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A History of Minneapolis: an Overview by Staff at the Hennepin County Library

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Featuring historical photos and items from the collections of the Hennepin County Library, with contemporary photos from the Phototour of Minneapolis by Chris Gregerson.


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As the city was growing in size, population, and prosperity in the latter part of the 19th century, there were foresighted individuals who wanted to see the city's natural beauty preserved. In 1883, the Minneapolis Board of Trade adopted a resolution to establish an independent park commission, with the reasoning that the rapid growth of the city "warns us that the time has come when, if ever, steps should be taken to secure the necessary land for such a grand system of Parks and Boulevards as the natural situation offers." The resolution was sent as a bill to the State Legislature, which authorized a referendum to be voted upon by the citizens, who overwhelmingly approved it in 1883.

Portrait of Charles Loring, considered to be the "Father of the Minneapolis Park System."
Minneapolis Collection, M0784.

Portrait of Theodore Wirth, Superintendent of the Minneapolis Park Board from 1905 to 1935.
Minneapolis Collection, M0213.

Portrait of Glenwood park curator, Eloise Butler. (ca. 1910-1929)
Minneapolis Collection, M2632F.

One of the first acts of the newly established board, and its president, Charles M. Loring, was to engage the services of two well-known landscape architects of the time, H. W. S. Cleveland and Frederick Law Olmsted. Cleveland had been the head of the country's oldest park commission, that of Boston. Olmsted was the designer of Central Park in New York City. They both pressed for acquiring parklands well in advance of the existing need. The Board followed their advice, acquiring large areas of land that would have been prohibitively expensive, if even available, in later years. To illustrate, the first thiry acres of Loring Park were purchased in 1883 for $4,904 per acre. In 1902, some additional land by Loring Park was acquired at the cost of $48,096 per acre.

The drive around Lake of the Isles before the lake was dredged and improved.
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Photo Lakes: Lake of the Isles

West shore of Cedar Lake in the early 1890s.
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Photo Lakes: Cedar

East shore of Lake Calhoun in the 1890s.
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Photo Lakes: Calhoun

Theodore Wirth, superintendent of Parks from 1905 to 1935, was largely responsible for the development and expansion of the park system in its formative years. Wirth dredged the lakes and graded their banks, thereby eliminating the swampy sections as well as the frequent flooding. The park system he built, influenced by Olmsted's vision, reflects the individuality of the various components contained within. It is no accident that the character and function of Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun, and Lake of the Isles differ from one another. Lake Harriet, with its playground and band shell, has a family and group recreation orientation. Lake Calhoun reflects a faster pace as a favorite for iceboating and sailboarding, while Lake of the Isles has a more reflective feel and is frequented by cross-country skiers, roller bladers, and strollers.

Old pavilion at Lake Harriet, circa 1903.
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Photo Lakes: Harriet

Linking of Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles, July 5, 1911.
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Photo Lakes: Calhoun

Minneapolis Boulevards and Parkways Commissioners planting trees at Lake Calhoun, circa 1916.
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Photo Lakes: Calhoun

Today, along the 53-mile parkway system known as the Grand Rounds, are numerous parks and parkways, lakes (22 within the city limits), streams and creeks, the Mississippi River, and the 53-foot high Minnehaha Falls, made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his "Song of Hiawatha." The 6,400-acre park system is designed so that every home in Minneapolis is within six blocks of green space. Furthermore, the park system has been called "the best-located, best-financed, best-designed, best maintained public open space in America." (Alexander Garvin, The American City: What Works, What Doesn't, 1996, p. 63)

Aerial view of Loring Park, June 1974.
Municipal Information Library, Slide Collection, MIL1405.

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