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

Sources - Papers








Vol. 49, No. 1-2                                1990



Scott F. Anfinson
Minnesota Historical Society

© 1989 Minnesota Archaeological Society

Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Archaeology In and Of the City
Chapter 2 Site Formation
Chapter 3 Survey, Excavation, and Monitoring: 1983-1990
Chapter 4 Interpretive Potentials
References Cited
Historical Figures and Photographs  (big thumbnails)   (medium)   (small)

Chapter 4 Interpretive Potentials

The city of Minneapolis began as a waterpowered industrial complex centered at St. Anthony Falls. Today the city is no longer reliant on the power of St. Anthony Falls or on the products that once were produced in great quantities through the use of waterpower, but the Fall's industrial legacy is closely interwoven into the cultural, economic, and structural fabric of the city, the Midwest region, and even the nation itself.

The central Minneapolis riverfront has long been recognized as a historically important area. In 1966, Lucile Kane's book The Waterfall that Built a City eloquently described the historic heart of Minneapolis. That same year, the Pillsbury A Mill was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1971, the St. Anthony Falls Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1975, the American Society of Civil Engineers designated the Stone Arch Bridge as a National Engineering Landmark. In 1983, the Washburn A Mill Complex was declared a National Historic Landmark.

In 1976, the Minneapolis Riverfront Development Coordination Board commissioned the first major study of historic buildings along the central riverfront (Figure 54). Over 140 buildings and structures of historical significance were identified (Berman 1980). Additional information recently added by the State Historic Preservation Office to the St. Anthony Falls Historic District documentation described in detail 41 historic buildings, 15 historic structures, and 38 archaeological sites.

Literature searches have identified over 160 potential archaeological sites along the central Minneapolis riverfront. Archaeological testing along the riverfront has demonstrated a surprising rate of survival for archaeological features in an urban area heavily utilized for over 100 years. It has also illustrated the great potential for not only further archaeological investigation, but public interpretation of a wide range of features.

It is stunning that the St. Anthony Falls area, one of the most important historic areas in Minnesota, currently lacks any sort of comprehensive interpretation. There are a few plaques scattered along the riverfront noting that something important once occurred in a particular locality, but there is nowhere for a visitor to grasp the important and various history surrounding the landmark at a continent's heart.

It was here that the only major waterfall on the entire Mississippi River once thundered unfettered by human engineering. Below the cataract, the river calmly flowed through a gorge created by the waterfall's 10,000 year migration. The land adjacent to the waterfall was part of the first Indian land in Minnesota obtained by Zebulon Pike for the United States. It was here that the lumber to help build Fort Snelling was sawn at Minnesota's first sawmill. The first flour produced in Minnesota was ground by the waterpower of St. Anthony Falls. The first bridge across the Mississippi River was built here. Here is the home of Pillsbury and General Mills.

The interpretive potential of the St. Anthony Falls area is almost unbounded. Yet it is still uninterpreted and its historic features by in large are unknown and inaccessible to the general public. The lack of interpretation is partially due to the great number of public agencies and private interests that are directly involved in ownership and management of the central Minneapolis riverfront. But part of the lack of interpretation is the immense scope of resources and history to be interpreted. A daunting task even if the various interests could cooperate.

A major step was taken in 1988 to correct the lack of interpretation along the central Minneapolis Riverfront. The State Legislature established the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Zone which extends along the Mississippi River from the Plymouth Avenue bridge to the I-35W bridge. The St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board was established to coordinate the planning and implementation of an interpretive system for the Heritage Zone. While the Board does not have funds to actually build the system, it allows the various riverfront players to sit down together and design a strategy that can prioritize interpretive needs, while considering economic realities and management responsibilities.

In 1990, the St. Anthony Falls Interpretive Plan was completed by the Heritage Board. The plan consists of three major components: 1) an overview of the major historic resources and themes, 2) a preliminary design for a Heritage Trail to connect the resources and provide some interpretation, and 3) suggestions for an Orientation Center. The plan also prioritizes interpretive needs and makes some suggestions as to the costs of the various phases.

While the St. Anthony Falls Interpretive Plan has clarified the priorities and issues with regard to historic interpretation on the riverfront, the plan will be largely useless unless aspects of it are implemented in the near future. This includes opening a segment of the Heritage Trail and getting a commitment from a major historical organization to take charge of the historic interpretation of the area.

The Heritage Board is currently designing the route and features of the Heritage Trail. Critical to this goal is the opening of the Stone Arch Bridge to pedestrian traffic. The Hennepin County Rail Authority owns the bridge and is responsible for maintaining the integrity of the structure itself. Under a proposed agreement, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board would be responsible to maintain the trail across the bridge and the Minnesota Historical Society would be in charge of placing and maintaining historical exhibits. This agreement may be the model used to implement the historic interpretation of the entire St. Anthony Falls Heritage Zone.

Discussions have also begun on selecting an Orientation Center location. The Orientation Center is envisioned as providing a starting point for the Heritage Trail where the visitor can actually view the entire area. Limited exhibits will discuss the overall history of the area and give the visitor a sense of place. Facilities such as restrooms, a gift shop, and Heritage Trail offices would be located in the Orientation Center. The headhouse above the Washburn A Mill elevators has been suggested as a possible location.

The Heritage Trail is only the first step in the interpretation of the St. Anthony Falls area. There is a great need to have interpretation beyond the limited exhibits and plaques along the Heritage Trail and in the Orientation Center. There is clearly a need for at least one major interpretive center at St. Anthony Falls. An interpretive center is needed to provide an in-depth exhibition of selected historical themes.

    Interpretive Themes

While a great many themes could be interpreted at St. Anthony Falls, space and monetary realities along with historical appropriateness suggest that only a few should be targeted for detailed interpretation. Appropriateness is based on choosing themes that best reflect the most important historical aspects of St. Anthony Falls; stories that are best told at the site and that have physical remains available for study and exhibition.

St. Anthony Falls is probably not the place to undertake any major interpretation of Minnesota's Indian history. One of the disappointments of the archaeological surveys was the failure to find any clearly definable aboriginal sites. While such sites no doubt occurred along this stretch of the Mississippi River, aboriginal occupation of the central Minneapolis riverfront was apparently never concentrated. The inability of the backhoes to penetrate beyond recent fill in some areas and the limited use of screening during the recent excavations makes it impossible to state that no significant aboriginal sites exist along the central riverfront, but the historical record and partial archaeological sample indicate such sites may be small and difficult to find. Early settler and surveyor accounts mention few burial mounds or artifact finds in the immediate vicinity, while in other parts of the Twin Cities area (e.g., Lake Calhoun, St. Paul riverfront) numerous sites and finds have been recorded.

With regard to the early white settlement of the riverfront, no recognizable remains of residential structures have been identified, although artifactual remains from the mid-nineteenth century have been recovered in what appeared to be natural soil south of the Hennepin Avenue bridge. The largest early residential area within the study area was Bohemian Flats, but limited testing of the lower terrace failed to find extensive artifactual deposits. While some coverage of residential activities can be included along the Heritage Trail and in the Orientation Center, no major interpretation is warranted without physical remains.

Clearly, the remains of non-residential structures offer the most extensive, interpretable archaeological and structural remains along the central riverfront. The archaeological work has examined the foundations of railroad buildings, sawmills, power plants, flour mills, a brewery, bridge foundations, water works, waterpower facilities, iron works, and commercial trash dumps. These archaeological features, coupled with the presence of nearby standing structures offer a concentrated interpretive potential that is perhaps unmatched along the entire route of the Great River Road with regard to the nation's nineteenth century industrial heritage.

The two dominant historical themes of the Minneapolis central riverfront are clearly waterpower and flour milling. Minneapolis was the greatest direct-drive waterpower center the world has ever seen. It led the world in flour production for a half-century.

The basic structures of the waterpower complex are still in place and are, by in large, visible. These include the dam, spillway, the Hennepin Island wasteways, the entrance to the Pillsbury canal, the Pillsbury tailraces, and the east side platform tailrace. The most impressive exhibit at St. Anthony Falls is the white water roaring over the spillway after the spring melt or after heavy rains.

Since most of the visible and easily accessible historic waterpower features and the few currently operating waterpower facilities are on the east side of the river, a waterpower interpretive center should be located on that side. Perhaps the best location would be the abandoned Main Street Hydroelectric Plant built in 1911. The plant straddles what was the east channel of the river and is on the St. Anthony millpond dam.

In 1980, the Riverfront Development Coordination Board undertook a study which suggested the Main Street Hydro Plant as a site for a Hydroelectric Interpretive Center. The study contained many good ideas which could now be expanded to include waterpower in general not just hydroelectricity.

A major exhibit could also be placed on the west side of the river if the canal gates and tailraces are exposed. Part of the Heritage Trail could eventually include a subterranean segment exploring the head race and tailrace tunnels that honeycomb the riverfront.

With regard to flour milling, only five of over thirty flour mills still stand. One of those mills - the Washburn A Mill - is in ruins, two mills - the Crown and the Standard - have been redeveloped by commercial ventures, and one - the Pillsbury A Mill - is still an active flour mill. The 1879 Humboldt Mill stands vacant.

The Humboldt Mill offers Minneapolis a unique opportunity to interpret its past and draw people to the riverfront. While country grist mills are restored and interpreted by the hundreds all over the world, only in Budapest, the world's first great milling center, is there any interpretation of a large urban flour mill. Minneapolis became the the "Budapest of the West" and soon outstripped the Hungarian city in flour production and innovative technology.

A milling interpretive center belongs in Minneapolis and it belongs in a flour mill. Machines representing late nineteenth century milling technology still exist at a few places in Minnesota. These machines could be assembled in the Humboldt Mill so it once again becomes a fully operating flour mill. The Humboldt Mill is not only of a reasonable scale, but was initially not affiliated with any of the modern milling giants such as Pillsbury and General Mills. Private as well public funds could be used to build a flour milling interpretive center.

While a milling interpretive center will require a standing structure and a collection of usable milling equipment, archaeology will also be needed to help interpret flour milling in Minneapolis. The scope of flour milling cannot be understood just by touring an operating mill or viewing the remaining mill buildings and historical photographs. By exposing two blocks of ruins along the 1st Street waterpower canal, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board hopes not only to create an unique urban park, but impress visitors with the concentration of flour mills at St. Anthony Falls.

Essential to the interpretation of flour milling in Minneapolis is the preservation of the north half of the Washburn A Mill as a ruin. It is a powerful historical image of the size of the Minneapolis mills and the danger fire constantly posed. The original Washburn A Mill was destroyed by a explosion and many other mills along the canal burned. We should not just limit ourselves to basement ruins. We need the high, jagged walls to remind us of a past that is not so distant or so different.


The archaeological work done along the central Minneapolis riverfront has proved to be both fruitful and frustrating. Literature searches have documented a complex of various, numerous, interesting, and important localities. Archaeological survey has located many of these sites and even found a few unexpected sites, but testing has been restricted to areas within the proposed West River Parkway or the Hennepin Avenue Bridge right of way. Encouraged by the parkway and bridge construction, development has been moving rapidly in adjacent areas. This development has destroyed a number of significant archaeological features and threatens many more.

The testing has illustrated that all aspects of riverfront history can benefit from archaeological interpretation. Some industries like sawmilling have structural remains that exist only as archaeological features. Archaeological interpretation should not be merely exposing these features. It should include pursuing research questions that help us better understand the various activities that once took place at St. Anthony Falls. The act of doing archaeology in itself becomes a living exhibit that can attract many visitors as several eastern cities have discovered.

The archaeological work that is summarized in this volume should not be viewed as the completion of the archaeological exploration of the riverfront, but only the initial survey. We should now design a research program to investigate questions that will help us understand our past and to help recreate the dynamic riverfront that once dominated the industrial midwest.

And finally, we should not limit ourselves in our historical planning for the riverfront. If we can envision a Heritage Trail on the Stone Arch Bridge or a milling museum in the Humboldt Mill, we can also envision water flowing once again over the east channel cataract or the John Stevens House once again sitting next to the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. The old riverfront is not gone, it is just hidden. It is the job of archaeologists and historians to reveal that riverfront.


Vol. 49, No. 1-2  © 1990 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