Archive for the ‘Minnehaha Falls’ Tag

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

© 2013 David C. Smith

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Public-private collaborations that work: Sea Salt, Tin Fish and…Bread and Pickle?

The mention of Sea Salt restaurant in Alice Streed’s Minneapolis Park Memory: Treasure (below) is noteworthy. A relatively new development in our parks is mentioned in the same sentences as long-celebrated spaces and activities. The popular restaurant in the Minnehaha Park refectory — run as a private, for-profit business — is a marvelous example of the best of public-private collaboration. It proves that private enterprise can do some things, such as serving delicious sea food, better than a public agency. I believe it also demonstrates the silliness of claims that the sky is falling whenever an agency like the park board considers change.

Lest private enterprise advocates get carried away here, however, let me state quite emphatically that there would be no park system in which to place these wonderful little restaurants if we would have relied on private interests to create parks. Our parks prove that public agencies can do some things, such as creating a park system, that private enterprise will not do.

The debate over allowing businesses to operate in Minneapolis parks is old — and sometimes entertaining. The park board began granting concessions for boat rentals, then food sales, to private businesses at Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet very early in the history of Minneapolis parks. The park board assumed control of the boat rentals at Lake Harriet in the late 1880s when Charles Loring noted that the business could be easily managed by the park board. On other issues, however, the presence of private enterprise on park property was vigorously opposed.

Permit me to quote myself — and Horace Cleveland — from City of Parks:

(Cleveland) had also written (to William Folwell) of his disgust that the park board was considering permitting a structure next to Minnehaha Falls where people could have their photos taken beside the cataract. “If erected,” Cleveland complained, “it will be simply pandering to the tastes of the army of boobies who think to boost themselves into notoriety by connecting their own stupid features with the representation of one of the most beautiful of God’s works.”

You didn’t mess with Cleveland’s favorite natural landscapes — one of the things that made him one of the first great landscape architects. Fortunately, William Folwell, who was president of the park board at the time, agreed with his friend.

Another early private business on park property was a service to pump up deflated bicycle tires on the new bicycle paths created by the park board during the bicycle craze of the 1880s-1890s. The park board did exercise some control over the business, however, by stipulating that the business could not charge more than a penny for filling a tire.

The park board began to take over food service in park buildings after Theodore Wirth became park superintendent in 1906. Wirth, like many park executives of the day, believed that no private concessions should be operated in parks — although he seemed to make an exception for pony rides and probably would have for the polo fields and barns he proposed for Bryn Mawr Meadows. (And, of course, the sheep he brought in to graze at Glenwood Park in 1921 were not owned by the park board. Wirth wrote that he thought sheep grazing in a park was a cool visual effect and that the sheep would earn their keep by cutting grass, keeping weeds down, which reduced fire risk, and fertilizing. Unfortunately they didn’t mow evenly and ate other plants too, so the borrowed sheep were evicted in 1922. ) One of the few other historical examples of a private venture operating on park property was the Minneapolis Tennis Club, which operated first at The Parade and then moved to Nicollet (Martin Luther King) Park in the early 1950s when Parade Stadium was built.

Do you remember concession stands in parks? What about treats at the Calhoun, Nokomis or Wirth beach houses?  As good as fish tacos?

I have high hopes for Bread & Pickle, the new food service contracted for Lake Harriet next summer. I hope the Citizens Advisory Council that worked so hard on the recommendations wasn’t too conservative in forcing  a new service into old space.

David C. Smith

Did the Princess Depot burn down?

Most visitors to Minnehaha Falls have seen the little railroad depot, the “Princess” depot, that sits along the railroad tracks southwest of the falls. It was once owned by the Milwaukee Road but is now owned by the Minnesota Historical Society and operated by the Minnesota Transportation Museum. The little information available about the depot says that it was built in 1875. However last year while helping my daughter research a school paper we came across an article in the Minneapolis Tribune of March 7, 1891 that read in its entirety:

The Minnehaha Depot Burned
Shortly after 10 o’clock last night the Milwaukee depot at Minnehaha Falls took fire. Before the apparatus of the fire department could reach the place the flames had obtained too much of a start to be put out and the building, which was built of wood, was totally destroyed. It was a small structure, probably worth less than $1,000.

Subsequent searches of the newspaper revealed no more information on the fire or when the depot was rebuilt. Was the Princess Depot the one that burned or was there another Milwaukee depot at Minnehaha?

Not exactly a Minneapolis parks issue, but many visitors to the falls likely passed through that station.

David C. Smith