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.
|1. In the Beginning|
|2. Hydroelectricity Returns to the Falls|
|3. The Triumph of Hyrdoelectricity and the End of Water Power|
On September 5, 1882, one small building made American history and would change St. Anthony Falls forever. For the first time, a hydroelectric central station began operations and powered its first lights. Hydroelectricity means that water produces electricity, usually by turning wheels in a generator. Central station means that the power does not power one building, but many buildings. In essence, St. Anthony was the home of the first modern hydroelectric power station, generating electricity to run multiple buildings.
Hydroelectricity first came to the falls in 1881, when the Pillsbury A Mill installed a Brush plant to power sixteen lights, which “present[ed] a beautiful appearance” and made “the mill lighter than it is at noonday.” Minneapolis citizens established the first electrical company in that same year. They named it the Minnesota Electric Light and Electric Motive Power Company, although they later shortened the name to the Minnesota Brush Electric Company. The Brush name came from Charles F. Brush, a Cincinnati businessman who played an important role in developing arc lighting, an intense light produced when an electrical current runs between two copper electrodes. Brush also owned the company that produced and sold the electricity producing machinery to the Minneapolis company.
At first the lights flickered and faltered because the company had not purchased enough waterpower from the Minneapolis Mill Company. This flickering, combined with people’s fears of the dangers of electric lighting, prevented the Minnesota Brush Electric from growing rapidly. The company also encountered fierce competition from the Minneapolis Gas Company, which held a street lighting contract with the city. In a gambit to break this contract, the Brush Electric Company built a two hundred fifty seven feet high mast, hung with eight large arc lamps, to demonstrate the effectiveness of street lighting. It worked and the company received a contract to increase the number of street lights.
"The Gigantic Light Which Was to Light the City" from the Minnesota Historical Society ca. 1884
By 1885, the company was lighting over two hundred street lamps. However, the previous year, it decided it could not rely on water power as a reliable source of electricity and had moved to a steam powered building fueled by sawdust and later coal.
In 1889, the two waterpower companies at the falls, the St. Anthony Falls Power Company and the Minneapolis Milling Company, joined to form Pillsbury-Washburn. Pillsbury-Washburn immediately selected William de la Barre, a highly talented engineer with an extensive knowledge of water power, as president. It still retained the names St. Anthony Falls Company and Minneapolis Mill Company for legal purposes.
De la Barre immediately set about trying to maximize waterpower from the falls. He removed old and inefficient mills, built more tailraces, and made sure the millponds were filled to the brim. Realizing that flour mills were relying more and more on steam power and under predictions by newspapers that one day the flour mills would leave the falls just as the sawmills had done before, he also began to focus on developing the hydroelectric potential of the falls.  With the development of long distance transmission of electric power, De la Barre began planning his own hydroelectric facilities. He also sold water power to the Minneapolis General Electric Company, which had absorbed Minnesota Brush and its competitors. In 1894, the company built its main street station, which made part of its electrical output through hydroelectricity.
Main Street Station today.
One of De la Barre’s lasting achievements is the Lower Dam, visible from the Stone Arch Bridge. Looking for ways to capitalize the twenty foot drop of the river from the falls to the end of the company’s land, De la Barre advocated building a dam and power station further down river. Construction began in 1895 and ended in 1897. Washburn-Crosby spent nearly a million dollars during construction, which led many who were skeptical of the value of hydroelectricity to call the installation “De la Barre’s Folly.” Fortunately for De la Barre, the investment paid back heavily when he sold a lease on the power station to Thomas Lowry. Lowry ran the Twin City Rapid Transit Company, which operated electric street cars. Eventually, the company moved away from street cars to buses, giving up its lease in 1950.
The Lower Dam. Image from the Minnesota Historical Society 12/10/1897
On Hennepin Island in 1908, De la Barre built another hydroelectric station, which ran on surplus water power. During times of high water, like in spring when snow in northern Minnesota melted, excess water not leased to the flour companies would turn the plant’s turbines. In the past, the company would sell the excess water power to other mills. The idea of running a plant on surplus water was an innovation.
By 1908, with construction of the three hydroelectric plants, careful water management and employment of surplus water, the falls produced 55,068 horsepower. Of that, the hydro plants processed 25,000, the flour mills 24,000, and the Northern Star Woolen Mill Company and others controlled the rest.
Late in 1908, Pillsbury-Washburn collapsed. A local management committee had engaged in a wheat-speculation venture that had failed, costing the company over a million dollars. As a result, the company had to mortgage its hydroelectric plants to First Trust and much of the budget of the company from 1909 to 1923 went to First Trust in order to pay back the million dollars and interest. None of it went into building more hydroelectric stations.
In 1923, Pillsbury-Washburn sold the Saint Anthony and Minneapolis mill companies to Northern States Power Company. Northern States Power Company had also absorbed the Minnesota Electric Brush Company, and later its competitor, the Minneapolis Gas Company. De la Barre remained in the organization till his death in 1936.
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. Northern States controlled all the horsepower of the falls, except for a small amount they leased to the University of Minnesota’s Saint Anthony Falls Laboratory. Hence, with the removal of the Pillsbury A Mill’s wheel, the era of direct waterpower at the falls came to an end. Hydroelectric power still dominates the force of the Falls today.
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1. Lucile M. Kane, The Falls of St. Anthony: The Waterfall that Built Minneapolis (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987), p. 134,137
2. Kane, The Falls, p. 134-135
3. Kane, The Falls, p. 137-138, 140-141
4. Kane, The Falls, p. 142, 144-145
5. Kane, The Falls, p. 146, 148
6. Kane, The Falls, p. 149
7. Kane, The Falls, p. 149-152, 188
8. Kane, The Falls, p. 154, 174
9. Kane, The Falls, p. 156
10. Kane, The Falls, p. 157
11. Kane, The Falls, p. 165-166
12. Kane, The Falls, p. 171-172