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Vol. 48, No. 1-2                                1989



Scott F. Anfinson
Minnesota Historical Society

© 1989 Minnesota Archaeological Society


Table of Contents
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

Archaeological Site Inventory
Nicollet Island

Nicollet Island, the largest island of the central Minneapolis riverfront, is divided into three sections: a northern residential district, a central commercial district, and a southern industrial district (Figures 42 and 43). At the time of white settlement, the island was covered with maple and elm trees. There are accounts of Indian maple sugar camps there in the early nineteenth century. Franklin Steele claimed the island when the east side was opened to white settlement in 1838.

Several houses were built on Nicollet Island in the 1840s including that of John North. The island was initially accessible across the east channel by fording the river, walking on logs in the summer, or by walking on the ice in the winter. In the fall of 1849, many of the trees were logged off Nicollet Island for the St. Anthony sawmill when an early freeze prevented logs from being transported from farther north.

In 1865, William Eastman and John Merriam bought Nicollet Island and offered to sell it to the city for a park. When the park proposal was turned down, Eastman and Merriam decided to develop the southern part of the island as an industrial center. In 1869, an attempt to bring waterpower to Nicollet Island failed disasterously when the tailrace tunnel under the river collapsed at the southern tip of the island nearly destroying the Falls of St. Anthony. The tunnel break was eventually plugged, but no further attempts were made to bring waterpower directly to Nicollet Island.

In 1879, Eastman succeeded in bringing power to Nicollet Island by stringing a long, overhead cable to from the east channel dam through an interchannel tower. It powered various industries housed in the Island Power Building as well as several nearby factories. Most of these buildings burned in the disasterous fire of August 13, 1893 which started in the stables of the Cedar Lake Ice Company and quickly spread, eventually jumping to Boom Island to the north.

Following the fire, several new brick or stone building were built on the southern part of Nicollet Island. Only the Williams Brothers Boiler Works (Nicollet Island Park Shelter) and Island Sash and Door (Nicollet Island Inn) survive today. Most of the southern part of the island is now a park.

While the southern end of the island was being developed for industry, a commercial district developed along Bridge Street (Hennepin Avenue) in the middle portion of Nicollet Island. Initially the buildings were small stores built out of wood, but by the turn of the century larger brick buildings were present. Most of these buildings were torn down in the late 1960s for the reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue.

North of the narrow commercial district, Nicollet Island has been mainly residential. Several prominent families built large houses on the northern part of the island in the 1870s. Eastman built several large stone and brick townhouse complexes beginning in 1877. At this time, Nicollet Island was considered a fashionable place to live. By the turn of the century, however, most wealthy citizens had abandoned Nicollet Island. The construction of De La Salle High School in the 1920s and 1930s destroyed most of the Eastman townhouses. The surviving townhouse has recently been rehabilitated.

The far northern portion of Nicollet Island has retained much of its late nineteenth century character with numerous frame houses in various states of restoration. Several old houses from other parts of Minneapolis have recently been moved into this part of the island.

    NI-1. Northern Nicollet Island Residential Area, north end of the island from half a block north of Hennepin Ave. (ca. 1850 - present)

Prior to the 1870s, Nicollet Island had seen limited development. An access road to the Hennepin Avenue bridge cut across the southern part of the island in the 1854 and the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad cut across the northern part of the island in 1867. Views from the 1860s show 15 to 20 houses on the island, most of them on the northern half. This part of the island also had several limestone quarries and beer storage caves.

After William Eastman and John Merriam bought the island in 1865, they intially sold residential lots to middle-class citizens, but in the 1870s they encouraged wealthy citizens to settle on the island. Eastman along with the DeLaittres and King families built mansions on the island. Eastman also built several townhouses in the middle of the island and sold them to influential people such as J.B. Bassett. By the mid-1880s, about 40 residences had been built on Nicollet Island as well as three four-story masonry townhouses, one with 30 units, one with 20 units, and one with 8 units.

In the late nineteenth century, north Nicollet Island became a middle class neighborhood. The Eastman townhouses were divided into apartments. A frame schoolhouse was built at the turn of the century. Several small businesses were established including A.M. Smith's wine cellars, Roman Alexander's fixture company, and the Minneapolis Cold Storage Company. The beer storage caves became mushroom growing rooms.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the two largest Eastman apartment buildings and several mansions were torn down for the construction of De La Salle High School. By the mid-century, some of the older houses had been torn down and others had been sub-divided. Today, only the 8-unit Eastman townhouse complex survives (Grove Street Flats), but there are numerous surviving examples of nineteenth century frame dwellings. Several vacant lots have been recently filled with houses moved unto the island. The few remaining vacant lots may hold good archaeological potential for invesigating middle class lifestyles of the mid- to late nineteenth century.

References: SAFR (1980:60-73); Sanborn (1885, 1912), Ruger (1867); Mpls. Star Tribune (7/28/1990 Section 1R); Mpls. Star Tribune (3/4/1989 - Section 1R).

    NI-2. Central Nicollet Island Commercial District, on either side of Hennepin Ave. (ca. 1875 - 1975)

In the late nineteenth century, a narrow commercial district developed along Bridge Street (Hennepin Avenue) in the middle portion of Nicollet Island. Initially the buildings were small stores and dwellings built out of wood with a few brick and stone buildings including the brick-clad Tate Hotel.

By the early twentieth century, most of the frame buildings had been replaced by larger brick buildings. These buildings housed several hotels, small factories, and specialty shops. The district changed very little over the next 50 years, except for changes of ownership and name. Many of the buildings were torn down in 1973 for the reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue. Some foundations may exist beneath roadway fill.

References: (Sanborn 1885, 1912); City Directories; Mpls. Tribune 3/28/73.

    NI-3. Island Power Building, East side of Power St., S. Nicollet Island (1879-1937)

In 1879 the Island Water Power Company built a long, three-story, stone building near the southeastern end of Nicollet Island. It was powered by a wire rope extending over the river from the west end of the east channel sawmill platform. In 1880 the building contained a box factory, a furniture factory, a paint factory, a machinery firm, and two grist mills. In 1885 the south end of the building was damaged by fire, but it was soon rebuilt. Over the next fifty years, numerous firms occupied the building even though waterpower was cut off in the early twntieth century. The interchannel tower was removed for the 3rd Avenue Bridge construction in 1916. The building was torn down in 1937. Foundations probably remain beneath parkland.

References: SAFR (1980:65); Kane (1987:83, 202); Greenleaf (1887:172); Warner et al. (1881:414); City Directory (1888).

    NI-4. Lintges, Conwell and Company Boiler Works, foot of Power St., S. Nicollet Island (1887-1893)

In 1887 Lintges, Conwell and Company built a boilerworks at the south end of Nicollet Island. It was a one-story, frame building. It burned in 1892. Any foundation remnants were probably destroyed by the subsequent construction of William Brothers boilerworks (Nicollet Island Park Shelter) which still occupies the site.

References: Rascher (1892).

    NI-5. J. R. Clark Box Co., Foot of Wilder St., S. Nicollet Island (ca. 1880-1893)

In 1880 J. R. Clark built a box factory at the south end of Nicollet Island. It was a two-story, frame structure powered by an overhead wire rope from the Island Power building. It burned in 1893 and the subsequent construction of another building in 1898 probably destroyed any foundation remnants.

References: Warner et al. (1881:414,418); Sanborn (1885).

    NI-6. Minneapolis Wagon Co./Union Wagon Co., Wilder St., S. Nicollet Island (1884-1893)

The Minneapolis Wagon Company built a wooden, two-story factory at the southwest end of Nicollet Island in 1884. It was powered by an overhead cable from the Nicollet Island power tower. In 1889 the Union Wagon Company took over the building. It burned in 1893 and the subsequent construction of Durkee-Atwood Building #3 probably destroyed all foundational remnants.

References: City Directories (1883-1893); Sanborn (1885).

    NI-7. Stock Food Co. of America/Durkee Atwood Building #2, 40 Wilder St., S. Nicollet Island (1898-1985)

In 1898 the J.R. Clark Box Company built a three-story, brick building near the southwest edge of Nicollet Island. It was initially powered by the Island Power overhead cable. In 1905 the Stock Food Company of America took over the building. In 1920 Durkee-Atwood, a manufacturer of oil, grease, and rubber goods took over the building. It was torn down in 1985. Some foundational remnants may still be in place.

References: Rascher (1892/06); City Directories.

    NI-8. Durkee-Atwood Building #3, 32 Wilder St., S. Nicollet Island (ca. 1920-1985)

Durkee-Atwood built a new brick, one-story structure on the southwest side of Nicollet Island in 1920. Rubber goods were manufactured in the back portion of the building and the front part was a garage. It was torn down in 1985, although some foundations may remain below parkland.

References: Sanborn (1912/28).

    NI-9. Westphal/City Ice House, west edge of island half a block south of Hennepin Ave. (ca. 1879 - 1893)

In 1873, Herman Westphal went into the ice supply business. In the late 1870s, he built an ice house on the southwest edge of Nicollet Island. By 1885, the Nicollet Island building was one of three Westphal ice houses in Minneapolis. It was a two-story frame building somewhat trapezoidal in shape, 40' wide and 60' long. In the late 1890s, a 75' x 24' addition was made on the north side. The disasterous east side fire of August 13, 1893 was said to have begun in the icehouse, ignited by some careless young smokers. Kunz Oil Company storage facilities occupied the east end of the site for much of the early twentieth century. A small masonry sheet metal works was built on the west end of the site. Some foundational remains probably exist under the parkland that occupies the site today.

References: Mpls. Times (8/14/90); Sanborn (1885, 1912); City Directories (1873-85).

    NI-10. Cedar Lake Ice Company, west edge of island one block south of Hennepin Ave. (ca. 1880 - 1893)

About 1880, C.A. Sutton built an ice house on the southwest side of Nicollet Island between the Westphal Ice Company and the Minneapolis Wagon Company. Sutton had been in the ice business in Minneapolis since 1875, adopting the name Cedar Ice Company in 1879. The large wooden building was 90' x 40' and two stories high. It burned in 1893 in the east side fire of August 13. A small stone creamery was built at the east end of the site in the 1920s. This later became part of the Durkee-Atwood Complex. Foundational remains may remain under the parkland that now occupies the site.

References: Mpls. Times (8/13/93); Sanborn (1885, 1912/27, 1912/51).

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

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