St. Anthony Falls. Formerly the only natural waterfall on the Mississippi, St. Anthony not only helped build the city of Minneapolis but served as the nexus between nearly every part of the state. The waterfall provided power. Throughout the years, mill owners took advantage of this power by installing water wheels. These water wheels helped power sawmills which cut boards from the Northern woods and flour mills which ground grain from the wheat fields of Western Minnesota. As a result, Minneapolis became the flour milling capital of the nation for fifty years.
This page provides a brief overview of the entire site. Click the pictures above to go to a page or read a summary of each page below.
The Retreat of St. Anthony Falls
The story of St. Anthony and the Twin Cities began over four hundred and fifty million years ago when a sea covered Minnesota. This ancient sea led to the creation of two rock layers: the St. Peter’s Sandstone, an easily eroded rock, and the Platteville Formation, a yellow hard rock that does not erode easily. These two layers are essential to the formation of a waterfall. Twelve thousand years ago, the falls were near what is now downtown St. Paul, and have eroded away to its current location.
The Dakota, Ojibwe, and Europeans
Historians and archeologists know little about the first humans who saw and lived near the falls. By the time of European contact, the Dakota controlled the falls. St. Anthony Falls was a sacred spot for the Dakota. In 1680, Antonine Augalle and his traveling companion, Father Louis Hennepin, became the first Europeans to visit the falls, and Hennepin’s sensational account of their travels made St. Anthony Falls a landmark in the wilderness. Countless explorers travelled to the falls recorded their impressions of it. In 1805, the federal government signed a treaty with the Dakota and purchased a tract of land that included the falls to construct Fort Snelling.
The Founding of the Twin Cities
Since the federal government controlled the falls, settling by the falls was illegal. As a result, soldiers physically evicted the squatters, who moved down river to a swamp outside the fort’s control and became the first residents of St. Paul. After foiling an ingenious scheme by a Fort Snelling commandant to gain control of the falls, Franklin Steele became the first owner of land around the falls and later founded the community of St. Anthony on the east bank of the river. Another community started on the west bank, which gained legal title in 1856 under the name Minneapolis. Minneapolis eventually absorbed the small community of St. Anthony.
Sawmilling became the first industry to succeed at the falls. Fort Snelling built the first sawmill in the 1820s. The first commercial sawmill came in 1848. Concerns soon arose over how to share water power between the east and west shores of the river and two water power companies formed. These companies controlled the waterpower and land along the falls and leased the water. Soon after, sawmill operations began to dominate the falls and transformed them into a powerful industry. By 1905, Sawmills had moved upriver of the falls to north Minneapolis, and had made Minneapolis the lumber capital of the world. However, two decades later, the sawmills fell silent as loggers finished cutting down the once bountiful Northern woods.
The Eastman Tunnel Collapse: A Case Study of Human Impact on Nature
St. Anthony Falls retreated roughly ten miles in twelve thousand years. However, the falls began to retreat much faster as humans built mills around it. By the 1860s, the falls had reached the tip of the Platteville formation. In 1868, a tunnel built beneath he falls collapsed, nearly destroying the entire milling industry. Turning to Congress for help, the citizens of Minneapolis and St. Anthony asked for funds to fix the falls. Congress agreed and gave the Army Corps of Engineers fifty thousand dollars to preserve the falls for upriver navigation in 1870. The Corps built a massive wall beneath the falls and a wooden apron.
In 1823, Fort Snelling built the first flour mill at the falls. Thirty years later, the first commercial mill opened. By 1876, eighteen flour mills were operating on the west side alone and towering amongst them was the monstrous Washburn A Mill, which exploded and killed eighteen men in 1878. Although tragic, the Washburn A explosion did not discourage flour milling at the falls, and in 1880, total production from the mills at the falls made Minneapolis the largest flour producer in the nation, a position it held for fifty years.
Modern hydroelectric plants were born at the falls when St. Anthony Falls became home to the first modern hydroelectric power station. By 1908, three hydroelectric plants operated at the falls. In 1960, General Mills removed its last water wheel from the Pillsbury A Mill, marking the end of the use of the falls for traditional water power.
Other Industries and Workers
The falls was not only home to saw and flour mills but also cotton mills, cooperages, wool mills, and paper mills. Railroads also left their mark, especially the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railroad Company which built the Stone Arch Bridge. While the falls were a boon for business they were not for workers. Unions struggled for years to gain a foothold at the falls. In 1921, the companies finally allowed unions in, with the promise they would not harm the industry. Many of the mills began closing a decade later.
Rebirth, Renewal, and Return
After 1930, the flour mills began to close. Some were abandoned, others demolished. By 1960, only two mills still operated. Between 1950 and 1963, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a lock on the west side of the falls. During the 1960s, restaurants and apartment buildings opened around the falls, revitalizing it. In 1988, citizens created the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board to promote the falls area. In 2000, Mill Ruins Park opened, and two years later, the Minnesota Historical Society opened its Mill City Museum in the ruins of the Washburn A Mill.
The Falls and The University
The University of Minnesota has a history entwined with the falls. John S. Pillsbury, who built the Pillsbury A Mill and served as a University Regent, used his political influence to secure grant money and helped reopen the University in 1867. The University of Minnesota also runs the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory. Located on Hennepin Island, the lab conducts experiments using water from the Mississippi which flows through a canal underneath the building.
Islands in the River: A Map of St. Anthony Falls
Humans have not only changed the face of St. Anthony but have also changed the many islands surrounding the falls. Once, six islands were in the river. Now, only Nicollet Island remains an actual island. Two of the islands, Hennepin and Boom, are no longer islands since the channels that once divided them from the main land are no more. The other three islands have vanished completely.