Archive for the ‘Mississippi River’ Category

The First River Plans: Long Before “Above the Falls” and “RiverFirst”

“I have been trying hard all Winter to save the river banks and have had some of the best men for backers, but Satan has beaten us.” H. W. S. Cleveland to Frederick Law Olmsted on efforts to have the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis preserved as parkland, June 13, 1889 (Letter: Olmsted Papers, Library of Congress. Photo: H. W. S. Cleveland, undated, Ramsey County Historical Society)

Considerable time, effort and expense—$1.5 million spent or contractually committed to date—have been invested in the last two years to create “RiverFirst,” a new vision and plans for park development in Minneapolis along the Mississippi River above St. Anthony Falls. That’s in addition to the old vision and plans, which were actually called “Above the Falls” and haven’t been set aside either. If you’re confused, you’re not alone.

Efforts to “improve” the banks of the Mississippi River above the falls have a long and disappointing history. Despite the impression given since the riverfront design competition was announced in 2010, the river banks above the falls—the sinew of the early Minneapolis economy—have been given considerable attention at various times over the last 150 years. There’s much more

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Low River Redux

The dry weather 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 when it was very dry in 1955. The water levels on the river appear to be similar now. Larry Dillehay sent this photo taken on the afternoon of October 2. The concrete apron at the Falls isn’t quite dry, but there’s not enough water flowing to make a ripple at the bottom. The horseshoe dam above the falls is now completely out of the water. What a gorgeous day—again.

St. Anthony Falls in a very dry year, as seen from the Stone Arch Bridge, October 2, 2012. (Photo: Larry Dillehay)

Horseshoe dam exposed, with Nicollet Island in background. From 3rd Avenue Bridge just upriver from St. Anthony Falls, October 2, 2012 (Photo: Larry Dillehay)

David C. Smith

Postscript: Both the horseshoe dam and Lock and Dam #1, or Ford Dam, were repaired while the water was at this level, suggesting that while the summer had been very dry, the water levels had been lowered intentionally by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to facilitate mainteneance.

Stone Quarry Update: Limestone Quarry in Minnehaha Park at Work

I was technically correct when I wrote in October that the park board only operated a limestone quarry and stone crushing plant in Minnehaha Park for one year: 1907. But I’ve now learned that the Minnehaha Park quarry was operated for nearly five years by someone else—the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

From early 1938 until 1942 the WPA, a federal program that provided jobs during the Depression, operated the quarry after “tests revealed a large layer of limestone of hard blue quality near the surface” in the park near the Fort Snelling property line at about 54th, according to the park board’s 1937 Annual Report. The WPA technically operated the plant, but it was clearly for the benefit of the Minneapolis park system.

“Although this plant is operated by the WPA, our Board supplied the bed of limestone, the city water, lighting, gasoline and oil, and also some small equipment, since it was set up primarily for our River Road West project, which included the paving of the boulevard from Lake Street to Godfrey Road, and also to supply sand and gravel to the River Road West Extension project (north from Franklin Avenue) where there was a large amount of concrete retaining wall construction.”
— 1938 Annual Report, Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners

In 1938 the park board estimated that 85% of the product of the stone crushing plant was used on park projects, the remainder on other WPA projects in the city.

The quarry was established in an area that “was not used by the public and when the operations are completed, the area can be converted into picnic grounds and other suitable recreational facilities,” the park board reported. (I bet no one thought then that a “suitable” facility would include a place where people could allow their dogs to run off leash!)

“The Stone-crushing Plant at Minnehaha Park” (1938 Annual Report, Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners) Doesn’t look much like one of our favorite wild places, does it?

The plant consisted of “two large jaw crushers” and a conveyor that lifted the crushed rock to shaker screens over four large bins. It was operated by gasoline engines and was lit by electric lights so it could operate day and night. (The fellow with the wheelbarrow in the photo might have liked more conveyor.)

The crushed stone was used in paving River Road West and East, Godfrey Road and many roads, walks and tennis courts throughout the park system. The rock was also used as a paving base at the nearby “Municipal Airport,” also known as Wold-Chamberlain Field, which the park board owned and developed until it ceded authority over the airport to the newly created Metropolitan Airports Commission in 1944. According to the 1942 Annual Report of the park board, in four-and-a-half years the quarry produced 76,000 cubic yards of crushed limestone, 50,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel and 36,000 cubic feet of cut limestone.

The cut limestone was used to face bridges over Minnehaha Creek, shore retaining walls at Lake Harriet, Lake Nokomis and Lake Calhoun and other walls throughout the park system.

The plant was used to crush gravel only in 1938. The gravel was taken from the banks of the Mississippi River, “it having been excavated by the United States Government to deepen the channel of the Mississippi River just below the dam and locks.” After that, the WPA acquired the sand and gravel it needed from a more convenient source in St. Paul.

The project was terminated in 1942 near the end of the WPA. In his 1942 report, park superintendent Christian Bossen wrote in subdued tones that, “For a number of years, practically the only improvement work carried on was through WPA projects. In 1942, WPA confined its work almost exclusively to war projects: and under these conditions considerable work was done at the airport and a very little work was done on park projects.” The WPA was terminated the following year.

The next time you take your dog for a run at the off-leash recreation area at Minnehaha, have a look to see if there are any signs of the quarry and let us know what you find.

David C. Smith

The Myth of Bassett’s Creek

I heard again recently the old complaint that north Minneapolis would be a different place if Bassett’s Creek had gotten the same treatment as Minnehaha Creek. Another story of neglect. Another myth.

You can find extensive information on the history of Bassett’s Creek online: a thorough account of the archeology of the area surrounding Bassett’s Creek near the Mississippi River by Scott Anfinson at From Site to Story — must reading for anyone who has even a passing interest in Mississippi River history; a more recent account of the region in a very good article by Meleah Maynard in City Pages in 2000; and, the creek’s greatest advocate, Dave Stack, provides info on the creek at the Friends of Bassett Creek , as well as updates on a Yahoo group site. Follow the links from the “Friends” site for more detailed information from the city and other sources.

What none of those provided to my satisfaction, however, was perspective on Bassett’s Creek itself after European settlement. A search of Minneapolis Tribune articles and Minneapolis City Council Proceedings, added to other sources, provides a clearer picture of the degree of degradation of Bassett’s Creek—mostly in the context of discussions of the city’s water supply. This was several years before the creation of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners in 1883—a time when Minnehaha Creek was still two miles outside of Minneapolis city limits. The region around the mouth of Bassett’s Creek was an economic powerhouse and an environmental disaster at a very early date—a mix that has never worked well for park acquisition and development.

Idyllic Minnehaha Creek, still in rural surroundings around 1900, quite a different setting than Bassett’s Creek, which had already been partly covered over by then. (Minnesota Historical Society)

“A Lady Precipitated from Bassett’s Creek Bridge”

Anfinson provides many details of the industrial development of the area around the mouth of Bassett’s Creek from shortly after Joel Bean Bassett built his first farm at the junction of the river and the creek in 1852. By the time the Minneapolis Tribune came into existence in 1867, industry was already well established near the banks of the creek. A June 1867 article relates how the three-story North Star Shingle Mill had been erected earlier that year near the creek. The next March an article related the decision to build a new steam-powered linseed oil plant near the creek on Washington Avenue.

Even more informative is a June 27, 1868 story about an elderly woman who fell from a wagon off the First Street bridge over the creek. “A Lady Precipitated from Bassett’s Creek Bridge, a Distance of Thirty Feet,” was the actual headline. (I’m a little embarrassed that I laughed at the odd headline, which evoked an image of old ladies raining down on the city; sadly, her injuries were feared to be fatal.) But a bridge height of thirty feet? That’s no piddling creek—even if a headline writer may have exaggerated a bit. The article was written from the perspective that the bridge was worn out and dangerous and should have been replaced when the city council had considered the matter a year earlier. Continue reading

Northeast River Parks

I enjoyed a walk yesterday along the riverfront parks in northeast Minneapolis sponsored by the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership. I told a few historical stories and park commissioner Liz Wielinski, Above the Falls committee member Mary Jamin Maguire, and Cordelia Pierson, executive director of the partnership, provided insights into park developments, past and future, along the river. We were also delighted to hear stories of the neighborhood from a few longtime residents of the area.

We visited Marshall Terrace, Edgewater Park, and Gluek Park and along the way we passed the newest, still unnamed, Minneapolis park at 2220 Marshall Street—a single lot from Marshall to the river purchased by the park board in 2010.

These are a few of the notes I made for my input into the program.

Marshall Terrace

Marshall Terrace was purchased in 1914. The first land chosen for a First Ward Park was a few blocks farther upriver, but neighborhood objections resulted in the park board asking for suggestions from residents and politicians for a better site. This eight-acre parcel further downriver was the result. (The park board also acquired the upriver acreage, but as a segment of a planned parkway across northeast Minneapolis, now St. Anthony Parkway, instead of a playground park.)

Park superintendent Theodore Wirth prepared these two plans for the new park, which were included in the 1915 Annual Report. (The same report included plans for nearby Bottineau Park.) Continue reading

Minnehaha Park: The Incinerator and the Fireplace

A few months ago Mary MacDonald and Doug Rosenquist asked about fireplaces near 54th and Hiawatha in Minnehaha Park. Mary asked about the stone fireplace a few hundred yards down the path into the dog park and Doug asked about the brick fireplace nearer the road and north of 54th Street.

View of the fireplace from the path in the dog park.

Unfortunately I haven’t found any information on the massive stone fireplace. Not even MaryLynn Pulscher of the park board knows why it’s there or who built it—and if MaryLynn doesn’t know it’s a decent bet that no one does. Still, I’ll keep asking around. I hope one of our readers knows somebody who remembers something and can pass it along to the rest of us.

I have better news about the two-story incinerator. It was built in 1939 by a WPA crew. This is how it was described in the park board’s 1939 annual report:

“Along this roadway a concrete, limestone-faced incinerator was constructed at the old stone quarry site. This incinerator, the first of its kind in our park system, will burn the waste accumulated from the various picnic grounds in this section of the city. A continuation of improvements similar to these is contemplated for next year.”

Two photos of the incinerator are included in the 1939 annual report, but those photos would be hard to reproduce due to the low quality printing of the annual report that year. The 1931-1939 annual reports were not typeset and production values were low.

A stairway goes down behind the incinerator to a lower level where the fire could be stoked and ashes removed..

Despite a reputation for producing elegant and well-illustrated annual reports dating back to the earliest days of the park board (see praise for the park board’s annual reports from noted landscape architect Warren Manning here), the park board’s finances during the Great Depression would not allow anything above the barest minimum of expenditures on annual reports. I am still grateful, however, that photos were included in the reports during those lean depression years.

Until you can get to a library to find a copy of the report and see the original photos, I will provide this quick shot I took last week.

In materials and construction — concrete faced with limestone — the incinerator is similar to the other WPA construction projects in Minnehaha Park in 1939 and 1940, including bridges across Minnehaha Creek in the lower glen and retaining walls built along the creek. (You still have two days to vote for Minnehaha Park and Mill Ruins Park in the Partners in Preservation contest on facebook.)

The Old Stone Quarry Site

The most interesting part of the incinerator description, for me, is its location at the “old stone quarry site.” I remember seeing the photo below in the 1907 annual report and assumed that the quarry was in operation for several years. It appears that it was not. Continue reading

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

Minneapolis Park Crumbs I: Morsels Left Behind from Park Research

Outlawed: The possession or sale of heroin, other opium derivates, and cocaine without a prescription. Penalties established of $50-$100 fine or 30-90 days in the workhouse. Minneapolis City Council Proceedings, October 10, 1913.

Approved: Spanish language classes for Central and West high schools. Existing faculty at each school will teach the classes. Action of the Minneapolis School Board reported in the Minneapolis Tribune, January 13, 1915.

Suggested: A cement wall between Lake Calhoun and Lakewood Cemetery if the city would continue to permit ice to be cut from the lake.  From Minneapolis Journal article, June 8, 1901, about the visit to Minneapolis of Dr. Henry Marcy, “the eminent surgeon and philanthropist of Boston.” Dr. Marcy made the suggestion when he visited Lake Calhoun with Charles Loring. He said he had heard a great deal about Minneapolis’s parks and had a Minneapolis map on which he had sketched out their locations, but wanted to see them.

Found: Gold in Hennepin County, the best sample near Minnehaha Park. The specimen recovered by Prof. J. H. Breese, a former professor at Eastern universities, was confirmed as gold by state geologist Prof. N. H. Winchell. Prof. Breese believes the particles were carried from higher latitudes during the drift period, “but he is quite confident that all has not yet been found.” Reported by Minneapolis Tribune, July 17, 1889.

Built: A 100-foot steamboat named “Minneapolis” by Hobart, Hall and Company. Will begin running freight between Minneapolis and St. Cloud in late July. The company asked the Board of Trade for a free landing near Bassett’s Creek. Reported by Minneapolis Tribune July 8, 1873. The company planned to build another steamboat for the same route, more if “expedient.”

David C. Smith

Has the Park Board Neglected Northeast Minneapolis?

The argument is sometimes made, particularly by “Nordeasters,” that northeast Minneapolis is park poor and that the Minneapolis park board has neglected that part of the city.  “Underserved” seems to be the popular word. The idea even flowed as an undercurrent through the recent Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition. The thinking goes that ever since Minneapolis and St. Anthony merged in 1872, and took the name Minneapolis, power, money and prestige—not to mention amenities such as parks—have accumulated west and south of the river. (Read Lucille M. Kane, The Waterfall That Built a City, for a fascinating examination of why that might have happened.)

While writing recently about Alice Dietz and the marvelous programs she ran at the Logan Park field house I thought again about the perceived neglect of Northeast and whether it might be true. I concluded that it is not; northeast Minneapolis has been a victim of industry, topography and opportunity, but not discrimination or even indifference. What’s more, all those elements have now realigned, putting northeast Minneapolis in the position to get a far bigger slice of the park pie in the foreseeable future than any other section of the city.

Read more

New Rodents at the U: Beavers, not Gophers

Beavers invade Minneapolis park near University of Minnesota!

That’s the gist of my favorite, undated newspaper clip from Victor Gallant’s scrapbook: Minneapolis Parks, 1923-1949. The article had to be from the late 1940s, I’ll tell you why in a moment.

Here’s the story. Three beavers have moved into the east river flats below the U. Need proof? They’ve been felling cottonwood trees along the river bank. Two dozen of them! (Cottonwoods are nobody’s favorite tree, in fact the park board once considered banning the planting of them in the city, but they do spring up on river banks and provide greenery and shade that is flood tolerant.)

The newspaper reports that the beavers are living under a sunken houseboat along the river bank. Park superintendent Charles Doell asks the game warden to remove the beavers so they don’t cut down more trees. (Seems to me it would have been smarter to remove the sunken houseboat to eliminate the avant garde urban beaver habitat.) But Dr. W. J. Breckenridge of the University’s Museum of Natural History points out the advantages of having a living natural history exhibit virtually on campus. Doell relents and instead of evicting Goldy’s cousins, he has a couple loads of poplar trees delivered to the riverbank so the beavers have something to eat other than living cottonwoods. It is believed that the beavers immigrated from known colonies on the Mississippi River at Dayton and Anoka. (Did they come over the falls or through the mill races?)

Big Yellow Taxi

That’s the first and last I’ve heard of beavers in Minneapolis. I suspect they didn’t stay long. I’m pretty sure that the article appeared between 1945 and 1949. It had to be after Doell became Superintendent in 1945 and before Gallant quit keeping the scrapbook in 1949. But I didn’t need to know that was the end of Gallant’s newspaper clipping to figure out that date, because it was in 1949 that the University and park board signed a ten-year agreement for the U to use the river flats as a parking lot. I’m guessing that the beavers wouldn’t have settled next to a busy parking lot. And if they had, everyone would have been happy to evict them if their gnawing was endangering cars instead of just trees. Nobody wants a cottonwood in their back seat, even if its young.

The U’s lease of the parking lot kept being extended beyond the original ten-year term. The park board didn’t take back the land for a park until 1976! Some cottonwood trees only live about as long as that lease lasted.

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Do you know the official name of the park where the rodents lived for a while? It rhymes with beavers.

In 1894 the park board named the east river flats “Cheever’s Landing,” after the man who operated a ferry across the river there. I don’t believe the name ever has been changed officially.

And speaking of wildlife and the James Ford Bell Musuem of Natural History at the University of Minnesota, the coolest sculpture in the city is the wolf pack attacking a moose near the entrance to that museum. Worth a visit. Don’t jump when you see them.

A partial view of the sculpture by Ian Dudley outside the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota (Photo: Tara C. Patty)

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith

Minneapolis park scenes from more than 100 years ago

I found these postcards in a lot box at an auction. They intrigued me because I work for the park board. What I liked about them was that we always think that the world changes so much, but here was proof that we are still enjoying the exact same activity (having fun at Minnehaha Falls) that people did over a hundred years ago. Kind of reassuring in a crazy world.

Iris Pahlberg Peterson

Minnehaha Falls on postcards postmarked in 1906 and 1908

Minnehaha Glen below the falls, in postcards mailed in 1907 and 1911

West bank of Mississippi River with view of Lake Street bridge in 1908 postcard. This was the river bank before the Ford Dam created a reservoir of the river.