water levels of the three connected lakes as well. The pumping program ended five years later due to excessive costs and limited successes. During the 1950s, the city decided to try again. It built a pipeline to bring water from nearby Bassett Creek into Brownie Lake. Unsurprisingly, this plan simply caused Bassett Creek to start drying up. To counteract that problem, a pumping station was built on the Mississippi River in the 1960s to divert water into Bassett Creek. This entire program was ended in 1990 out of environmental concerns and, appropriately enough, a stated desire to let the lakes take a more natural course.

Despite its extremely close proximity to many of Minneapolis's most traveled parks, Brownie Lake still remained something of an open question. As recently as the 1990s, the Minneapolis Park Board circulated any number of studies or reports asking what exactly should be done with it. The most frequently cited problem with it was "lack of access" -- indeed, even though the lake is very near many things, getting to the lake itself has historically been rather tricky. Within the last decade, some improvements have been made that grant somewhat better access to Brownie Lake. Perhaps most notably, the eastern side of the lake is now a biking and walking path linked to the rest of the city through the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway.

Today, Brownie Lake still remains something of an orphan. Thick aquatic vegetation and a steep dropoff in depth make it unsuitable for swimming. While it can be fished (mostly for crappies and the occasional bullhead or bass), poor water quality makes the pickings rather slim -- surveys by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have suggested that the lack of overturn has left the bottom half of the lake essentially devoid of life. While the occasional kayak or canoe visits Brownie Lake via the Cedar Lake canal, they tend to leave about as quickly as they come. The very fact that Brownie Lake is the forgotten lake, however, can work to one's advantage. The forested land surrounding it is laced with informal trails and quiet groves, prime for those seeking some solitude in the city's shared backyard.