Archive for the ‘Minnehaha Falls’ Category

Hiawatha and Minnehaha Do Chicago

The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago hosted the debut of Minneapolis’s most famous sculptural couple, Hiawatha and Minnehaha, in 1893.

The Minnesota building at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 featured Jakob Fjelde's sculpture of Hiawatha and Minnehaha in the vestibule.

The Minnesota building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 featured Jakob Fjelde’s sculpture of Hiawatha and Minnehaha in the vestibule.



Hiawatha and Minnehaha greeted visitors to the state’s pavilion in their modest plaster costumes nearly two decades before sculptor Jakob Fjelde’s pair took their much-photographed places on the small island above Minnehaha Falls in their bronze finery in 1912.

Hiawatha and Minnehaha in their customary place above Minnehaha Falls. I chose this pciture not only because Hiawatha is climbing a huge pile of rocks, unlike today, but also because ithis is a Lee Bros. photo, the same photographers who shot the photo of Fjelde below.

Hiawatha and Minnehaha in their customary place above Minnehaha Falls. This photo, from a postcard, was probably taken in the 1910s. I chose this picture not only because Hiawatha appears to be climbing a mountain of rocks to cross the stream, unlike today, but also because it is a Lee Bros. photo, the same photographers who shot the photo of Fjelde below.

Jakob Fjelde, Lee Bros., year unknown. I like the cigar. (Photo courtesty of

Jakob Fjelde, Lee Bros., year unknown. I like the cigar. (Photo courtesy of

Jakob Fjelde was largely responsible for two other sculptures in Minneapolis parks. He created the statue of Ole Bull, the Norwegian violinist, in Loring Park in 1895. He also created the drawing that Johannes Gelert used after Fjelde’s death to sculpt the figure of pioneer John Stevens, which now stands in Minnehaha Park. Fjelde also created the bust of Henrik Ibsen, Norway’s most famous writer, that adorns Como Park in St. Paul. Fjelde’s best-known work other than Longfellow’s lovers, however, is the charging foot soldier of the 1st Minnesota rushing to his likely death on the battlefield of Gettysburg.

Fjelde's simple salute to the sacrifice of Minnesota men at a pivotal moment in the Civil War.

Fjelde’s simple commemoration of the sacrifice of Minnesota men at a pivotal moment in the Civil War. The sculpture was installed in 1893 and dedicated in 1897. (Photo: Wikipedia)

These thoughts and images of sculpture in Minneapolis parks were prompted in part by my recent post on Daniel Chester French, but also by another letter found in the papers of William Watts Folwell at the Minnesota Historical Society. Just two years after Fjelde’s successes with his sculptures for Gettysburg and Chicago, he wrote a poignant letter to Folwell in July 1895 seeking his support for an “extravagant” offer. Fjelde proposes to the Court House Commission, which was developing plans for a new City Hall and Court House, that he create a seven-foot tall statue of the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Marshall, and a bronze bust of District Court Judge William Lochren, both for the sum of $1,400. Fjelde calls the price of $1,000 for the Marshall statue “1/3 of its real value.” He explains his offer to Folwell:

“Anyone who knows a little about sculpture work will know that the sums above stated are no price for such a statue but as I for the last six months have been unable to get any work to do at all and have wife and four children to take care of and in spite of utmost economy, unable to make both ends meet, I am obliged to do something extravagant, if only I can get the work to do.”

Fjelde adds that $400 for a bronze bust of Lochren would only pay for the bronze work, meaning that he would be creating the bust free. He writes that he is willing to do so because by getting Lochren’s bust into the Court House, “it might go easier in the future to get the busts of other judges who could afford to give theirs, so I would hope that would give me some work later on.”

He concludes his plea by noting that with his proposition, “The Court House would thereby get a grand courtroom hardly equalled in the U.S.”

Although I have not searched the records diligently, I have not come across anything to suggest that the Court House Commission accepted Fjelde’s offer. That may be because barely two weeks after writing his letter, the Norwegian Singing Society, led by Fjelde’s friend, John Arctander, began to raise money for a statue of Ole Bull. Fjelde began work on that statue in 1895. When all but the finishing touches were completed on the image of the Norwegian maestro the next spring, Fjelde died. He was 37.

I can’t leave another sculpture story without returning a moment to Daniel Chester French. In a longer piece on French a couple of weeks ago, I noted that when his Longfellow Memorial at Minnehaha Falls didn’t materialize, he moved on to create an enormous sculpture for the Chicago World’s Fair. Here it is in its massive splendor. It stood 60 feet tall,

Dnaiel Chester French's enormous Republic looms over the central pool at the Columnian Exposition in 1893.

Daniel Chester French’s Republic looms over the Columbian Exposition.

French’s Chicago sculpture was much larger than Fjelde’s, but Fjelde’s sculpture eventually found a home at Minnehaha Falls, where French’s proposed sculpture of Longfellow did not.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]

© 2015 David C. Smith

H. W. S. Cleveland and Daniel Chester French Make a Plan: A Tribute to Longfellow at Minnehaha Falls

When one of America’s leading landscape architects teams up with one of its greatest sculptors to celebrate one of its most popular authors in an iconic landscape, you’d expect great things. Horace William Shaler Cleveland did.

On April 10, 1891, Cleveland, the landscape architect who had created the blueprint for Minneapolis’s already highly regarded park system and designed many of its first parks, wrote to his friend William Folwell of a memorial he had in mind,

“I can hardly find words to tell you how my heart stands still at the thought of the possibility of my living to see its realization in the place I had designed for it.” He went on to write that it would be the “joy of the rest of my life” to prepare a site for the memorial. (Folwell Family Papers, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota)

The sculptor was Daniel Chester French. The subject was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The site was Minnehaha Falls.

Cleveland was 76 — and what was to be the joy of the rest of his life was never made possible The memorial was never created. We have only a photo — and some letters — that tell of a memorial planned for installation in the limestone cliff beside the Falls that Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha had made famous.

“I am running wild over the photo of Dan French’s Longfellow Memorial which I received yesterday,” Cleveland wrote to Folwell. “He wrote me that he thought it the best thing he had ever done and those of his friends who had seen it agreed with him.” (Photo courtesy of Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation/Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.)

Cleveland’s copy of the photo he raved about is gone. He left no known papers of his own, although his letters to others survive scattered in libraries and museums. Following a trail from letters to William Folwell, however, I found a reference to what seemed like a promising photo in Chapin Library at Williams College, which is the repository of archival photographs and documents from Chesterwood, French’s summer home and studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, now a National Trust Historic Site. The photo was labelled only as being from an “unrealized” Longfellow project in 1891.That description and the date matched the Minnehaha Falls project, so I requested a copy of the photo. When it arrived, I was astonished; it was the photo above — which matches enough other clues in the correspondence that I have no doubt it is the same image that Horace Cleveland held as he wrote to Folwell during an April snowstorm in Minneapolis in 1891.

“I long to have you see it,” Cleveland wrote to Folwell who lived across town, “but I want to be very chary of showing it and think we cannot be too careful to avoid its being talked of or brought forward till the right moment arrives.” The right moment hasn’t yet arrived — and we’re getting on to 125 years, so I will cast caution aside and talk of it myself.

The Little Brother

William Folwell knew French, too. When Dan French made his first a trip to Minneapolis in June 1890 to discuss the Minnehaha project, he stayed at Folwell’s home near the University of Minnesota campus created by Folwell when he had been the first president of the university. In a thank-you note sent to Folwell following that visit, French wrote, “I am glad to feel that I am so much better acquainted with Will’s valued friends.” He was referring to his older brother, William Merchant Richardson French, then the director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Will had stayed with the Folwells in Minneapolis many times when visiting from Chicago as Horace Cleveland’s business partner in the 1870s and early 1880s.

(Cleveland did not move from Chicago to Minneapolis until 1886. For more on the relationships among Cleveland, Folwell, and the French brothers, read “And the answer is…French!”. It is also likely that H.W.S. Cleveland knew Henry Flagg French, father of William and Daniel, as early as the mid-1850s. They were both active in the nascent American Pomological Congress — Cleveland was an officer — and attended some of the same early horticultural conferences and they both wrote on the subject of using drainage tiles to improve productivity on farms. That was probably not a club with a large membership.)

Dan French's first commission in 1875 was to celebrate the centennial of the famous battle that began the Revolutionary War. Minute Man, Minute Man National Historical Park, Concord, Massachusetts.

Dan French’s first commission in 1875 was to celebrate the centennial of the famous battle at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Minute Man, Minute Man National Historical Park, Concord, Massachusetts.

Cleveland first mentioned Dan French to Folwell in a letter in 1875 on the occasion of the dedication of Dan’s first prominent commission, the “Minute Man” in Concord, Massachusetts. Cleveland noted that his young partner William French had left Chicago to attend the dedication of the statue.

French went reluctantly. “French did not mean to go home,” Cleveland wrote, “but I told him he would regret it all his life if he failed to do so, and urged him till I made him do it, which of course he wanted to do, but his conscience stood in the way growling like a great bulldog, as you know consciences are apt to do if you point your finger at ’em, but just march boldly by without notice and they’ll keep quiet enough. I am sure he will enjoy it with all his heart and it will add greatly to his father’s pleasure to have him there and the occasion will be a delightful reminiscence to him as long as he lives.”

Cleveland likely recalled his own professional debut as he urged William French to attend the unveiling of his brother’s sculpture in Concord. Cleveland’s professional breakthrough as a landscape architect had taken place just a half-mile down the road from Dan’s Minute Man at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Cleveland and Robert Copeland, his first partner, had essentially launched their careers.

William’s attendance at the dedication of the sculpture is particularly noteworthy because his brother did not attend. Dan was studying and working in Italy at the time.

No one could have guessed that the “Minute Man” would stand, despite a brilliant career, as one of Daniel French’s best-known sculptures, surpassed only by the massive, brooding Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Daniel Chester Fernch's most famous creation. Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D. C. (Jeff Kubina)

Daniel Chester French’s most famous creation. Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D. C. (Jeff Kubina)

The Newest Minneapolis Park

The impetus for Dan French’s trip to Minneapolis in 1890 was the recent acquisition by the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners of the beautiful waterfall made famous by Longfellow’s epic poem in 1855. Minnehaha Falls and 120 surrounding acres were added to the Minneapolis park system in 1889 when the state of Minnesota couldn’t come up with the money to purchase the land for the nation’s second state park, so Minneapolis stepped in and bought the secluded falls in the state’s place.

Cleveland had eagerly awaited the opportunity to design a park at Minnehaha Falls. He had helped sell the prospect of a park at the Falls to Minneapolis Park Commissioners and citizens for years, laying the groundwork for the decision by Minneapolis leaders to spend the $92,000 needed to purchase the land when the legislature couldn’t afford it. Minnehaha Falls had not been part of Cleveland’s original blueprint for the city’s park system in 1883 only because the falls was then outside city limits. He later wrote that he thought it would be “exceedingly desirable” to create a park there someday.

While Cleveland was waiting for the purchase of the Falls as a park to be completed, he was hired in 1888 to landscape the grounds of a Soldiers’ Home being built for Civil War veterans on the bluff at the confluence of Minnehaha Creek and the Mississippi River. The fifty acres for the Soldiers’ Home were about a half-mile down the creek from Minnehaha Falls and surrounded by the park, so Cleveland knew very well the parkland acquired. He had also served as an advisor to the five-person committee appointed by Minnesota’s Governor to select land for the park — before the state realized it couldn’t afford it.

Cleveland’s sense of personal accomplishment and his anticipation of the coming work was evident in his letter to Frederick Law Olmsted of June 13, 1889. “We have secured Minnehaha,” he wrote, “but have got to have a fight in the courts over it before we can begin improvements.” Two days later, however, the Minneapolis park board appropriated $5,000 for the immediate improvement of the park.

Minnehaha Falls in the 1890s. Notice teh striation sof limestone above sandstone in the cliffs beside the Falls. This was at a time of low water in the falls so the structure of the falls and the gorge are visible.

Minnehaha Falls in the 1890s at low water. Notice the striation in the limestone above sandstone in the cliffs behind the Falls. (Minnesota Historical Society.)

Cleveland’s subsequent participation in the design of the park is not clear, despite widespread belief that he was principally responsible for the layout of the park. There is no record in annual reports or the proceedings of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners that Cleveland was ever asked to produce a design for the park or that he was ever paid to do so. Cleveland’s work in many other parks in Minneapolis was specifically authorized by board action as recorded in park board proceedings, and payments to him for that work were recorded in the proceedings and, in many cases, annual reports. No such records exist for any work he might have done at Minnehaha. Cleveland’s handwritten instructions for the implementation of his plans have survived in park board records for other parks, but none exist for Minnehaha Falls. The only record of his involvement with the layout of Minnehaha Park comes from his letters to Folwell, who in 1888 had been elected to the park board himself and became the leading advocate for Cleveland’s original vision for a Minneapolis park system.

On September 5, 1889 Cleveland wrote to Folwell, “I have had no official orders in regard to Minnehaha, but as (park superintendent) Mr. Berry and two or three park commissioners have talked with me as if they took it for granted that I was to design the arrangement I have been studying and working upon it with an interest I never before felt in any similar work.” Yet, two weeks later he again wrote to Folwell, “Can’t we arrange to go together some day to Minnehaha? I should like you to see the beginning we have made and get a general idea of what I hope to accomplish.” The implication is clear that he was at least advising Berry in spending the $5,000 appropriated by the board for immediate improvements.

Still it appears that his involvement with any work at Minnehaha was the result of his own close relationship with Berry and it was done informally. After another two weeks passed, Cleveland weighed in with Folwell again, “It would be well for the Commission to order the engineer to survey and cross-section the grounds at Minnehaha or at least the low grounds so that I can make my notes this Fall and work up the plan during the Winter.”

But Cleveland by this time was apparently beginning to have doubts about the speed of improvements to be made at the park. “If no other work is done next year,” he cautioned, “than thinning and opening the wood, the lines of roads must be determined beforehand and in fact the plan of the arrangement should be fixed in all its essential features before any work is begun on the low ground or the heights beyond.”

Folwell dutifully proposed at the first park board meeting in October that the engineer be authorized to conduct that survey and it was approved. But there was still no commitment to hire Cleveland to design the park. The park board, meanwhile, had spent more than the $5,000 appropriated for the park — and none of it had been paid to Cleveland. We have no record of what work was done or who was responsible for determining what should be done.

Cleveland’s impatience began to show in another letter to Folwell on October 21 in which he wrote that he had just sent a letter to the Minneapolis Tribune, “which I hope may have some effect in awakening popular interest in the development of Minnehaha Park by reminding our people that the whole world will be interested in what we do there, so that it assumes a degree of importance far beyond that of a mere city ornament & place of recreation.”

In that letter, published in the Tribune two days later, Cleveland wrote of the new park at Minnehaha Falls,

“A moment’s reflection will serve to show the essential importance of preserving the natural features which constitute the attractive charm of the place, and any attempt to increase them by artificial decoration would be simply an act of desecration.”

This was Cleveland at his finest. For more than two decades already he had evangelized for preserving natural landscapes, for touching with “reverent hands” what was already there.

In his “Suggestions” to the park board in 1883 he made the point quite clearly.

“All expenditure for ornamental gardening, and especially for artificial structures in the form of rustic buildings, bridges, grottoes, fountains, statues, vases, etc. is not only needless as being out of keeping with the rude condition of the surroundings, but while so many urgent demands exist for works of actual necessity, would indicate such incongruity and deficiency of taste as that of the individual who adorns his person with jewelry before he is provided with comfortable clothing.”

His often eloquent and impassioned language against “ornamentation” or “embellishment” of nature, and the influences on his thinking, are presented very well by Daniel Nadenicek and Lance Neckar individually (see end notes), as well as together in the introduction to the 2002 reissue of Landscape Architecture as Applied to the Wants of the West. Cleveland’s well-established belief in “natural” landscapes, makes the conclusion of his letter to Folwell that October day in 1889 — and what ensued — difficult to fathom. In that letter, Cleveland mentioned for the first time Dan French’s possible participation in a Minnehaha project. “I have written Dan French & sent him a photo of the cliff at Minnehaha,” he wrote, “and told him we should probably notify him ‘ere long that we should want him to come out here.”

Could Cleveland have been planning the “desecration” of Minnehaha Falls? To which “cliff” at Minnehaha was he referring? Would he have attempted to engage Daniel French if the memorial he envisaged was not to have a prominent place — perhaps in the same field of vision as the famous falls?

An Incongruous Plan for Ornamentation

Cleveland’s recruitment of French for the project is not supported by any recorded discussions in park board meetings of hiring French or of any plans for a memorial of any kind at Minnehaha Falls. The only allusion to a memorial I can find was an article in the Minneapolis Tribune of March 16, 1890, which commented on a Longfellow Memorial that “was talked of sometime ago.” The Tribune writer suggested that the “most appropriate and conspicuous” memorial would be a “magnificent arch” at the entrance to the park. Later that month, Cleveland demonstrated that he had not abandoned his plan. “The proposition to get Dan French here was so cordially met last fall that I hoped it would not be suffered to fall through,” Cleveland wrote to Folwell, “and as he is to be in Chicago on the 27th at Wm’s wedding it seems as if the opportunity ought not to be lost of having him here.”

That opportunity apparently was lost because Cleveland wrote to Folwell again on June 6, 1890 with good news. Dan French was once again in Chicago and Samuel Gale, a greatly underappreciated contributor to the development of Minneapolis, including its parks, had agreed — at Cleveland’s request, I presume — to pay French’s expenses to come to Minneapolis.

French stayed with Folwell and his daughter — the Clevelands were repainting and papering their house and were sleeping on sofas — on a Friday night and visited Minnehaha the next day, planning to catch an evening train back to Chicago. He tells the rest of the story in his letter to Folwell dated June 24, 1890.

“Mr. Cleveland has probably told you that I relented and stayed over till Sunday afternoon to see the wonderful parks that he has been making…(he) seemed so very flatteringly disappointed at my going away without seeing his great work that I decided to reconsider. I had supposed before he explained the scheme to me that I had seen the principal part of the work at the Falls of Minnehaha. After walking in the forenoon and driving in the afternoon, I have a realizing sense of the extent of the undertaking and I am very glad I did not come away without becoming acquainted with this remarkable feature of your beautiful city.”

We have to assume that French grabbed a spare sofa on Saturday night at the Clevelands’.

French must have departed Minneapolis with expectations of receiving a commission. Evidence that specific plans were being developed for a memorial to Longfellow at Minnehaha Falls was provided by Cleveland’s letter to Folwell on November 1, 1890. Explaining that he had been called away to a meeting in St. Paul, he left instructions for how Folwell could see “French’s letter and model” in Cleveland’s office while he was out.

“Please read the letter and look at the model and drawing,” he urged Folwell, then added, “Since seeing it I have thought that instead of a grotto or a cave, a mere niche might be made in the face of the rock somewhat like this model with a statue of Longfellow as the central figure & Indians at the side.”

The description predicts precisely the photograph in French’s Chesterwood papers.

The notion of scaling back from a “grotto” to a “mere niche” in the rock is staggering given that no plans for such an undertaking are known to exist. It’s hard to imagine Cleveland going this far without suggesting possible layouts or designs and showing them to some of his confidants or supporters on the park board — at least Folwell. I am also surprised that Cleveland would proceed this far without authorization or funding, whether from the park board or private supporters, such as Samuel Gale. It is surprising as well that French would put so much work into a project if he hadn’t been assured of some compensation.

The greatest challenge though, especially for admirers of Cleveland’s vision of nature, landscape and art, is to conceive a rationale for Cleveland justifying such extreme embellishment as sculpture and grotto in any setting so idyllic and symbolic. Perhaps the key is to appreciate Cleveland’s own past and his personal attachment to what Longfellow represented.

In the Tribune letter quoted from above, Cleveland also wrote of the “halo of poetic association” worn by Minnehaha Falls due to Longfellow’s poem. To Cleveland, that “halo” encompassed far more than a poem, far more even than literature. It was personal. That halo encircled his aunts and uncles, his mother and father, his brother, his friends, his childhood, his memories, him. But that is a subject for another time.

Daniel Nadenicek explored Cleveland’s attachment to Minnehaha in his excellent article that takes its title from the same Cleveland letter to the Tribune cited above, “Commemoration in the Landscape of Minnehaha: “A Halo of Poetic Association.” I believe that it would take more than “personal acquaintance” or an intellectual bond between men of “like mind,” as Nadenicek suggests, to explain Cleveland’s radical departure from his articles of professional faith in advocating blasting a hole in the limestone beside a mythical waterfall to insert a sculpture of anyone.

As near as Minnehaha Falls is to the confluence of the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Creek, it was also near the confluence of many streams in Cleveland’s long life. Perhaps he simply couldn’t resist the possibility of creating a memorial to his own past, in a sense to himself, along with his friends. He was, after all, 76, an age when legacies are contemplated.

Back to the Studio

While the Minneapolis park board took no action at Minnehaha in 1890, French continued work on the  memorial in his studio because on November 29, Cleveland wrote to Folwell that he wanted to show him a new photo from Dan French.

By early 1891, French had developed a model for the sculpture. Cleveland wrote to Folwell on March 9 that he had just received more letters from French. “As no action has yet been taken in reference to the development of the Minnehaha Park, is it not better,” Cleveland wonders, “for me to ask French to keep the model for the present & send me only a  photo of it, or perhaps two or three to give away?”

Folwell must have concurred because it was only a month later that Cleveland wrote that he had received a photo from French that evoked his emotional response.

“I tremble to think that it may prove only a vision & I implore your aid in its consummation, which would do more to make the name of Minneapolis sacred in the mind of the best element of humanity everywhere, than all the ostentatious display of wealth she can offer.”

That letter is the last word I can find on the subject of a Longfellow Memorial at Minnehaha Falls. Sixteen years later “Fish” Jones opened his private park, Longfellow Gardens, complete with zoo, across the street from the Falls. There he installed a sculpture of Longfellow that he commissioned and he built for himself a two-thirds scale replica of Longfellow’s house in Cambridge. The statue still stands worn and forlorn, unrecognizable, in a meadow. The house, after a long journey that included thirty years as a branch library, has been moved closer to Minnehaha Falls and now holds the offices of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. Several verses of The Song of Hiawatha have been inscribed into a circle of cut stone that serves as a garden memorial to Longfellow near the falls. But the marvelous image of Longfellow created by French never found a home there.

We have no official record of why the memorial was never created just as we have none that it was ever contemplated. But the reasons it was never made are not hard to imagine. To begin with, the memorial was a terrible idea depending on where Cleveland and French hoped to install it. If anywhere in the bowl created by the falls, it would have been awful. If a bit downstream — a destination in Longfellow Glen — it might have worked, but it certainly would have changed the nature of that wild glen. To its detriment, I think. I would vote No.

The second good reason the memorial was never built is that the park board couldn’t afford to pay for either its creation, installation, or maintenance. A memorial couldn’t have lasted long if set into the very soft sandstone layer near the falls so the “mere niche” would have had to be cut into the limestone. It would have been a big undertaking at a time that the park board was stretched for money. Heeding Folwell’s advice in 1890 to extend the parkway system into northeast and north Minneapolis as Cleveland had suggested originally, the park board purchased the first parts of Glenwood (Wirth) Park in north Minneapolis and Columbia Park in northeast, in addition to the east bank of the Mississippi River downstream from the University of Minnesota all the way to the St. Paul city line. Powderhorn, Van Cleve and Moulton (Windom) parks were added as neighborhood parks and more new parks were routinely proposed. Shortly after those acquisitions, the Panic of 1893 severely damaged the economy of Minneapolis as well as that of the rest of the nation. The park board had so little revenue that it stopped mowing the lawns in parks and laid off all park employees except the park police in the mid-1890s.

Minneapolis park commissioners may have also listened too well to Cleveland’s sermons on acquiring land instead of ornaments. One of the remarkable characteristics of early park management in Minneapolis was that there were so few superfluous expenditures. Owing to Cleveland, William Berry and Charles Loring, the first president of the park board, Minneapolis had created an impressive array of parks in less than a decade. By 1890, Minneapolis parks were attracting praise from around the country and the park board had not paid for a single sculpture or park decoration. Even a few years later when John Scott Bradstreet proposed to build, at his own expense, a Japanese Temple on an island in Lake of the Isles, the park board allowed the proposal to die quietly. Cleveland had taught the city well.

A final reason that Cleveland’s plan may not have caught on is that Cleveland’s influence seemed to be waning. Several times in the early 1890s, various commissioners proposed that Cleveland be engaged for design work at this park or that only to have those motions tabled until the board could get an estimate of what his services would cost, never to be pulled off the parliamentary table again. Gone from the park commission were many of the original park commissioners who had fought long and hard, with Cleveland at their side, to create a park system. Even Charles Loring, known already then as the Father of Minneapolis Parks, left the park board at the end of 1890. While Folwell remained on the board throughout the 1890s, Cleveland didn’t have the relationships with park commissioners he had enjoyed the decade before.

The Future of French

Fortunately, Daniel French seemed to suffer no hardship for the time he had invested in designing and making models of a Longfellow Memorial at Minnehaha Park. He would return to both Minnesota and Longfellow.

French very soon moved on to the creation of the enormous statue, “Republic”, for the Columbia Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, which would further establish his name. But he would return to Minnesota in less than a decade to create a sculpture of one of founders of the University of Minnesota, John S. Pillsbury. Pillsbury statuePillsbury was one of the Regents responsible for hiring William Folwell as the first president of the university and he was also one of the original twelve Minneapolis park commissioners in 1883. It was John Pillsbury who, at the inaugural meeting of that park board, made the motion to hire Horace Cleveland for his advice on creating parks. Dan French attended the dedication of the Pillsbury statue in 1900. Horace Cleveland had moved to Chicago to live with his son by then and would die later that year at the age of 86. Folwell was still actively teaching at age 67, and had not yet begun to write his four-volume history of Minnesota, which he wouldn’t finish until he was 95.

French would return to Minneapolis for two more projects, both at the State Capitol in St. Paul. He created six figures for the interior of the Capitol, depicting Bounty, Wisdom, Prudence, Courage, Truth, and Integrity in 1900. He also created the human figures for the gold Quadriga in front of the Capitol dome in 1907.

French also returned to Longfellow as a subject when he was hired to create a memorial to Longfellow across Brattle Street from Longfellow’s former house in Cambridge, Mass. in 1914. The memorial stands today in what was once Longfellow’s front yard. I have not studied the story of the creation of that piece of public art, but French clearly drew on his 25-year-old design for Minnehaha Park.

I don't know if French ever told the creators of the Cambridge Longfellow Memorial that he had created long before a far superior model for Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. (Photo: Daderot Wikipedia.)

I don’t know if French ever told the creators of the Cambridge Longfellow Memorial that he had developed long before a far superior model for Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. (Photo: Daderot, Wikipedia.)

French’s design for Cambridge is a weak imitation of his original concept with only a bust of Longfellow instead of the eager, dynamic, seated Longfellow about to burst from his chair that French had modeled for Minnehaha Park. French did expand the range of characters in relief behind Longfellow’s bust to include his most famous characters — from Miles Standish, at far left, to Evangeline standing next to Hiawatha at far right —  rather than only characters from The Song of Hiawatha.

From the vantage point of 125 years, I’m glad that Cleveland and French’s design was not realized at Minnehaha Park. What would have become of the sculpture over the decades in the humid bowl of the falls? What would it have cost to maintain? Would it have changed the naturalistic setting of the glen below the falls and the wilderness walk down the creek to the Mississippi? Or would it have been neglected and sunk into the desolation unique to public art that is not maintained?

I prefer the falls the way it is. Altered by time, but unadorned. And I prefer H. W. S. Cleveland — one of the men I admire most — as a defender of nature, as a preacher of preservation, as an artist of rocks and trees and topography, in other words as he was, with all his flaws, before I found the photo of the memorial he and Daniel Chester French imagined for the limestone face beside Minnehaha Falls.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]

© 2015 David C. Smith

All letters from Horace William Shaler Cleveland and Daniel Chester French to William Watts Folwell are in Folwell Family Papers, Correspondence, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota

Letter from Cleveland to Frederick Law Olmsted in Frederick Law Olmsted Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Other sources:

Cleveland, Horace William Shaler, Suggestions for a System of Parks and Parkways for the City of Minneapolis, Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1883. These “Suggestions” were published as a pamphlet, but also were appended to the First Annual Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for the City of Minneapolis.

The Aesthetic Development of the United Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, An address delivered in Dyer’s Hall, April 20, 1888, to the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, (Minneapolis, Minnesota, A.C. Bausman,1888)

— “The Park System”, Minneapolis Tribune, October 23, 1889

Nadenicek, Daniel Joseph, Emerson’s Aesthetic and Natural Design; A Theoretical Foundation for the Work of Horace William Shaler Cleveland, Nature and Ideology, ed. Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1997)

Commemoration in the Landscape of Minnehaha: “A Halo of Poetic Association”, Places of Commemoration: Search for Identity and Landscape Design, Volume 19, Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, (Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks, 2001)

Neckar, Lance M., Fast Tracking Culture and Landscape: Horace William Shaler Cleveland and the Garden in the Midwest, Regional Garden Designs in the Untied States, ed. Therese O’Malley and Marc Treib, (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1995)

Minnehaha Falls 1912: A Feather in the Cap

Minnehaha Falls has been called the most-photographed site in Minnesota. Based on my study of photos and postcards over the last several years, I would agree. Still there’s often something a little different in the next photo I see — if not in the falls themselves, in something else that’s frozen in the moment the shutter opens.

Take this superb photo recently sent to me by Robert Henry. It was taken by his grand uncle Frank Prochaska, an amateur photographer, in 1912.

Minnehaha Falls, 1912 (Photographer, Frank Prochaska. Courtesy of Robert Henry.)

Minnehaha Falls, 1912 (Photographer: Frank Prochaska. Courtesy of Robert Henry.)

I like the photo because it shows someone on the bridge above the falls, the viewing platform to the left of the falls, which hasn’t existed for decades, a man and child near the cascade, and the wider flow of water over the lip of the falls. So much going on. But most of all I love the hats of the people on the stone-faced pedestrian bridge below the falls — and their postures. An instant of Minneapolis park history as six people witnessed it and Frank Prochaska captured it 103 years ago.

Thanks, Robert.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]

Last Minute Reminders: Minnehaha Falls and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

In case you forgot.

Karen Cooper is speaking tonight at 7 at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Sheridan Ave. South and 42nd on Minnehaha Falls. Still plenty of time to grab a bite to eat and get to Linden Hills. Should be informative. Karen has promised some new revelations about the history of Minneapolis’s most famous park and she has a library of great photographs of the park and falls.

I will be speaking Saturday morning at 11 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The title of my presentation is Arts and Parks: Culture and Beauty on the Frontier.  I’ll talk about the indefatigable promoters of both fine arts and parks in the early history of Minneapolis.

Hope to see you at one or both.

David C. Smith    minneapolisparkhistory[at]


Frozen Falls: Minnehaha in Winter

A frozen Minnehaha Falls has always intrigued people. Many photos exist of the falls in winter, including those published recently in the StarTribune that created a ruckus. Several shots of the ice wall were popular as postcards in the early 1900s, such as the one below.

Minnehaha Falls on a postcard around 1910.

Minnehaha Falls on a postcard around 1910.

I recently received a photo from Edward Tobin Thompson of Maple Grove that I like as well as any.

An unknown man staqnds at the foot of Minnehaha Falls in January, 1899. (Photo courtesy Edward Tobin Thompson)

Minnehaha Falls in January, 1899. (Photo courtesy Edward Tobin Thompson)

The photo, dated January 15, 1899, comes from an old family photo album. Ed doesn’t know who is standing at the foot of the falls, but it is likely the same man pictured on the park bench below, a photo that carries the same date and inscription on the back.

Resting on a bench in Minnehaha Park, January 1899.  Judging from the hat, this may be the same man posing in front of the falls. (Photo courtesy Edward Tobin Thompson)

Resting on a bench in Minnehaha Park, January 1899. Judging from the hat, this may be the same man posing in front of the falls. (Photo courtesy Edward Tobin Thompson)

Ed guesses that the man is one of his Tobin ancestors. The Tobins immigrated from Ireland and settled in Wisconsin about 1846, he says. They later lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan before moving to Montana.

An imitation Minnehaha Falls? Date and place unknown.(Courtesy Edward Tobin Thompson)

An imitation Minnehaha Falls? Date and place unknown. (Courtesy Edward Tobin Thompson)

Ed also sent this photo of a waterfall without a label from the same album and he wondered if it could be Minnehaha Falls as well. I don’t think so because in hundreds of pictures I’ve never seen the lip of the falls or the pattern of falling water like this, or the pool of water below the falls so large. Any opinions? Are you watching, Karen Cooper? (Karen has to be the world’s leading authority on images of Minnehaha Falls.) If not Minnehaha Falls, what falls? Any other cataracts in Wisconsin or Minnesota like this? Send in your guesses.


Danger Under the Falls

When photos appeared in the StarTribune recently of people behind the frozen falls, it brought to mind a story from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper dated December 25, 1869, which was featured in Minnesota History, the magazine of the Minnesota Historical Society.

An engraving of photographer Charles Zimmerman being knocked unconscious by an icycle, November 28, 1869.

An engraving of photographer Charles Zimmerman being knocked unconscious by an icicle, November 28, 1869.

The article described a near tragedy when the falls wasn’t completely frozen. The article was illustrated by the engraving at right. This is how the events involving well-known photographer Charles Zimmerman were originally described in the newspaper:

“Wishing to obtain winter views of a place Longfellow has immortalized in his classic verse, Mr. Zimmerman passed under the falls. An hour later, a Mr. Haines, while exploring the rocks, happened to look behind the curtain of water as it leaped from the edge of the precipice to the abyss beneath and was startled by what he saw. A large icicle weighing between two and three hundred pounds, loosened by the thaw, had severed its connection with the roof above, and had fallen on Mr. Zimmerman, crushing him down, and leaving him insensible beneath it. Mr. Haines quickly relieved the prostrate artist, whom he found nearly frozen. Indeed, had succor been delayed half an hour longer, the unfortunate man would have most certainly died.”

The photographer conked on the head by the giant icicle, Charles Zimmerman, became one of the most prolific shooters of scenes in St. Paul and Minneapolis in the late 1800s. Most of his photographs were sold as stereoviews, the side-by-side photos that took on a 3D appearance when viewed through a stereoscope. If Zimmerman had perished that day under the ice of Minnehaha Falls we would not have nearly so thorough or enjoyable a record of life in Minneapolis in the 19th Century.

Don’t Be Left Insensible

I’d recommend that you not climb up under the falls either. (It is illegal!) Maybe you will do something memorable someday, as Charles Zimmerman did, if you live a little longer.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]

© 2015 David C. Smith

Trunk Highway 55 — Hiawatha Avenue — Through Minnehaha Park in 1968

The Minnesota Department of Highways’ first rendering of the elevated freeway proposed for Hiawatha Avenue — Trunk Highway 55 — through Minnehaha Park appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune on February 15, 1968. The view below is looking down Minnehaha Creek toward Minnehaha Falls.  The canoe is a nice touch. An illustration from a similar distance from the proposed freeway looking upstream would place you near the precipice of the Falls. There is only one reason this monstrosity wasn’t built: the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, then still named the Board of Park Commissioners, fought it all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

The Minnesota Department of Highways' first depiction of the elevted freeway it planned for Trunk Highway 55, Hiawatha Avenue, through Minnehaha Park. The illustration is dated 2-14-1968.

The Minnesota Department of Highways’ first depiction of the elevated freeway it planned for Trunk Highway 55, Hiawatha Avenue, through Minnehaha Park. The illustration is dated 2-14-1968.

I recall seeing a comment a few months ago on another blog that the proposed freeway was not elevated. It wasn’t originally — it was to be built on a steep embankment — but in response to criticism that the freeway would be a barrier between Minnehaha Falls and Longfellow Garden, the highway department proposed putting this 1000-foot section “on stilts”, in the words of the Minneapolis Tribune’s caption.

This was the first of two drawings of the elevated freeway that I know of. The highway department later produced a revised drawing that showed softened lines and curved supports to make the freeway “more graceful and attractive,” according to a description in the Minneapolis Star, August 6, 1969. The new design featured “gracefully curved lines on the road deck and possibly colored concrete,” said the Star. I’m trying to get my hands on the second drawing too. If anyone has a copy, I’d love to see it.

The brief that Minnesota Attorney General Douglas Head submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in opposition to a Writ of Certiorari in October 1969 claimed that in addition to elevating the freeway the state had tried to address park board concerns by also removing a diamond freeway interchange originally planned on park property!

David C. Smith  minneapolisparkhistory[at]

© 2014 David C. Smith

Mississippi River flood

Saturday afternoon I spent a bit more time looking at high water around the city. On that gorgeous afternoon, Minneapolis parks were heavily patronized, partly because of the beautiful day and partly because people were curious about the effects of our summer deluge.

The banks of the Mississippi River that I helped clean in April were under water again. Maybe when these flood waters subside, Friends of the Mississippi River should sponsor another trash pick up. Or we could each take a trash bag along when we go out for riverside hikes.

More evidence of high water on the big creek at the Ford Dam.

High water over the Ford Dam June 21, 2014. Late last summer at one time there was no water flowing over the dam and below the dam was mostly dry land. (David C. Smith)

High water over the Ford Dam, June 21, 2014. Late last summer, there was no water flowing over the dam and below the dam was mostly dry land. (David C. Smith)

Last summer you could walk from the locks to the island where the usbmerged trees are now. (David C. Smith, June 21, 2014)

Last summer you could walk from the locks to the island where the submerged trees are now. The Ford Dam is just to the left of this photo. (David C. Smith, June 21, 2014)

Both photos were taken from the bluff at Minnehaha Park and the Soldiers Home. Water levels in Minnehaha Creek had subsided little, if at all, from Thursday to Saturday. Water was still thundering over Minnehaha Falls.

David C. Smith  minneapolisparkhistory[at]

Minnehaha Falls and Creek: Flood Stage

As we await another early evening thunderstorm, I will post a few historic photos of Minnehaha Creek and Minnehaha Falls taken earlier this afternoon. I call them historic because I’ve never seen the creek this high. One man I encountered on my explorations claimed it was a record water level for the creek. I’ll have to look that up.

The entire length of the creek was flooded, of course, even a few hours after the rain had stopped, but these three photos establish landmarks.

Minnehaha Pakrway at Humboldt Avenue South, south of the Lynnhurst Recreation Center. (David C. Smith)

The bridge to nowhere. The creek normally flows under the bridge near the top of the photo. Minnehaha Parkway at Humboldt Avenue South, south of the Lynnhurst Recreation Center. (David C. Smith)

2014-06-19 Minnehaha Creek at 16th Ave rev

Minnehaha Parkway at 16th Avenue South. (David C. Smith)

Minnehaha Parkway at Cedar Avenue South. (David C. Smith)

Looking west on Minnehaha Parkway at Cedar Avenue South. (David C. Smith)

A man I met near Cedar Avenue claimed that the water reached a similar level after a 1988 thunderstorm, but the water subsided very quickly. Today it didn’t. Minnehaha Parkway was barricaded at many points east of Lake Harriet.

More than a water hazard. Hiawatha Golf Course looking south from E. 43rd Street near Standish. (David C. Smith)

More than a water hazard. Hiawatha Golf Course looking south from E. 43rd Street near Standish. That is not Lake Hiawatha in the foreground. (David C. Smith)

A roomantic interlude at the famous rapids of Minnehaha Creek. This is only a few yards upstream from the Hiawatha statue. (David C. Smith)

A romantic interlude at the famous rapids of Minnehaha Creek! This is only a few yards upstream from the Hiawatha statue. (David C. Smith)

Some early descriptions of the Falls mentioned the heavy mist generated by the falls. That was true today. There was no rain falling while I was taking the pictures below, but I could feel the water in the air. Not quite as dramatic as Victoria Falls, where the cloud of mist over the falls is visible for miles — it’s called Mosi-o-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders — but still impressive for this normally modest stream in mid-summer.

The falls made famous by Henry Wadswotrth Longfellow. I recently discovered startling early plans for the park at the falls that I am waiting for permission to reveal. Stay tuned. (David C. Smith)

The falls made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I recently discovered startling early plans for the park at the falls that I am waiting for permission to reveal. Stay tuned. (David C. Smith)

Unfortunately such high water levels, like the strong winds of recent years, require expensive cleanup efforts from the park board, stretching already tight park maintenance budgets. Kudos and thanks to the park board crews that will put our water-logged parks in beautiful condition yet again.

David C. Smith  minneapolisparkhistory[at]

© David C. Smith

Does anyone have any pictures to post of Bassett’s Creek in Theodore Wirth Park or downstream to Bryn Mawr before it dives underground? Is Shingle Creek any better?

Did you know that H.W.S. Cleveland was a bad park namer?

The recent good news from park commissioner Scott Vreeland and the Minneapolis park board that part of the spectacular Mississippi River Gorge will be named after visionary landscape architect and preservationist Horace William Shaler Cleveland recalled for me a passage in a letter from Cleveland to William Watts Folwell. In that letter, Cleveland pondered names for a yet-to-be-acquired river gorge park. His effort at park naming wasn’t nearly as impressive as his “sermons” on preserving and protecting the river gorge in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

In a letter dated February 11, 1889, Cleveland discussed strategy for getting the Minnesota legislature to approve acquisition of the land around Minnehaha Falls on the Minneapolis side of the river and a mirror park on the St. Paul side of the river. He concluded his letter,

By the way, help me to find a name for that area — “Mississippi Park” or “River Park” are the first that suggest themselves — but are not satisfactory. “Giants Cradle” has occurred to me, the river being the infant giant lying in its bed, but I fear that would need interpretation.
— William Watts Folwell Family Papers, Minnesota Historical Society

The legislature did approve the acquisition of the land on the Minneapolis side of the river, including Minnehaha Falls, for a park, but did not provide money to purchase the land. That’s when several Minneapolis people, led by George Brackett and Henry Brown, loaned the city the money to buy the land. It would be another 13 years before the park board acquired the rest of the west side of the Mississippi River Gorge from Minnehaha Park to Franklin Avenue. By then, Horace Cleveland had died.

As for the name, I think Cleveland’s fears about “Giants Cradle” were well-justified! The entire river gorge park was formally named Mississippi Park for a long time. The name of Horace Cleveland strikes me as much more “satisfactory” for that land than anything he suggested.

Clean Up

I recently had a chance to take a very close look at part of the river gorge during the April 26 Earth Day cleanup sponsored by Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR). I scoured a small part of the river bank picking up an astonishing variety of trash. The most abundant type of trash surprised me: bits of styrofoam.

I was pleased to see such a large turnout of volunteers that the organizers ran out of garbage bags at the 36th St. site. If you can spare an hour sometime, volunteer at one of the cleanup sites organized by FMR (check for a calendar) or at your local park. If you’re like me, it will heighten your appreciation for our parks. I think the beauty and delicacy of the landscape tends to elicit a very protective response. It certainly did from Horace Cleveland, which I believe is the primary reason we still have that wild river gorge. As marvelous as it is, I couldn’t help but wonder what that river gorge might have looked like before it became a reservoir.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]

© 2014 David C. Smith




Minnehaha Park Fireplace Mystery Solved

The mystery of the fireplace in the dog park at Minnehaha Park has been solved thanks to reader “Tom.” Many people have followed this issue or expressed an interest in it and I know that many readers don’t check back to see comments on posts, so I wanted to bring this comment to your attention.

The fireplace surrounded by picnic tables in 1935. (Minnesota Historical Society)

The fireplace surrounded by picnic tables in 1935. (Minnesota Historical Society)

This is the photo of the fireplace that Tom found in the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society, which includes more than 230,000 photographs. As I’ve noted many times, that collection is invaluable and immensely enjoyable. The picnic ground belonged to the Minneapolis Veterans Hospital according to the photo description. Tom further notes that the park board acquired this land in 1959. Thanks for your comment, Tom. Does anyone want to tell us when the fireplace and picnic ground were built?

Excellent Comments

I would suggest that you check back on your favorite park subjects occasionally to see recent comments, or subscribe to comments on any post. Especially interesting in recent months have been

Chuck Solomon’s comment in which he named all of the coaches and nearly every player from a McRae Park football photo

Another tribute to Marv Nelson, a youth football coach at Folwell Park in the 1960s and 1970s

Memories of Keewaydin Park, especially kids’ games and hockey.

These are just a few of the comments in recent months. Thanks to everyone who has commented on the articles here or has contacted me personally with more stories. I appreciate them all. Stories: that’s what this web site is all about.

David C. Smith  minneapolisparkhistory[at]

© 2014 David C. Smith

Did You Know They Were Related?

Minneapolis parks are home to few statues, but two of the people or characters memorialized by statues in parks were related in real life. Well, sort of. Maybe “connected” is a better word. Can you guess which two? And, no, it’s not Hiawatha and Minnehaha.

Here’s the complete list of park statues as they come to mind: Abraham Lincoln on Victory Memorial Drive, Ole Bull in Loring Park, Thomas Lowry in Smith Triangle, George Washington in Washburn Fair Oaks, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Longfellow Glen, and John Stevens, Hiawatha and Minnehaha, Gustav Wennerburg, and Taoyateduta at Minnehaha Park. We could add the Pioneers at the B. F. Nelson site, but they are anonymous figures.

The answer: Ole Bull’s brother-in-law, Joseph G. Thorp, the younger brother of Bull’s American wife, Sara Chapman Thorp, married Anne Allegra Longfellow, the youngest daughter of Henry in 1882. The marriage took place after Ole Bull’s death, so I’m not sure that such a bond actually makes Bull and Longfellow related, but Longfellow’s biographer Thomas Wentworth Higginson said the marriage “allied” the two families. Bull and Longfellow certainly would have known each other in the social/intellectual circles of Cambridge, Mass. Higginson suggests that Ole Bull was the model for the troubadour in Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn, which was published in 1863. Very few people recognize the book title, but many more are familiar with the most famous poem from the book, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

The title of the volume of poetry mentioned above was recommended to Longfellow, according to Higginson, by another man who has a Minneapolis park named for him: Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts senator who was Longfellow’s best friend.

If you ever bothered to lay out the convoluted timeline of the above events you’d realize that it only works if Ole Bull was much older than Sara Thorp — which is true. He met the Wisconsin lumberman’s daughter after a performance in Madison, Wisconsin when he was 60 and she was 20. They married two years later.

Longfellow statue in a field near Longfellow Garden upstream from Minnehaha Falls, 2011. (Ursula Murray Husted,

Longfellow statue in a field near Longfellow Garden upstream from Minnehaha Falls, 2011. (Ursula Murray Husted,

This statue of Norwegian violinist and composer Ole Bull was placed in Loring Park in 1897, shown here about 1900. (Minnesota Historical Society)

This statue of Norwegian violinist and composer Ole Bull was placed in Loring Park in 1897, shown here in about 1900. (Minnesota Historical Society)

This story was brought to mind by the discovery earlier this week of a cabinet photograph of Ole Bull among the possessions of my mother-in-law, Virginia Carpentier, who died two weeks ago. We will miss Ginny.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]

© 2013 David C. Smith

The Worst Idea Ever #8: Power Boat Canal from Minnetonka to Harriet

Ok, it wasn’t really a Minneapolis park project, but it still deserves a laugh: Minnehaha Creek converted into a 30-foot-wide power boat canal from Lake Minnetonka to Lake Harriet!

Lake Harriet could have been more like Lake Minnetonka

Lake Harriet could have been more like Lake Minnetonka.

Minneapolis was obsessed in the spring of 1911 with the upcoming Civic Celebration during which the channel between Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles would be opened. That was a very good thing. Huzzah, huzzah. But the attention it was drawing to the city also focused a lot of eyes on a very bad thing: Minnehaha Creek was nearly dry — in the spring! — which meant almost no water over Minnehaha Falls. Minneapolis could hardly celebrate the opening of the lake connection at the same time it suffered the ignominy of a dry Minnehaha Falls. The many out-of-town visitors anticipated for the celebration would surely want to see both. And let’s face it, a fifty-foot waterfall written about by a Harvard poet, which attracted visitors from around the world was a bit more impressive to most people than a short canal under a busy road and railroad tracks. The Minneapolis PR machine could call the city the “Venice of North America” all it wanted with its new canal, but visitors’ imaginations were still probably fueled more by the images of the famous poet’s noble heathen, beautiful maiden, and “laughing waters.”

The generally accepted solution to the lack of water over Minnehaha Falls was to divert Minnehaha Creek into Lake Amelia (Nokomis), drain Rice Lake (Hiawatha), dam the outlet of the creek from Amelia to create a reservoir, and release the impounded water as needed — perhaps 8 hours a day — to keep a pleasing flow over the falls. Unfortunately, with all the last-minute dredging and bridge-building for the Isles-Calhoun channel, that couldn’t be done in 1911 between April and July 4, when the Civic Celebration would launch.

Into this superheated environment of waterways and self-promotion stepped Albert Graber, according to the Saturday Evening Tribune, May 28, 1911. With the backing of “members of the board of county commissioners, capitalists, attorneys and real estate dealers”, Graber proposed to dredge Minnehaha Creek into a canal 30-feet wide from Lake Minnetonka to Lake Harriet. This would provide not only a water superhighway from Minnetonka to Minneapolis, and boost real estate prices along the creek, but it would also create a much larger water flow in Minnehaha Creek, solving the embarrassment of no laughing water.

“The plan, say the promoters, would enable residents of summer houses on the big lake to have their launches waiting at the town lake.”
Saturday Evening Tribune, May 28, 1911

Sure, there were problems. Not every plan could be perfect. The plan would require dismantling the dam at Gray’s Bay at the head of Minnehaha Creek, which might lower the level of Lake Minnetonka. But Graber and his backers had thought of that. The Minnesota River watershed in the area of St. Bonifacius and Waconia would be diverted into Lake Minnetonka — no problem! — which also solved another bother: it would reduce flooding on the Minnesota River.

The dam at Gray’s Bay had been operated by Hennepin Country since 1897. Many people then and now consider the dam the cause of low water flow in Minnehaha Creek, but the earliest reference I can find to low water in the creek was in 1820, when the soldiers of Fort Snelling wanted to open a mill on Minnehaha Creek, but were forced to move to St. Anthony Falls due to low water. That was even before two intrepid teenagers from the fort discovered that the creek flowed out of a pretty big lake to the west.

Graber estimated that dredging Minnehaha Creek would cost about $4,000 a mile for the nine miles between the two lakes. He and his backers, which included an officer of the Savings Bank of Minneapolis (who presumably had a summer house on the big lake and could put a launch on the town lake), provided assurances that the money to finance the project could be “readily found.”

The Evening Tribune article concluded with an announcement that meetings of those interested in the project would be held in the near future with an eye to beginning work before the end of the summer. Graber noted that his inspection of the project had been, no surprise, “superficial”, but that he would make a thorough report soon to his backers. I can find no evidence that the idea progressed any further.

The Board of Park Commissioners would have had no role in the plan, except, perhaps, allowing power boats to enter and be anchored on Lake Harriet. (I think they would have said no.) Park board ownership of Minnehaha Creek west of Lake Harriet to Edina wasn’t proposed until 1919 and the deal wasn’t done until 1930.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]

© 2013 David C. Smith