1955 Was a Very Dry Year

It’s not a common sight. I’d never seen it myself until I saw this picture from Fairchild Aerial Surveys taken in 1955. St. Anthony Falls is completely dry.

The concrete apron at St. Anthony Falls is bone dry in 1955. The 3rd Avenue Bridge crosses the photo. Dry land — even a small structure — left (west) of the falls stand where the entrance to the lock is now. (Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Water levels were down everywhere at the time. Meteorological charts list 1955 as the 13th driest year on record in Minneapolis, but a look at longer-term data reveal that rainfall had been below normal for most of the previous 40 years. Downstream from St. Anthony Falls, the river was also very low, revealing the former structure of the locks at the Meeker Island Dam.

The old lock structure from the Meeker Island Dam protrudes from the low water in 1955. The old lock and dam between Franklin Avenue and Lake Street were destroyed when the new “high dam” or Ford dam was built near the mouth of Minnehaha Creek downriver. (Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

That dry spell had a significant impact on park property. Many park board facilities, from beach houses to boat houses and docks, were permanent structures that required proximity to the water’s edge. Parks were also landscaped and mowed to the water line and, since the depression, at least, many lakes had WPA-built shore walls that looked goofy a few feet up on dry land.

Park board annual reports provide time-lapse updates.

1948: Minnehaha Creek dry most of the year, lakes down 1.5 feet.

1949: Chain of Lakes 2 feet below normal, rainfall 2.5 inches below normal, water in Minnehaha for limited time during year

1950: Lake levels at record lows, lake channels dredged 4.5 feet deeper to allow continued use, water in Minnehaha Creek for only brief period in spring

1951: Record snowfall and heavy rains raised lake levels o.44 feet above normal in April; flooding problems along Minnehaha Creek golf courses required dikes to make courses playable; attendance at Minnehaha Park high all year due to impressive water flow over falls.

1952: Wet early in year, dry late; lake levels stable except those that depend on groundwater runoff, such as Loring Pond and Powderhorn Lake, which were down considerably at end of year

1953: Lake levels fluctuated 1.5 feet from early summer to very dry fall; flow in Minnehaha Creek stopped in November; U.S. Geological Survey began testing water flow in Bassett’s Creek for possible diversion

1954: Again, water level fluctuations; near normal in early summer, low in fall; Minnehaha Creek again dry in November.

1955: Fall Chain of Lakes elevation lowest since 1932, but Lake Harriet near historical normal; Minnehaha dry most of year

1956: Lakes 4 feet below normal, weed control required, boat rentals incurred $10,000 loss

1957: City water — purchased at a discount! — pumped into lakes raised lake levels 1.5 feet; park board began construction of $210,000 pipeline from Bassett’s Creek, which, unlike Minnehaha Creek, had never been completely dry, to Brownie Lake.

1958: Second driest year on record; Minnehaha Creek dry second half of year; pumps activated on pipeline from Bassett’s Creek, raised water level in lakes 4.2 inches by pumping 84,000,000 gallons of water.

1959: Dry weather continued; Park board suggested reduction in water table may be result of development; Park board won a lawsuit against Minikahda Club for pumping water from Lake Calhoun to water golf course. When Minikahda donated lake shore to park board for West Calhoun Parkway in 1908 it retained water rights,  but a judge ruled the club couldn’t exercise those rights unless lake level was at a certain height — higher than the lake was at that time — except in emergencies when it could water the greens only. Lakes were treated with sodium arsenite to prevent weed growth in shallower water; low water permitted park crews to clean exposed shorelines of debris.

1960: Lake levels up 4 feet due to pumping and rain fall; channels between lakes opened for first time in two years; hydrologist Adolph Meyer hired to devise a permanent solution to low water levels.

To celebrate the rise in water levels sufficient to make the channels between the lakes navigable after being closed for a couple of years, park superintendent Howard Moore helped launch a canoe in the channel between Lake of the Isles (in background) and Lake Calhoun in 1960. He seems not to mind that one foot is in the drink. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

That’s more than a decade’s worth of weather reports. The recommendation of hydrologist Adolph Meyer was very creative: collect and recycle water from the air-conditioners in downtown office buildings and stores, and pump it to the lakes. That seemed like a good idea until the people who ran all those air-conditioners downtown thought about it and realized they could recycle all that water themselves through their own air-conditioners and save a lot of money on water bills. End of good idea. Instead the park board extended its Chain of Lakes pumping pipeline from Bassett’s Creek all the way to the Mississippi River.  But that’s a story for another time.

If you’ve followed the extensive shoreline construction at Lake of the Isles over the last many years, you know that water levels in city lakes remains an important, and costly, issue — and it probably always will be. It’s the price we pay for our city’s water-based beauty.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory.com

Afterthought: The lowest I ever remember seeing the river was following the collapse of the I-35W bridge. The river was lowered above the Ford Dam to facilitate recovery of wreckage from that tragedy. Following a suggestion from Friends of the Mississippi River, my Dad and I took a few heavy-duty trash bags down to the river bank near the site of the Meeker Island Dam to pick up trash exposed by the lower water levels. Even then the water level wasn’t as low as in the Fairchild photos.

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7 comments so far

  1. Annie Olson on

    For the past two days, as I drive home, I’ve seen a dry St. Anthony Falls. A shocking sight! Thanks for posting this.

  2. […] this year is evident on the Mississippi River at St. Anthony Falls. A couple weeks ago I posted an aerial photo of St. Anthony Falls very dry in 1955. The water levels on the river appear to be nearing a similar level now. Larry […]

  3. Elston Gunnn on

    Just to clarify for folks not familiar with how the falls infrastructure worked: the falls and the river didn’t completely dry up and stop running. The mills on both sides of the river took nearly 100% of the river flow at the falls, leaving zero water to run over the concrete falls. That wasn’t uncommon, but yeah, I’ve never seen any pictures where it looked that bone dry and low.

    • David C. Smith on

      Yes, the entire flow of the river was diverted to the various uses of water power around the falls. Unfortunately the Fairchild Aerial Surveys series of river photos I’ve seen doesn’t extend as far south (downriver) as the Ford Dam, so I don’t know if there was any water still flowing over that dam, or if all the water was diverted for power generation there, too. Thanks for the comment.

      Could the river today ever get that low above the Falls? Or would the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers release water impounded further upriver to maintain the navigation channel?

  4. Don.L on

    That’s really interesting, especially in contrast to this summer of high water. Love the archival photos. From the perspective of the Minnehaha Off-leash Recreation Area, just a little down stream from that Meeker Island Dam structure, we’ve documented some of the contrast as shown in this short video from June. You can see the large trees that are well under water in an area that is usually a main walk path. Near the end is a shot looking out across the river, showing how this pedestrian area has been claimed by, and became just a part of, the Mississippi River.

    http://worldsgreatestdogpark.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/the-mississippi-keeps-risin/

    From a week earlier, this post shows a pic of what is usually a trickling stream in that area, now flooded and floating with fresh debris.

    http://worldsgreatestdogpark.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/high-water-in-june-2012/

    • David C. Smith on

      I think one reason rivers are a source of endless fascination for many of us is that they change so often. Thanks.


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