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

Download tour



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.

1. Sawmilling Comes to the Falls
2. The Waterpower Companies
3.The Lumber Capital
4.Health at the Sawmills
5. The End of Sawmilling

Sawmilling Comes to the Falls

[Back to top]

In September 1847, Daniel Stanchfield, a lumberman from Maine, left St. Anthony Falls to explore the great woods to the north. Every six miles, he climbed a tree to survey the vast forest of pine that stretched farther than the eye could see in every direction. He reported that the pine was “almost inexhaustible.” When he returned from his trek in March of 1848, he travelled down the Mississippi to Galena, Illinois to collect $12,000 from a group of Eastern businessmen. The sum provided Franklin Steele, the future founder of St. Anthony, enough money to build the first commercial sawmill at the falls.[1]

Although a government sawmill for Fort Snelling had existed on the falls’ west bank since the 1820s, extensive commercial development of the falls did not begin until the 1850s, after Minnesota had officially become a territory. Franklin Steele’s sawmill, built on the east side of the falls, produced about 15,000 board feet a day. On the west side, commercial sawmilling started after Robert Smith, Illinois congressmen, asked for a lease on the government sawmill and grist mill, which he later bought. Sawmilling developed quickly after the government opened the west side of the falls for settlement in 1855.[2]

Nearly all the sawmills at St. Anthony Falls were built on platforms. Water rushing beneath these platforms would turn saws. The platforms also seerved as storage for logs before the mill owners shipped them downriver to St. Paul. Image from the Minnesota Historical Society (Photographer: E. & H.T. Anthony and Company , ca. 1860).

The Waterpower Companies

[Back to top]

In 1856, the west and east side interests consolidated their waterpower, forming two companies. Robert Smith joined eleven other Minneapolis businessmen to form the Minneapolis Mill Company on the west side. On the east side, Steele created the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company with New York business financiers.[3]

These companies controlled the waterpower and land along the falls and leased the water to mills in the form of mill powers, roughly the amount of water needed to produce fifty to sixty horsepower. In exchange for these leases, the companies also maintained future installations at the falls such as dams and canals.[4]

However, before they could start leasing mill powers, the companies had to evenly divide the water of the falls between themselves. To achieve this, they constructed a v-shaped dam above the falls. The basic shape still exists today. By diverting the water into two different millponds, the dam allowed the two power companies of the falls to develop independently.[5]

The same shape of the original V-dam still exists today.

The water power companies also made changes to the falls that people could not see. In 1857, the Minneapolis Company excavated a large canal beneath the Platteville, a layer of dense limestone responsible for the falls’ existence (see “The Retreat of the Falls”).  This canal focused water flow and increased its potential. It canal started above the falls and ran for more than two hundred feet. Water flowing through it would exit tunnels, turn waterwheels, and leave. Millers called the top of the tunnel, where water entered, a headrace, and the bottom of the tunnel, where water exited a tailrace. This greatly increased production of lumber and later flour on the west side. [6]

Soon after, sawmill operations began to dominate the falls and transformed them into a powerful industry. These early mills rested on platforms built out over the millponds. No remnants of these platforms exist today. Water rushing beneath the platforms turned turbines connected to belts and pulleys which operated the saws to cut wood.[7]

The Lumber Capital

[Back to top]

The platform sawmills turned the towns of St. Anthony and Minneapolis into an unrivaled logging center. Millions of acres of forest stretched across the northern part of the state and the rivers allowed loggers to float the cut logs downstream to the falls. Just above the falls, mill workers collected, sorted and sent the logs to the sawmills to be cut. After being cut into boards, the millers either sold the lumber in town or shipped it further downstream by boat.[8]

In the beginning years of the cities, the calendar of Minneapolis and St. Anthony matched the logging industry’s calendar. During the fall, the sound of oxcarts echoed in the streets as lumbermen went north to cut down trees. Quiet settled in when the saws fell silent during the winter. When the ice on the Mississippi melted, the city came back to life, and by the time the first logs arrived in April, loggers had begun to return from northern Minnesota. Soon logs clogged the river again and the noise of sawmilling returned.[9]

As a result of these operations, Saint Anthony Falls quickly became the United States’ leading sawmill center. In 1856, the year’s output from sawmilling was approximately 12 million feet of board. By 1869, the annual output had grown to about ninety one thousand board feet and a total of eighteen mills operated under eighteen different owners. In 1880, production had grown to about one hundred and eighty thousand board feet.[10]

Sawmills on the East Side of the falls, ca. 1855. Image from Minnesota Historical Society,

Increased production did not necessarily mean good times for the companies involved. The Saint Anthony Falls Company suffered from poor management and lack of funds. In 1870, the Eastman Tunnel collapsed, hurting production. On October 20, 1870, a careless worker tried to fill a lit kerosene lantern on the east side of the falls. The lantern exploded, burning the entire row of sawmills down forcing the millers to rebuild the entire east side sawmills over the next decade.[11]

Health at the Sawmills

[Back to top]

In 1868, the St. Anthony Falls Company tried to mimic the Minneapolis canal on the east side of the river, but ran into difficulties after workers encountered a gigantic cavern beneath the Platteville. The power company eventually built a shorter water canal for the Pillsbury A Mill, a flour mill, in 1881. In the meantime, to make some money back on the investment, the company leased the land to Mannesseh P. Pettingill for use as a resort. From 1875 to 1883, he conducted tours of the cavern and sold water, which people believed was medicinal, from the adjoining “Chalybeate Mineral Springs.”[12] “Pettingill’s Wonderful Water” went out of business in the 1880s when the source of the “mineral springs” was discovered to be a dirty swamp.[13]

The lumber industry had a bad side as well. Logs that escaped the mills to tumble over the falls greatly accelerated the waterfalls’ retreat.[14] Lumber workers paid a price too. At times, enough logs floated down the river that they would jam together and stop moving. During particularly bad logjams, people could walk across the river. In fact, the lumber company paid people to not only walk across the river but use large poles to unjam the logs. When the logs broke free from the jam, workers who could not move fast enough often fell and drowned.[15]  Many workers also lost hands or limbs while working in the mills, due to the pulleys, belts and the saws. As a result, during its lumbering period, Minneapolis also became a center for the building and designing of artificial limbs. Even today, Minneapolis still has a reputation for artificial limb construction, a legacy of the dangers of its early milling operations.[16]


Log jam at the falls. Photograph from the Minnesota Historical Scoiety. (Photographer: Joel Emmons Whitney, ca. 1866-1867)

The End of Sawmilling

[Back to top]

In 1880, despite yearly increasing timber production, sawmilling was on its way out of the falls area. The development of steam power helped decrease sawmill operations at the falls by providing an alternate and cheaper form of power than waterpower. Since the mills could also burn their scraps to produce energy, they stood to gain from using steam power.[17]

The Minneapolis Milling Company also wanted the sawmills gone. The sawmills often wasted water at a time when flour mills needed that water. The Army Corps of Engineers warned that logs could also damage the newly constructed apron on the falls. Consequently, the company bought out many of the sawmills between 1876 and 1880 and began to remove them one by one. Eventually, sawmills moved upriver of the falls to north Minneapolis, where they had more land to build larger mills. By1889, most of the sawmills had left the falls, leaving it to the flour mills.[18]

The lumber industry still produced incredible amounts of wood and timber. Between 1899 and 1905, Minneapolis became the nation’s leading lumber producer. However, all of these lumbering operations had their cost. By 1921, loggers had depleted Minnesota’s once grand pine forests, and the sawmills fell silent.[19]

After flour mills forced them from the falls, sawmills moved to North Minneapolis. From Minnesota Historical Society. (Photographer: Charles J. Hibbard, 1910)

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

1. Lucile M. Kane, The Falls of St. Anthony: The Waterfall that Built Minneapolis (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987), p. 17-18

2. John O. Anfinson, River of History: A Historic Resources Study of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (St. Paul: Army Corps of Engineers, 2003), p. 128

3. Anfinson, River, p. 125-126

4. Kane, The Falls, p. 55-56

5. Anfinson, River, p. 126

6. Anfinson, River, p. 126-127

7. Kane, The Falls, p. 106-107

8. Kane, The Falls, p. 58

9. Kane, The Falls, p. 58

10. Kane, The Falls, p. 57-58,106

11. Anfinson, River, p. 126, 129

12. Kane, The Falls, p. 123, 85-86

13. “Pettingill’s Wonderful Water”, Saint Anthony Falls Historic Trail Marker found in Father Hennepin Bluffs Park, near Sixth Avenue SE and Main Street, Minneapolis, MN

14. Kane, The Falls, p. 63

15. Shannon M. Pennefeather, Mill City: A Visual History of the Minneapolis Mill District  (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003), p. 54-55

16. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 62

17. Anfinson, River, p. 129-130

18. Kane, The Falls, p. 107-108, 115

19. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 59

[Back to top]