Minnesota Map
Institute for Minnesota Archaeology logo From Site to Story logo

Sources - Papers
 


Contents

Stories

Sources

Search

Credits

Links

Home



The
Minnesota
Archaeologist
Vol. 48, No. 1-2                                1989

ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE
CENTRAL MINNEAPOLIS RIVERFRONT

PART 1: HISTORICAL OVERVIEW AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL POTENTIALS

Scott F. Anfinson
Minnesota Historical Society

© 1989 Minnesota Archaeological Society



TABLE OF CONTENTS


Preface
Table of Contents
Introduction
Sources
Historical Background
Archaeological Site Inventory

- Bassett's Creek
- Gateway
- West Side Mill District
- Gasworks Bluff
- Brewery Flats
- Milwaukee Road
- Boom Island
- Hennepin-Central
- Nicollet Island
- East Side Mill District
- Interbank

Historical Figures and Photographs  (big thumbnails)   (medium)   (small)
References Cited
Chronology Chart


Historical Background

    Geology

The location and early prosperity of the city of Minneapolis was based on geological events originating 500 million years ago in the Paleozoic Era. Minneapolis is in the center of a bedrock depression known as the Twin Cities Basin, a depression filled with a series of sedimentary rocks overlain by a cap of recently deposited glacial drift (Figure 2). The upper three rock layers were deposited by an Ordovician Period sea which encroached on eastern Minnesota from the west about 500 million years ago.

The lowest of these three upper strata is the St. Peter sandstone, a very soft, white rock that is up to 155 feet thick near the center of the basin. Above this is the Glenwood shale, a soft, grey layer which reaches depths of 16 feet southeast of Minneapolis, but is only a few feet thick in the vicinity of St. Anthony Falls. The uppermost rock layer is the Platteville limestone, a relatively hard formation that is 35 feet thick beneath much of Minneapolis, but rapidly thins and bevels upward to the north in the central riverfront area. Many nineteenth century buildings in Minneapolis were built with this limestone.

During the Pleistocene ice age, eastern Minnesota was covered by glaciers several times creating the complex topography evident today. About 20,000 years ago, the Superior Lobe of ice came in from the north building a large terminal moraine, the St. Croix, which arcs through the metropolitan area. Four thousand years later, this moraine was overridden from the south by the Grantsburg Sublobe which moved out of the Minnesota River Valley. This lobe retreated shortly thereafter, leaving the Twin Cities area ice-free by 14,000 years ago.

As ice to the north continued to melt, large rivers formed and the incipient Mississippi River broached the St. Croix moraine in Minneapolis establishing its modern course. Earlier interglacial and preglacial river channels that had been cut deep into the bedrock were filled with glacial drift (Figure 2). At places these old channels had cut completely through the St. Peter sandstone so the drift filling them was hundreds of feet thick. Melting blocks of ice in these drift-filled channels formed chains of lakes such as the Lake of the Isles, Calhoun, and Harriet group. Bassett's Creek also flows on top of one of these ancient channels.

The post-glacial course of the Mississippi River follows a completely new route from Bassett's Creek to downtown St. Paul where an old channel is intersected. Following the glacial retreat, the infant Mississippi reached the edge of this old channel and the gravel mantle was quickly eroded. A waterfall formed when the upstream part of the river encountered the hard Platteville limestone, while downstream the deep glacial debris filling the old channel was rapidly displaced.

The mammoth waterfall that was present in St. Paul 12,000 years ago would have been considerably more impressive than nineteenth century St. Anthony Falls. The combined flows of the meltwater engorged Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers were involved. The Minnesota River (Glacial River Warren) at that time was the sole outlet of Glacial Lake Agassiz. The River Warren Falls in St. Paul was 2,700 feet across and fell 175 feet.

As the soft rock beneath the limestone was gradually undercut at the lip of the waterfall, the limestone collapsed and the falls moved upriver. The retreat of the River Warren Falls was relatively rapid due to the immense volumes of water involved. When the waterfall reached the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers at Fort Snelling about 10,000 years ago, the falls split and a waterfall went up each river. The Minnesota/Warren Falls proceeded another two miles upstream to Nine Mile Creek where the river once again flowed through an earlier channel so the limestone and, hence, the falls disappeared. The Mississippi River falls, St. Anthony Falls, continued to work its way upriver and had gone about eight miles when it was seen by Father Hennepin in 1680.

It was fortunate for Minneapolis that Euro-American exploration and settlement of the North American interior was not delayed a few hundred years. The Falls of St. Anthony were the reason Minneapolis was located where it is and those Falls were close to extinction when white settlement began. Over most of its retreat from Ft. Snelling, the Falls moved about four to five feet a year, but because the limestone cap thins in downtown Minneapolis and industrial activity increased the destruction of the cap, the rate rapidly accelerated there (Figure 3).

The Mississippi Valley Lumberman (10/24/1876) estimated the Falls receded about 640 feet from 1852 to 1869, for an overall average of about 35.5 feet per year. The Falls actually receeded over 100 feet per year just before the apron was erected in the 1860s. Since the limestone layer rises above the water level at the southern end of Nicollet Island, the Falls would be gone by now had it not been covered with a protective apron.

    Topography

The central portion of Minneapolis is topographically characterized by a relatively flat terrain bisected by the Mississippi River gorge. The flatness of the downtown area is a sharp contrast to the hills west, south, and east. This flatness is due to erosion and deposition caused by glacial meltwater. While the surrounding hilly areas are irregular depositions of glacial till, the flat plain of downtown Minneapolis is an outwash deposit. This outwash deposit is much thinner than the till; it is generally less than 50 feet to bedrock in the Minneapolis interior.

The descent from the outwash plain to the river varies greatly from north to south. Above St. Anthony Falls prior to dam construction, the elevation of the downtown area probably was about 50 feet higher than the river. Near Bassett's Creek the slope to the river was gradual while in the vicinity of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, there was a definite bench adjacent to the river. John Stevens' house was on this bench and, unlike the Bohemian Flats below the Falls, this bench was not flooded in the spring even during relatively high water.

Below the Falls, the ascent of the waterfall up the river created a true gorge with 100 foot high cliffs of limestone and sandstone. On the west side below the Lower Lock and Dam, a broad river flats developed in the gorge at the river's edge with a narrow intermediate terrace above the flats at the base of the cliff. The lower terrace was built primarily from recent alluvial deposits while the intermediate terrace was built of rock eroding from the cliffs. Parts of the lower terrace eventually became rock-covered due to limestone quarries in the cliffs. When people began to build dwellings above the Washington Avenue bridge in the 1870's, some had to bring in soil to put over the rock.

Intersecting the river at various points were ravines. Some of the ravines were cut by surface streams such as Bassett's Creek. Other ravines developed due to the collapse of subterranean caves cut in the soft St. Peter sandstone by ground water seepage. One of these collapsed cave ravines used to be just south of the West Side Mill District near the Palisade Mill.

The originally platted west side city of Minneapolis had only one stream flowing through it and no lakes. The stream, Bassett's Creek, originated in Medicine Lake five miles west of its mouth, following a contorted path to the Mississippi River. Near its mouth, the creek entered a broad, deep ravine. Several small islands of alluvium were present in the Mississippi River at the mouth of Bassett's Creek. The eastern third of the creek was straightened and put into a masonry culvert in the late 1800s. There was a large slough near the central riverfront located west of the mill district near the Milwaukee Road depot.

On the east side, two small streams emptied into the gorge at the University bend. One of these streams entered the gorge where the abandoned Northern Pacific railroad bridge stands and formed a small waterfall called Bridal Veil Falls which was a favorite nineteenth century picnic spot.

    Pre-Settlement Ecology

Following the retreat of the glaciers, revegetation generally responded to climatic trends. The cool, dry climate of 14,000 years ago fostered the development of a spruce forest near the glacial front. Initially this forest had numerous openings, but by 12,000 years ago eastern Minnesota was covered by a closed boreal forest. A warming trend brought about the replacement of the coniferous trees with deciduous species such as oak and elm by 10,000 years ago.

The continued warming and drying resulted in prairie dominance of the Twin Cities area by 7,000 years ago. This warming trend gradually reversed and by 5,000 years ago the metro area vegetation was similar to that at the time of white settlement; a deciduous forest with numerous prairie openings.

John Stevens described the Falls vicinity as it appeared in 1849:

A few Indians belonging to Good Road's band had their tepees up, and were temporarily living in them, in the oak-openings on the hill a little west of the landing of the old ferry. There was an eagle's nest in a tall cedar on Spirit Island . . . We started up a number of large timber wolves . . . The banks of the river above the falls were skirted with a few pines, some white birch, many hard maples, and several elms, with many native grape vines climbing over them, which formed fine bowers up to the first creek [Bassett's] above the Falls. The table land back from the Falls was covered with oak. There were some thickets of hazel and prickly ash. On the second bench, a little below the Falls [Bohemian Flats], from a quarter mile to a half mile back, there was a dense growth of poplar that had escaped the annual prairie fires . . . Here and there were fine rolling prairies of a few acres in extent, in the immediate neighborhood of the Falls, but toward Minnehaha the prairies were two or three miles long, and extended to Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet. Near the Falls was a deep slough of two or three acres. It was seemingly bottomless. This and a few deep ravines and grassy ponds were the only things to mar the beauty of the scene around the Falls.

Stevens (1891:21)

This description is well depicted on the U.S. government survey map from 1854 (Figure 4).

At the time of white settlement, a variety of animals occupied what was to become the center of Minneapolis. Stevens mentions the eagles and wolves in the Falls vicinity as well as otters in Bassett's Creek. Bison were occasionally found on the west side prairies and deer must have been plentiful. Overall, the Falls vicinity was an inviting place to early white settlers not only for the waterpower potentials of St. Anthony Falls, but for the farming and hunting potentials as well as the scenic beauty.

ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY

Minneapolis began as two cities, one on each side of St. Anthony Falls. The city of St. Anthony on the east side had several initial advantages that should have established it as the namesake rather than its sister city across the Mississippi. St. Anthony was settled first, it developed its waterpower first, and it was on the same side of the river as St. Paul which was the head of Mississippi River navigation. Most of the initial St. Anthony settlers were businessmen looking to establish a business center, while many initial west side settlers were farmers.

Yet it was the west side city of Minneapolis that not only gave the consolidated city its name, but was primarily responsible for the area's fame and fortune. The key to that fame and fortune was a narrow strip of land along the central riverfront; the land near St. Anthony Falls.

    Indian History

Human occupation of the St Anthony Falls area began perhaps 12,000 years ago. Evidence for early human occupation in the region is scarce and largely limited to surface finds of fluted (Clovis, Folsom) and unfluted (Plano) lanceolate spear points. A Clovis point (ca. 9,500 - 8,500 B.C.) was reportedly found near the west side of the Washington Avenue bridge in 1941 (Steinbring 1974:64). Folsom points (ca. 9,000 - 8,000 B.C.) have been found to the north in Anoka County. A number of Plano points (ca. 8,000 - 6,000 B.C.) have been reported from the Twin Cities area with narrow leaf and broad concave base forms more common than stemmed varieties.

While no Early Prehistoric (Paleoindian, Early Archaic) sites have been excavated in east central Minnesota, excavations have been undertaken at a few early Middle Prehistoric (Late Archaic) sites. These sites have yielded Raddatz Side-Notched and Durst Stemmed points as well as copper artifacts.

The late Middle Prehistoric Period (Woodland) in east central Minnesota witnessed significant shifts in technology, subsistence-settlement patterns, and even ideology. Technological innovations include the introduction of ceramics at about 200 B.C. and the bow and arrow at about A.D. 500. Subsistence gradually changed from the intensive single species hunting typical of the Early Prehistoric, to broad based hunting and gathering in the Middle Prehistoric. Some intensive wild rice gathering was also practiced in the area in late Middle Prehistoric times. Village sites became larger and more permanent as populations became less nomadic.

Mound burial was widely accepted by perhaps 300 B.C. East central Minnesota has more mounds than any other region of the state. Some of the mounds are very large and some are linear in shape. A few Effigy Mounds are present along the St. Croix River to the east, but most Effigy Mounds are restricted to southeastern Minnesota south of St. Anthony Falls.

Sites of Woodland affiliation are the most common prehistoric sites in the Minneapolis region. They are associated with Middle Woodland (Sorg, Howard Lake), Transitional Woodland (St. Croix-Onamia), and Late Woodland (Kathio-Clam River) ceramic complexes (cf. Anfinson 1978).

By the beginning of the Late Prehistoric (ca. A.D. 900), subsistence practices to the north of St. Anthony Falls focused on wild rice gathering, while to the south corn horticulture was important. Deer hunting was important in the Late Prehistoric economy with intensive bison hunting practiced just to the west. Shell-tempered Oneota ceramics are perhaps the most common Late Prehistoric pottery types in the region.

In the Early Historic period, the Santee Dakota controlled east central Minnesota, while other Dakota groups such as the Yankton and the Yanktonai were present to the west. Ojibwe groups moved into the northern part of east central Minnesota in the late eighteenth century and by the early nineteenth century the Ojibwe completely controlled the northern half of the region. Much of the northern half of the Metro Area was not permanently occupied by Indians in the early nineteenth century due to intense Dakota-Ojibwe warfare.

The Dakota had a variety of names for St. Anthony Falls including "O-Wa-Mni" (whirlpool) or Ha-Ha (waterfall). The Ojibwe name for the Falls was "Kichi-Kakabika" (the great severed rock). A popular Dakota legend among early white settlers was the story of Clouded Day, a Dakota woman who went to her death over the Falls in a birch bark canoe with her infant son. Their spirits were said to occasionally be seen in the early morning mists below the Falls. Spirit Island, located just below the Falls, was named after this legend.

In Minneapolis, there were several small Dakota villages in the early nineteenth century. Cloud Man had a village at Lake Calhoun and occasionally camped above the Falls in midsummer. Good Road's band periodically occupied a village of less than 10 tipis near downtown Minneapolis. This is probably the village that is often shown with a house in the background identified as the John Stevens house near the Hennepin Avenue bridge. Stevens (1890:21) reports that Good Road's village was "in the oak openings on the hill a little west of the landing of the old ferry."

Dakota groups would occasionally camp on Nicollet Island (Wi-Ta Wa-Ste) to tap the maple trees for sugar (Holcome and Bingham 1914:63). Dakota occupation of the area ended in 1851 with the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.

Although the Falls of St. Anthony was considered to be Dakota territory, groups of Winnebago and Ojibwe would occasionally pass through the area to trade in St. Anthony. Catlin (1965:139) shows an illustration of Ojibwe portaging around the east side of St. Anthony Falls in the 1830s (Figure 5).

Archaeological evidences for Indian sites along the central Minneapolis riverfront are relatively rare. Early settlers reported a lone burial found in 1870 on the east bank opposite Boom Island and a copper spearpoint found by Caleb Dorr somewhere in St. Anthony (Winchell 1911:259). W.R. Marshall reported two small mounds on his property east of the Grain Belt Brewery, one of which was partially disturbed for the excavation of a cellar; nothing "remarkable" was reported from the excavation (Holcome and Bingham 1914:2).

On the west side, a dugout canoe was found during the foundation excavation for the Minneapolis Mill in 1890 (NW Miller 6/20/1890). As mentioned earlier, a Clovis point was supposedly found in 1941 below the west side of the Washington Avenue bridge. Archaeological excavations along the West River Parkway encountered very limited prehistoric remains; a small prehistoric potsherd was recovered from a test unit south of the Hennepin Avenue bridge (Tordoff and Clouse 1986:68).

    Early Euro-American History

The first recorded visit to St. Anthony Falls by Europeans was in 1680 when Father Louis Hennepin and Antoine Auguelle canoed down the Mississippi after a brief captivity among the Mille Lac Dakota. It was Hennepin who named the Falls after his patron saint, St. Anthony of Padua. The next recorded European visit to the Falls was that of the LeSueur expedition of 1691. The first English-speaking explorer to view the Falls was Jonathan Carver in 1766 who later published a sketch of the Falls and a somewhat imaginative account of his exploits.

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 brought the east side of the Falls under American sovereignty and twenty years later the Louisiana Purchase did the same for the west side. White settlement was still a long way off, however, as there were thousands of square miles of land open to settlement between the Falls and the Appalachians and the powerful Dakota controlled most of Minnesota despite American sovereignty.

Zebulon Pike visited the Falls in 1805 and concluded a treaty with the Dakota who ceded a small parcel of land to the United States Government. The parcel extended nine miles up the Mississippi from its junction with the Minnesota River, in a narrow strip which included both sides of the river. Nothing was done with the land until Stephen Long re-examined it in 1817 and two years later the War Department sent Colonel Henry Leavenworth to build a fort near the junction of the two rivers. Leavenworth was soon replaced by Josiah Snelling who proceeded to build the fort that bears his name.

    Initial White Settlement

The construction of Fort Snelling brought Euroamerican civilization to Minnesota. Increasing numbers of visitors came to view the Falls in the early nineteenth century. In 1821 Snelling erected a small, frame sawmill on the west side of St. Anthony Falls. Two years later a stone gristmill was built adjacent to the sawmill. Associated with the government mills were a cabin and several outbuildings. No private citizens were allowed to settle at the Falls because it was government property, and if the government gave up the land, it reverted to Indian ownership.

A detailed survey of the military reservation was undertaken in 1837 by Joseph Plympton who had replaced Snelling as commandant. When the Treaty of 1837 with the Dakota was ratified the following year ceding the east side of the Mississippi to the United States, Plympton attempted to claim the east side of the Falls for himself, saying that it was not included within the boundaries of the military reservation according to his recent survey. When he arrived at the Falls to establish his claim, he found Franklin Steele already there with a claim shack erected virtually overnight. So began the private development of the Falls of St. Anthony.

Steele did not begin seriously improving his claim until ten years later when he built a dam across the east channel below Nicollet Island. At the east end of the dam he erected a small sawmill on a 50-foot wide platform. Steele subdivided his land in 1849 and his paper town was named St. Anthony. By 1850, 538 people lived in St. Anthony and the town boasted of a hotel and several businesses, including the sawmill. A year later Richard Rogers built a grist mill next to Steele's sawmill and a newspaper was established.

The west side was not vacant in 1850, but the few squatters there were in constant peril of being evicted by government troops. The rapid expansion of Midwestern settlement in the mid-nineteenth century and the waterpower potential of St. Anthony Falls put increasing public pressure on the government to open the west side to private development. The first legal toehold was gained in 1849 when Robert Smith, an Illinois congressman, leased the abandoned government mills. The same year, Steele got permission from the government to locate a ferryman's house on the west side opposite Nicollet island. In late 1849 the house was begun and in the spring of 1850 John Stevens moved into it, becoming the first official settler on the west side of the Falls.

Following the Dakota treaty of 1851, Stevens claimed the land bordering the river on either side of what was to become Hennepin Avenue. Within two years almost all of the land within the modern limits of Minneapolis was claimed. Along the riverfront, Joel Bassett claimed the land north of Stevens' at the mouth of the creek that bears his name. Anson Northrup claimed the land below Stevens' on either side of Smith's mill property. E.H. Hedderly claimed the next portion to the south which was to become Gasworks Bluff. The river flats below Washington Avenue were claimed by Edward Murphy.

None of these claims were intially legal, however, since they were still part of the Fort Snelling Military Reservation. Even after the reservation was reduced in 1852, the land claims were still unofficial until after the government land survey in 1853. The original claimants were finally granted their land by the Pre-Emption Act passed by Congress in 1855.

Crucial to the early development of Minneapolis was the building of a suspension bridge across the Mississippi from Nicollet Island in 1854, the first permanent bridge built across the river throughout its entire length. The same year a ferry was established below the Falls at the river flats.

At first, the west side was envisioned as a farming community, but after the bridge provided ready access, the land near the river soon became too valuable for farming. In the mid-1850s Bassett and Stevens subdivided their land into city lots and the other original claimants soon did the same. The especially valuable land nearest the Falls was consolidated into a partnership of twelve men.

The pace of settlement rapidly increased. On the east side, major building projects in the late 1850s included several flour and lumber mills on Hennepin Island, the Winslow House hotel, and the First Universalist Church (now Our Lady of Lourdes). The 300 occupants of the west side in 1854 swelled to five times that number in two years. In 1856 the west side city was incorporated under the name of Minneapolis.

    Industrial Development

The development which was to play the greatest role in insuring the prosperity of the newly founded city occurred in 1857. A dam was started on the east side of the river extending out into the main channel. It was joined by a dam from the west side in 1858. The completed dam was V-shaped pointing upriver, channeling the water to mill ponds on the east and west sides. Although the structure of the dam has been replaced and repaired many times over years, the basic configuration has remained essentially intact. The natural landmark of St. Anthony Falls has been replaced by the cultural landmark formed by the dam and its spillway.

The waterpower on the west side was controlled by the Minneapolis Mill Company and, along with its counterpart of the east side, the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company, maintained the main channel dam and apron. The maximum waterpower potential at the Falls was initially estimated at over 100,000 horsepower, but a more accurate assessment made by William De la Barre in the 1880s was 35,000 horsepower taking into account seasonal fluctuations. De la Barre managed the Minneapolis Mill Company in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries becoming one of the world's most prominent hydropower engineers.

Waterpower was leased to industrial users on the basis of millpowers with one millpower theoretically equaling 75 horsepower and limited to 16 hours of use per day. In the early days of industrial development at St. Anthony Falls, one millpower required an average of 30 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water. After De la Barre's improvements in the 1880s increasing the fall, or head, along the west side canal from 22 to 36 feet, only about 20 cfs was required per millpower. (Currently only 13.5 cfs is required on a maximum fall of almost 50 feet.)

Before the Mississippi headwaters reservoirs were built in the 1880s, only in April, May, and June would the flow of water to St. Anthony Falls be over 10,000 cfs while in January and February the flow would average 2,000 cfs. The construction of the reservoirs somewhat stabilized the warm-season flow, but flows of over 10,000 cfs still only occur consistently in the spring.

During the height of the direct-drive hydropower industries at the Falls in the late nineteenth century, a maximum of about 13,000 horsepower of hydropower was utilized, 10,000 on the west and 3,000 on the east. The sawmills built on the platforms over the Falls were the least efficient users of the water, having a head of less than 15 feet. De la Barre considered the maximum industrial potential of the Falls should use no more than 6,000 cfs of water, but it was difficult to measure and control the exact amount of water each plant used. During droughts, power shortages were common and priority was given on the basis of when millpowers were leased with the earliest leasees having first access to the available water supply.

In 1858 the first platform sawmill was built over the west end of the main channel dam. As Minnesota entered the Union that year as the thirty-second state, the economic foundation of Minneapolis had been laid. These developments took place in the midst of a national financial panic.

Besides the dam, another critical construction project had also begun in 1857. The Minneapolis Mill Company built a short canal angling from the river at the foot of 5th Avenue S. to the intersection of 1st Street and 6th Avenue S. While waterpower development on the east side proceeded in a haphazzard manner in the mid-nineteenth century, the west side canal efficiently harnessed and distributed waterpower. This led to the rapid construction of flour, woolen, and paper mills along the canal.

In 1859 the first commercial flour mill, the Cataract, was built on the west side power canal. Two years later the Union Mill was built nearby. Development along the canal was then somewhat slowed by the Civil War, but by the end of 1865 a diversified mill district was taking shape. The canal had been extended another 600 feet south along 1st Street and bordering it were the Cataract Flour Mill, the Union Flour Mill, the Minneapolis Flour Mill, the City Flour Mill, the Coon and Clapp Woolen Mill, and the Minnesota Iron Works.

On the west side dam platform were eight sawmills, six along the front and two in back. Also in 1865 the Minnesota Central Railroad entered the city from the south extending into the mill district. By the end of the 1860s, three more flour mills (the Dakota, Alaska, and Washburn B), J.B. Bassett's Sawmill, and a paper mill lined the canal.

On the east side, no new lumber mills and only two small flour mills, the St. Anthony and the Summit, were built in the 1860s. Two attempts at expanding the waterpower system on the east side failed. The Chute Tunnel beneath Main Street encountered a large natural cave near the foot of 4th Avenue SE and was abandoned in 1864. The Eastman Tunnel to Nicollet Island collapsed in 1869, destroying the Summit Mill on Hennepin Island and almost destroying St. Anthony Falls. There was some successful industrial development in the East Side Mill District, however. Three waterpowered ironwroks were built - the St. Anthony, the North Star, and the Union.

Industrial developments were also taking place along the west side of the river north and south of the mill district in the late 1860s. A large steam-powered sawmill called the Pacific Mill was built just north of Hennepin Avenue in 1866, beginning a trend to locate sawmills along the river in north Minneapolis. In 1867 the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad built a bridge across the river between Bassett's Creek and the suspension bridge, linking the city to the East. In 1868 the North Star Ironworks were erected just southwest of the railroad bridge. The same year, the Moffit sawmill and Eldred shingle mill were built just south of Bassett's Creek.

South of the mill district, development was not as extensive since the area did not have the waterpower potential of the Falls vicinity. The bluffs also made transportation to the river and between the two sides of the river difficult. The one industry that did get established south of the mill district in the 1860s was brewing. In 1866 the Kranzlein and Mueller (later Heinrich) Brewery was built at the south end of the west side river flats.

The flats were only sparsely occupied at this time and were covered with a dense river-bottom forest. A few prominent citizens such as William Garland and Edwin Hedderly built houses on top of the bluff south of the West Side Mill District. South of the East Side Mill District, the University of Minnesota opened in 1869.

The twin cities at St. Anthony Falls made significant progress in the 1860s, but the decade was not without its problems. The Civil War and the Dakota Conflict diverted funds, attention, and manpower. The constant battering of the Falls by logs which escaped the booms hastened their destruction so a wooden apron was built over them in 1866. A year later the apron washed out. The 1869 Eastman Tunnel collapse ended in disaster creating a chasm which could have undercut the entire Falls. The break was temporarily plugged after a month-long struggle by both cities. Over the next several years, the Falls were saved by Army Corps of Engineers by placing a permanent plug in the Eastman Tunnel, building a dike beneath the limestone above the Falls to prevent undercutting, and constructing a new apron over the Falls.

By 1870 the population of Minneapolis was over twice that of St. Anthony (13,000 vs 5,000). The mutual interest in developing and protecting the waterpower was a major factor leading to the consolidation of the two cities in 1872. Since it was clear that the west side had taken over the social and economic leadership, the new city was called Minneapolis. The city agreed to build several new bridges across the Mississippi as soon as possible after consolidation. In 1874 it made good on its promise and finished bridges at Plymouth Avenue in the north and 10th Avenue in the south. They were initially referred to as the Upper and Lower bridges. Two years later a new, stone-towered suspension bridge replaced the wooden-towered one at Hennepin Avenue.

Industrial development along the west side riverfront was rapid in the 1870s. Fifteen new flour mills, a cotton mill, a new Bassett sawmill, the city waterworks, and an ironworks were built adjacent to the canal. The flour mill development was spurred by the introduction of the middlings purifier and iron rollers.

On the east side, the original platform sawmills just southeast of Nicollet Island burned in 1870. They were rebuilt downstream east of Hennepin Island. The North Star flour mill was built in 1871, followed by the Tower Mill in 1872 and the Phoenix Mill in 1876. William Eastman finally succeeded in bringing waterpower to Nicollet Island in 1879 through the use of an overhead cable.

Ironically, the decade of greatest growth in the Mill District was also the decade of greatest disaster. On the west side, the Minneapolis Mill burned in 1871 and in 1875 the Galaxy Mill burned. The Washburn A Mill exploded in 1878 completely destroying itself and taking with it the Pettit, Zenith, Galaxy, Humboldt, and Diamond mills. A year later the City Mill burned. The east side also lost a number of industries in the 1870s. Fires destroyed the Barnard Brothers furniture factory in 1871, the River and Island mills in 1872, the Farnham and Lovejoy Sawmill in 1873, and the McMullen Sawmill in 1877.

By the end of the decade, however, all of the damaged west side flour mills except one had been replaced or were being replaced by larger, more efficient mills. The east side sawmills were rebuilt. Railroad trestles were built over the 1st Street Canal and just east of the west side mills to give them direct access to grain and flour cars. Minneapolis flour milling began to gain an international reputation for quality and quantity.

While industrial development in the 1870s was still centered at the Falls, it also spread up and down the river. In the Bassett's Creek area, a prominent residential district had grown up along 1st Street N., although sawmilling, warehouse, and railroad expansion soon forced most residents south of the creek to move elsewhere. Bridge Square at the west end of the suspension bridge became the commercial heart of the booming city and the "gateway" to the west. South of the mill district, a gasworks was built on the bluff near the river bend. The river flats below were beginning to be intensively settled by immigrants who could not afford to buy a city lot. Nicollet Island became a fashionable place to live with townhouses and mansions.

By 1880 the population of Minneapolis was 47,000. That year a new dam and apron were completed at the Falls (Figure 6). Flour milling became the undisputed "Queen of the Falls." State of the art milling could be seen at the new Washburn A and Crown Roller mills. Support industries such as mill machinery works and barrel works thrived in the mill district. In 1880 Minneapolis led the nation in flour milling, a position it was to hold for the next fifty years.

Only a few new flour mills were built in the 1880s, notably the mammoth Pillsbury A Mill on the east side. The continued growth of the flour industry was dependent on improvements in efficiency and techniques. A short canal was finally completed on the east side supplying efficient waterpower to the Phoenix and Pillbury A mills.

The west side canal was widened and deepened and the tailraces lowered in an attempt to improve the waterpower. This power was still susceptible to low water, ice, and jamming caused by lumber refuse, so most of the mills added auxiliary steampower. Rollers replaced the cumbersome mill stones and electric lights made mill interiors safer.

Sawmilling also flourished in the 1880s, but it was no longer centered at the Falls. Large steam-driven mills lined both sides of the river north of Hennepin Avenue and they soon led the nation in lumber production. The west side platform mills were torn down in 1887 and a year later the east side platform mills burned. By the end of the decade, the Bassett Sawmill at the head of the canal was the only waterpowered sawmill on the west side and there was only one remaining on the east side.

Railroads flourished along the central riverfront in the 1880s. South of Bassett's Creek, tracks took over much of the land between the sawmills and the 1st Street warehouses. The small residential district just south of Hennepin Avenue was also taken over by the railroads and the first house built in Minneapolis had to be moved so the Union Depot could be built. Three new railroad bridges spanned the river, dominated by James J. Hill's stone arch structure. Extensive yards were built just south and west of the West Side Mill District to provide switching facilities for the increasing needs and outputs of the flour mills.

The age of electricity was also dawning in Minneapolis. One of the first hydropower generating plants in the nation was built in 1882 on Upton's Island just south of the platform sawmills. Two years later the plant's generators were moved to a new steam plant at the foot of 3rd Avenue N. Some of the flour mills added their own generating plants. Telephone wires were soon strung throughout the city.

By 1890 the face of the central riverfront had changed considerably. Landmarks such as the Pacific Sawmill and the North Star Ironworks were torn down to make room for more railroad tracks. Bassett's Creek was covered so the railroad yards could sprawl northward. The stone towers of the suspension bridge were torn down so a new steel arch bridge could be finished.

In the mill district, new stone tailraces regularized the west side riverbank. Pray Manufacturing was vacant due to financial failure. The tower of the new courthouse was rising in the background and the view to the east was dominated by the Exposition Building which had replaced the Winslow House in 1887.

The last decade of the nineteenth century witnessed significant internal changes in the mill district, as ownership of most of the mills was consolidated into four large companies. The well known names of the mills were changed to alphabetic or numerical designations. There were still the occasional fires, the constant plague of the mills. The old Willford and Northway shops at the Model Mill location burned in 1895 and the Bassett Sawmill burned in 1897 ending waterpowered lumber production on the west side.

Another significant change in 1890s was the expansion of hydroelectric facilities. This not only changed the scenery, but expanded the waterpower district to the south. The Lower Dam and Hydropower Station were built just above the river bend near the end of the decade. Prior to this, Minneapolis General Electric built a hydroelectric facility at the foot of 3rd Avenue SE near Main Street.

At the start of the new century, Minneapolis led the nation in flour production and lumber production. The city's population went over 200,000 and its first settler, John Stevens, died. During the first few years of the twentieth century, numerous landmarks disappeared along the central riverfront; the Shevlin-Carpenter Sawmill, the Noerenberg Brewery, and the Heinrich Brewery. In the mill district new landmarks were being built, the cylindrical concrete grain elevators. Electric power plants began to take over the interbank area and large steam plants were built to supplement the waterpower.

By 1910 the city's population was just over 300,000. Flour milling continued to grow, but sawmilling was rapidly declining. Over the next ten years, major changes took place in the face of the mill district. Several new buildings, mainly elevators, were built on the west side. The St. Anthony, Union, and Holly mills were torn down in 1916, the year Minneapolis flour production peaked.

North of the mill district, the Great Northern Depot replaced the Union Depot at Hennepin Avenue and the new Third Avenue bridge spanned the river. Bridge Square had fallen into decay, and after the old City Hall burned in 1912, Gateway Park was established at the triangular intersection of Nicollet and Hennepin Avenues near the steel arch bridge. The completion of Lock and Dam #1 in 1917 brought regular river traffic to the foot of the Falls.

The 1920s was the period of rapid decline in the central riverfront. Flour production steadily declined, sawmilling ceased, and railroad revenues began to fall off after a peak early in the decade. More landmarks disappeared as the Cataract Mill was torn down in 1928. The North Star Woolen Mill had been completely rebuilt several years before. The stock market crash in 1929 only hastened the declining importance of the riverfront. The completion of the Foshay Tower 10 blocks to the west seemed to symbolize the shift in focus away from the river.

    Riverfront Decline

In 1930 Buffalo, New York took over the national lead in flour production. A year later, the Pettit, Zenith, Galaxy, Northwestern, Pillsbury B, Washburn B, and North Star Feed Mills were torn down. The residents of Bohemian Flats were evicted for the construction of coal storage yards. Later in the 1930s, the Palisade and Anchor mills were torn down and the Minneapolis Western railroad trestle over the canal was dismantled. A new post office was built just north of the mill district, one of the few additions among a long list of subtractions.

The 1940s witnessed the continued destruction of the features upon which the initial prosperity of the city had been based. The Columbia Mill, the 10th Avenue S. (Lower) bridge, and the Minneapolis Eastern railroad trestle in front of the west side mills were all torn down in the early 1940s. On the east side the Exposition Building was removed to make room for a bottling plant.

In 1950, Minneapolis population peaked at 521,700. The Lower Lock and Dam was started in 1950 and was finished six years later. The Phoenix Mill was torn down in 1956 leaving only one flour mill on the east side. The start of the Upper Lock and Dam in 1959 was the death blow to the old mill district, shutting off waterpower to the canals on either side of the river.

In 1960, the west side canal was filled-in and the gatehouse torn down. The Washburn C Mill and the Excelsior Mill were torn down in the early 1960s. The last flour made on the west side came out of the Washburn A Mill in 1965 and two years later the Dakota Mill burned down. In 1969 the Pillsbury B/King Midas elevator burned, completing the destruction of the buildings on the east side of the 1st Street canal. The old commercial heart of the city northwest of the mill district was gutted by the Gateway Renewal Project in the early 1960s, leaving a flat plain of parking lots. The ninety-year old gasworks was demolished in 1961.

As the 1960s witnessed the end of flour milling on the west side waterfront, the 1970s witnessed the demise of railroading. Early in the decade, the Omaha yards in the Bassett's Creek area were torn up. The Great Northern Depot was torn down in 1978 and shortly thereafter the adjacent tracks along the river and across the stone arch bridge were removed. Only the railroad bridge north of Hennepin Avenue, the abandoned Northern Pacific and stone arch bridges, the Milwaukee Road Depot, and a few freight depots stand as reminders of the riverfront's railroad heritage.

    Riverfront Renewal

The industrial death of the central riverfront in the 1960s and 1970s left the heart of Minneapolis a wasteland. The abandoned buildings and vacant lots were avoided by citizens and vistors alike. But with the abandonment came opportunity. The central riverfront was for the first time since the 1850s open for non-industrial development.

The recolonization of the central riverfront began in 1968 with the opening of Fuji-Ya restaurant built into the ruins of the Bassett Sawmill and Columbia Flour Mill. Across the river, Pracna restaurant opened in 1973 in a building that had been built in the 1890s as a saloon. Four years later, St. Anthony Main shopping center opened in the old Salisbury and Satterlee Mattress Factory.

Recreational opportunities were also being developed. Father Hennepin Park was established just southeast of the East Side Mill District in 1971. In 1974, a small park was established at the mouth of Bassett's Creek.

The redevelopment of the central riverfront began in earnest in the 1980s. Quality housing became available with the opening of the Nicollet Island Inn and Grove Street Flats in 1982, Riverplace in 1984, and the Whitney Hotel and Riverwalk in 1987. Office space expanded with the opening of FMC building in 1987 and the Crown Mill and Ceresota Elevator renovations in 1988. Transportation improvements include the replacement of the Broadway, Plymouth, and Hennepin Avenue bridges. Parkland expansion includes the development of Boom Island Park, Nicollet Island Park, and the West River Parkway. The riverfront has once again become a focus of attention in Minneapolis.

The renewal of the central riverfront has not all been positive. Commercial development has been too rapid leading to numerous building vacancies and bankrupcies. There have been detrimental affects to the historical fabric of the riverfront as archaeological sites have been destroyed, historic buildings torn down, and innappopriate developments have intruded into the historic setting. One of the worst examples is the Riverwest Apartment building just north of the Crown Mill. It is not only too tall and architecturally incompatable, but it blocks the view of downtown for people on the east side of the river and blocks the view of the river for people downtown.

One of the serious deficiencies in the redevelopment is the lack of historic interpretation. With the establishment of the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board, the stage has now been set for a long overdue act in the riverfront drama. The St. Anthony Falls area is arguably the most important historic site in Minnesota and its time it was treated as such.


 
Vol. 48, No. 1-2  © 1989 The Minnesota Archaeological Society

Sources Stories Credits Search Contents Links
Northern Headwaters Twin Cities Metro Area Red Wing Locality

From Site to Story web address
© 1999 The Institute for Minnesota Archaeology
Email us: feedback@fromsitetostory.org
Updated 29 Jun 1999