Where is De Soto Harbor?

With the completion of the High Dam, now the Ford Dam, on the Mississippi River just upstream from Minnehaha Creek in 1917, the Minneapolis park board was pressed to name the new reservoir that formed behind the dam. Without explanation, it settled on the odd name of “De Soto Harbor” on July 3, 1918. I have found no evidence that the name was ever changed, rescinded — or used.

The “High Dam” nearing completion in 1917. It became known as the Ford Dam in 1923. This was before the Ford Bridge was built later in the 1920s. (from City of Parks, Minnesota Historical Society)

The harbor was named for Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer who was believed then to have been the first European to see the Mississippi River about 1540. De Soto’s expedition never got anywhere near Minnesota, however, crossing the Mississippi near Memphis, Tennessee. De Soto’s story is one of some “firsts” in European exploration of North America, but also considerable brutality toward native people.

Other names the park board considered for the reservoir were Lafayette Lake, Liberty Lake, Lake Minneapolis and St. Anthony Harbor. (Minneapolis Tribune, June 27, 1918.)

The name chosen was unusual because the park board had not, for the most part, named park properties for people not connected with the history of the city or state. (Logan Park was a notable exception.) The decision to name parks only for people of local historical significance was adopted as an official policy of the park board in 1932. The policy was revised in 1968 to enable Nicollet Park to be renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Park.

Of course, some park features on the Minneapolis map — such as St. Anthony Falls, Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun, Minnehaha Creek — predate by decades the creation of the park board in 1883.

The park board had been involved in issues surrounding dam construction for years by the time it named the reservoir, first with the Meeker Island Dam and later the “High Dam.” From as early as 1909 the park board had sent representatitives to meetings on high dam construction held by the US Army Corps of Engineers and in 1910 had requested that the park board receive half the electricity generated by the dam in exchange for “flowage rights” over land the park board owned. The government did not agree, even though the park board lost 27 acres of land for the reservoir in 1916. Included in that acreage were several islands in the river. The park board granted rights to cut down timber on one island in the river to a local charity before the trees were submerged. The board noted that neither the park board nor the Corps of Engineers wanted a stand of dead timber in the middle of the new reservoir.

Few photos I have seen give a good picture of water levels in the Mississippi before the dams were built. One of the most dramatic is this one of the Stone Arch Bridge in 1890.

Stone Arch Bridge 1890, before any dams downstream created reservoirs. (Minnesota Historical Society)

I don’t know what month the photo was taken, although foliage says summer. Perhaps the river was unusually low in late summer, but to see the Stone Arch Bridge nearly completely out of the water is unusual.

David C. Smith

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3 comments so far

  1. Jay Maasch on

    David,
    I’ve always wanted to see photos of the De Soto Harbor area before the dam. You say there are few good ones. How could I get a look at the ones you’ve found? I’m curious about how wide and deep the river was there. I also understand there’s a group committed to restoring the river there to it’s original condition.

    Thanks,

    Jay Maasch

  2. Larry Dillehay on

    Dave –

    Great picture of the Stone Arch Bridge.

    • David C. Smith on

      It’s my favorite Stone Arch Bridge photo. Copies of photos from the Minnesota Historical Society collections are available for purchase. Go to http://collections.mnhs.org/visualresources/ to find photos, then follow links to purchase. Historical photos of the river would be interesting additions to the decor of many residences overlooking the Central Riverfront — and generate revenue for the historical society. Both good. Thanks for the comment.


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