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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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.

1. Cloth Steel and Paper
2. The Railroad
3. Workers

Cloth, Steel, and Paper

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For years, Minneapolis dreamed of becoming another Lowell, a Massachusetts city famous for its cotton mills. Citizens had even suggested the name Lowell before deciding on Minneapolis. Consequently, Minneapolis tried to create its own cloth industry. In 1870, the first and only cotton mill built around the falls, named the Minneapolis Cotton Manufacturing Company, began producing bags, wagon covers, and awnings for the mills. These bags displaced the barrels in which the flour industry typically shipped its products. The mill only lasted until 1880. Ultimately, cotton milling at the falls did not prove profitable, probably due to Minneapolis’ distance from the New England markets and shipping centers. [1]

One cloth industry did survive at the falls. North Star Woolen Mill, which began operations in 1864, produced scarves, flannels, blankets, and yarns. Despite being a significant source of employment for the city, it declared bankruptcy in 1876. The Minneapolis Mill Company, the predominant company of the west side, bought the facility and operated it until the 1940s.[2]

Once a wool mill, Northern Star now houses condominiums.

During the 1850s to the 1870s, metal and woodworking was the third main industry at the falls, following lumber and flour. A number of foundries and shops produced and repaired mill machinery, steam engines, and farm equipment, among many other things. The woodworks produced many products including blinds, doorways, shingles, flour barrels, and churns. However, with the development of steam power and the need for more space, many of these industries left the falls and its waterpower in the 1870s.[3]

Two paper mills also operated at the falls. One, founded in 1859on Hennepin Island, closed in 1882 after a fire damaged it.[4] The other, the Minneapolis Paper Mill, operated from 1867 to the early 1890s, when the Minneapolis Company bought it out and destroyed it in favor of a warehouse.[5]

The Railroad

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In 1856, James J. Hill came to St. Paul. Hill worked in St. Paul as a shipping clerk for a steamboat company, but dreamed of building a railroad to the Pacific coastline. He quickly rose through the corporate ranks. By 1866, Hill was president of the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company, which he renamed the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railroad Company in 1879. Hill became president of the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company in 1882, and worked to improve the efficiency of waterpower for the falls’ riverbank industries. He never forgot his dream of a Pacific railroad, however, and in 1890, he made it a reality with the completion of the Great Northern Railway.[6]

James J. Hill’s most famous contribution to the Saint Anthony Falls area was the construction of the Stone Arch Bridge. Dubbed “Hill’s Folly,” the Stone Arch Bridge connected the west and east banks of the river, linking Minneapolis’ milling operations with the agricultural fields of the Dakotas and the barge and rail traffic of St. Paul. Architect Charles C. Smith designed the bridge to provide a “route more attractive to travelers” with its view of St. Anthony Falls. The bridge stands eighty two feet height and has 23 arches with spans ranging from 40 to 100 feet. Under construction for three years, the Stone Arch Bridge was officially opened on November 22, 1883. Built to last, the Stone Arch Bridge is composed of the same rock that forms the waterfalls’ edge and contains sediment layers, fossils, and fossil burrows, tell-tale reminders of the ancient tropical sea in which the rock formed.[7]

The Stone Arch Bridge


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For business, the falls of St. Anthony were perfect, but their success often had a dark side. Milling jobs were dangerous. Many workers lost their limbs and developed diseases from unsanitary conditions. Unions struggled for years to gain a foothold at the falls, asking for an eight-hour work day and safety standards that most people consider standard today. While some skilled workers did receive these benefits, most unskilled workers did not. From the late 1890’s through the 1920’s, the flour industries crushed nearly every union that arose. Mills called in strike breakers, distributed anti-union propaganda, and even hired private investigators to try to uncover union leaders so they could fire them. 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.[8]

During the 1880s, many immigrants who worked at the falls lived on the “Bohemian Flats,” a community living on the river flats near the West Bank on the University of Minnesota campus. Not all the people who lived on the flats were bohemian, but almost all were immigrants. Often, to supplement their low wages, families would gather wood washed over the falls from sawmills. Spring flooding prevented large buildings from being built on the flats and often destroyed the small wooden cabins that residents built. Minneapolis cleared most of the flats in the 1930s to build a never realized municipal barge docking facility. The rest of these settlements disappeared in urban renewal schemes after World War II and the last resident vacated the flats in 1963, allowing part of the flats to become a coal terminal.[9]

A picture of the Bohemian Flats. Image from Minnesota Historical Society. ca. 1898

Workers often lived in poor neighborhoods near the falls. Many made their homes in the Gateway neighborhood, centered at the near convergence of Hennepin, Nicollet, Washington Avenues. By the 1900s, this once fashionable area had become a “skid row” and its inhabitants became the target of numerous church, charities, and progressive organizations. By the 1920s, the population became increasingly single, poor, white men. In a 1958 survey, over two thousand men lived in the Gateway, three-fourths were over the age of 50. The city began to buy the property in the 1950s and forcefully evicted the residents. By 1963, most of their residences had become parking lots.[10]

As the name suggets, Bohemian flats were on the flat part of the river bank, or to be more specific, the flood plains of the river. Oftentimes during spring, the river would flood the shanties. Here, children paddle through the town. From the Minnesota Historical Society, ca. 1898.


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

1. Shannon M. Pennefeather Mill City: A Visual History of the Minneapolis Mill District  (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003), p. 37, 42

2. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 42

3. Lucile M. Kane, The Falls of St. Anthony: The Waterfall that Built Minneapolis (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987), p. 59, 111

4. Kane, The Falls, p. 111

5. Scott F. Anfinson “Archaeology at the Riverfront: Unearthing the Invisible”, Minnesota History 58/5&6 (Spring/Summer 2003), p. 328

6. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 80

7. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 82

8. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 112

9. Patrick Nunnlly “Settlement and Urban Residential Development Along the River, 1841-1950” in 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. 171-173

10. Annette Atkins, “At Home in the Heart of the City”, Minnesota History 58/5&6 (Spring/Summer 2003), p. 289, 297-303

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