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

© 2015 David C. Smith

8 comments so far

  1. Karen Cooper on

    Hi, Dave,

    Yes, sure; of course I am reading. :-)

    The falls you’re wondering about isn’t Minnehaha Falls. It’s not any of the other falls in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, like Silver Cascade, or Fawn’s Leap. The most famous waterfall in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is Tahquamenon Falls, but that’s not a photo of Tahq Falls either.

    The most commonly confused identification of Minnehaha is Minneopa Falls in Minneopa State Park in Mankato, MN. I’m not expert in pictures of that, and I cannot rule out this mystery photo being of Minneopa Falls, but I have looked at a lot of on-line images of it since you asked. I don’t believe it is Minneopa, but I am not 100% sure.

    Take a look at Minneopa. What do you think?

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks, Karen. Always appreciate your expertise. I’ve never visited Minneopa Falls. One on a long list of things I’ve always meant to do, but haven’t. I’ll look up some pictures of Minneopa, too.

  2. Kathy Swenson on

    Going behind the falls isn’t the only dangerous activity. The geology and erosion process that resulted in the falls moving to their current location is still in effect although slower. The softer sandstone is eroded away, in part today from people climbing where they shouldn’t, and the upper layer of unsupported limestone then collapses. There is fresh rock fall in areas where I’ve seen people standing and climbing around this winter. I sure wish people wouldn’t go beyond the fences and that the park police would be an occasional enforcing presence.

    • David C. Smith on

      Excellent points, Kathy. Thanks.

    • Karen Cooper on

      Hi, Kathy,

      I agree about the increased erosion and rock collapses at Minnehaha Falls. I am doing another presentation on Minnehaha Falls where I’ll address this at some length. I’m speaking to the Linden Hills History Study Group on May 7th. Love to see you there.

      • David C. Smith on

        Write down the date. I’ll try to remind everyone closer to the date as well. Thanks, Karen.

  3. Nancy Smith on

    Really cool article and pics. Big thumbs up!!

Leave a Reply to Karen Cooper Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: