A History of the Falls

An Overview

The Retreat of the Falls

The Dakota, Ojibwe, and First European

The Founding of the Twin Cities


The Eastman Tunnel Collapse

Flour Milling


Other Industries and Workers

Rebirth, Renewal, and Return

The Falls and the University

Islands in the River



A History of Saint Anthony Falls

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Islands in the River

Not only have humans changed the face of St. Anthony, they 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 mainland are no more. The other three islands have vanished completely.

1. Nicollet Island
2. Hennepin Island
3. Boom Island
4. Cataract Island
5. Upton Island
6. Spirit Island



At left is a map of the retreat of the falls with the islands assigned a number. The number corresponds to the table of contents. Fell free to click on the islands to go to a short description . Original map from http://serc.carleton.edu/details/images/12651.html

Nicollet Island

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Nicollet Island has had a long and varied history as the largest and only inhabited island on the Mississippi River It received its name from explorer and scientist Joseph N. Nicollet. According to oral tradition, the Dakota used Nicollet Island as a birthing place since the roar of the falls would drown the mother’s cries and afford some protection from the Ojibwe, the Dakota’s enemy at the time.[1]

After Europeans came to St. Anthony, Franklin Steele became the first “owner” of the island, but he lost it after he mortgaged it to a trader named Hercules Dousman. Dousman sold the island to William Eastman and John Merriam in 1865. Merriam and Eastman set about building a residential neighborhood in the north part of the island and an industrial complex in the south half. As part of the gambit to make the island into a milling center, they tried to build a tunnel underneath it. The tunnel would have focused the flow of the water and increased its water power potential had it not collapsed and nearly destroyed the entire milling industry. Turning instead to developing the residential area, Eastman and Merriam made Nicollet into one of the most fashionable addresses in Minneapolis. Politicians and mill owners built large mansions on the island, many of which still stand today.[2]

At the end of World War I, Nicollet’s character began to change. As the flour milling and saw milling industries began to decline, Nicollet Island became an extension of the Gateway District, considered a skid row at the time. The Salvation Army opened a men’s shelter on the island and the once fashionable mansions became low rent housing.[3]

Nicollet Island Inn was once a Salvation Army men's shelter.

By the 1950s, the city had decided to clean up the skid row. As part of urban renewal, they destroyed over one hundred and fifty buildings in downtown Minneapolis by 1965. They soon turned their sights on Nicollet, but encountered fierce resistance from the island’s older residents and a young group of hippies who had also made the island their home. This resistance was buoyed by the inclusion of the island into the Falls of St. Anthony National Registry of Historic Places and the development of the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Committee. In 1983, the city finally reached a compromise. The parks board took control of most of the vacant and industrial land to make a park and also oversaw the development of the island to make sure it did not lose its historic character.[4]

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Hennepin Island

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Named after Father Hennepin, one of the first Europeans to see the falls, Hennepin Island played a huge role in the development of the falls. The island was home of the first commercial flour mills. Built in 1854, the “Island Mill” turned out one hundred barrels of flour a day and could grind 160 bushels in four hours. Soon, more flour mills, sawmills, and a paper mill joined it. [5]

Hennepin almost vanished during the collapse of the Eastman Tunnel, which eroded large parts of it. The island later played a large role in developing hydroelectric power at the falls and became home to two power stations, one, the Main Street Station, still stands today.[6]  

Over time, business and mill owners filled in the canal separating Hennepin from the east bank, making Hennepin an island only in name.[7] Currently, Hennepin is home to the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, Hennepin Island Park, and the Xcel Energy Water Power Park.

Hennepin Island. From Minnesota Historical Society. (Photographer: Benjamin Franklin Upton, 1857)

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Boom Island

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Boom Island was the site of a large boom, where loggers would string a chain across the river to snag logs. The logs had stamps on them so loggers would organize the logs into piles and channel them downriver to the correct mills. By the early 1900s, the island had become home to a large sawmill and a storage site for logs.[8] A railroad company also used the southern end of the island for a rail yard.[9] Sawdust and silt filled in the channel between the island and the east bank of the river. By the time Boom Island had fallen into the hands of the parks board, it was no longer an island.[10]

Cataract Island

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Cataract Island was located between Hennepin and Spirit Island. In 1855, the Lovejoy Bros. built a shingle factory on the island. They also built a walkway from Hennepin to Cataract Island to allow their workers to get to the mill. However, high water often rendered this walkway useless. The mill ran until 1860 when the river undermined the rock on which it stood, causing it to collapse into the river. The rest of the island soon suffered the same fate as the water eroded the St. Peter’s sandstone beneath it.[11]

Upton Island

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Upton Island was the home to the world’s first hydroelectric central station, becoming the first power plant in the world to use water to generate electricity that powered multiple buildings. The Army Corps of Engineers removed the island when they built the lock near St. Anthony Falls.[12]

Spirit Island

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Spirit Island once stood downstream of the falls. Bald eagles often nested in its trees. The island held special significance for the Dakota but not for later Minneapolis residents.[13] The latter noticed that the island held large deposits of Platteville limestone. They quarried that rock away to use the limestone to build their mills. The Army Corps of Engineers eventually removed the rest of Spirit Island when they installed the lock next to the falls.[14]

Spirit Island with Stone Arch Bridge in background. From Minnesota Historical Society 5/27/1899


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Click the footnote number to return to the paragraph or click here to return to the top of the page.

1. Christopher and Rushika F. Hage, Nicollet Island (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2010), p. 7

2. Hage, Nicollet Island, p. 7-8

3. Hage, Nicollet Island, p. 9

4. Hage, Nicollet Island, p. 9

5. Kane, The Falls, p. 27-28

6. Kane, The Falls, p. 156

7. Hage, Nicollet Island, p. 7

8. David C. Smith, “Boom Island,” Parks, Lakes, Trails and So Much More: An Overview of the Histories of MPRB Properties  (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, 2008) p. 17-18 found online at http://www.minneapolisparks.org/documents/parks/Parks_Lakes_Trails_Much_More.pdf

9. Scott Afinson, “Archaeology of the Central Minneapolis Riverfront Part 2: Archaeological Explorations and Interpretive Potentials - Chapter 2: Site Formation”, The Minnesota Archaeologist  (Vol. 49 Issues 1 and 2, 1990), found online http://www.fromsitetostory.org/sources/papers/mnarch49/49a-archpo.asp

10. Smith, “Boom Island,” p. 17

11. Isaac Atwater, History of the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Part 1 (New York: Munsell and Company, 1983) p. 583

12. Kane, The Falls, p. 136, 185

13. Kane, The Falls,p. 2-3, 177

14. Jack El-Hait, Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p.52

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