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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.

Falls of St. Anthony

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The Falls of St. Anthony and its islands, like many other natural formations, were sacred to the Indians. In the early years of the development of Minneapolis and St. Anthony the falls were a popular tourist attraction. By the 1850s lumbermen and millers were interested in the hydro power it offered. In 1857, a great canal was constructed along First Street South to improve the distribution of water to the fast growing milling industry.

St. Anthony Falls and a lumber mill in 1865.
Minneapolis Collection, BR0065.

Other dams and tunnel projects also were undertaken to direct the waterflow and power for the various mills. Concern for the falls and the impact on the mills was paramount by 1866. The riverbed of the falls consisted of a thin layer of limestone sitting on top of approximately 100 feet of sandstone. The sandstone was easy to tunnel into but not structurally strong. Several techniques were attempted to protect the falls by building an apron over the falls, but in 1867 and again in 1870, floods took out the aprons. Monies for these protective construction projects were raised on a local, state, and even national level.

Minneapolis sawmills (ca. 1868). Minnesota Iron Works is at the right of center; the Courthouse is left of center with cupola. The white building in center is the Cataract House. The Milwaukee Elevator is the tall building toward the right.
Minneapolis Collection, BR0136.

The most disastrous event took place on October 5, 1869, when a 2,500-foot long tunnel that was being constructed as a tailrace for exhausting the water between Nicollet and Hennepin Islands began to fill up with water. By the following day a maelstrom (a violent whirlpool that sucks all the objects within a given radius) was sucking rocks and debris into the tunnel. It seemed that the galvanized manpower of Minneapolis and St. Anthony were going to provide the heroic efforts needed to stop the maelstrom. But it took almost two years of various attempts and the cooperation of both the communities of Minneapolis and St. Anthony, the mill owners, and finally the assistance of the United States Army Corps of Engineers to stabilize the falls.

Tunnel collapse of 1869 on Hennepin Island near St. Anthony Falls.
Minneapolis Collection, BR0019.

By the end the communities and mill owners understood how important the falls were to their livelihoods. Key players in the preservation and near destruction of the falls in the 1860s include Alexander Ramsey, Ignatius Donnelly, Hercules L. Dousman, William W. Eastman, John L. Merriman, George A. Brackett, John Jarvis, and Franklin Cook.

Scene on Nicollet Island looking toward St. Anthony. Photograph taken shortly after tunnel disaster of October 1869. Group of men sorting logs. A barge is visible in foreground. The buildings of St. Anthony are in the background.
Minneapolis Collection, BR0033.

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