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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Rebirth, Renewal, and Return

After 1930, the flour mills that had built Minneapolis began to close. Some were abandoned, others demolished. By 1960, only two mills still operated: The Washburn A Mill on the west side of the falls and the Pillsbury A Mill on the east side. In 1965, the Washburn A Mill closed as General Mills moved its operations to Golden Valley, Minnesota. In 2003, the Pillsbury A Mill ceased its operation, the last milling operation on the east side.[1] It was the end of an era – construction had begun on the first mill in 1820 by soldiers at Fort Snelling. Nearly two centuries later, the last mills had closed.[2]

Between 1950 and 1963, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a lock on the west side of the falls.  The lock has a drop of 49.2 feet, the largest of any lock on the Mississippi River, belatedly making Father Hennepin’s estimate of the falls height as 50 to 60 feet accurate.[3] However, construction on the lock and dam destroyed Upton Island, where the Minnesota Electric Brush Company had built the world’s first central hydroelectric power station. Construction also saw the removal of Spirit Island, where the legendary spirit of the woman who paddled into the falls once lived.[4] During 1961 and 1962, the city also destroyed the Gateway area, where many of the workers who had worked at the mills still lived. Moving over 2,000 people away from their homes, the city replaced “skid row” with parking lots by 1963. [5]

The lock.

While some forces were moving to destroy many historic sites around the falls, others were moving to save them. In 1971, St. Anthony Falls was named to the National Register of Historic Places, which officially protected many of the buildings in the area. Other groups that sought to preserve the falls include the City of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, and the Minnesota Historical Society. Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, regulating pollutants being dumped into rivers and encouraging cities throughout the nation to clean up their waterways.[6]

Some businesses also tried to preserve the falls’ history, incorporating mill ruins into apartments and restaurants. In 1968, Reiko Weston built the Fuji-Ya, a Japanese restaurant overlooking the falls on the west side. Its foundation included parts of the Columbia Flour Mill and the Bassett Sawmill. On the east side of the river, an architect named Peter Hall opened a restaurant called Pracna in a building that had previously served as a home, saloon, machine shop, and warehouse. Frank Pracna had built the three-story building in 1890. Richard Zelle, president of Jefferson Lines, Inc., also bought buildings along the riverfront. Connecting them with new buildings whose outsides were patterned to match the old, his Saint Anthony Main Complex became a lively hub for Minneapolis. Finally in 1984, Riverplace, a huge apartment complex, opened on the riverfront across from Nicollet Island. While Riverplace did not incorporate any old buildings, it did make the falls into a thriving residential community.[7]


Clockwise from upper left corner: The Fuji-Ya, a portion of the Bassett Sawmill in the foundation of the Fuji-Ya, a view from the street of the portions of the Columbia Flour Mill that make up the parking lot of the Fuji-Ya, and a view from the parking lot of the Fuji-Ya showing the tops of the ruins of the Columbia Flour Mill.

In 1988, citizens created the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board to promote the falls area. The Board converted the Stone Arch Bridge from a railroad to pedestrian bridge in 1994 and built a massive guided walking tour with historical markers throughout the area. In 2000, Mill Ruins Park opened, and three years later, the Minnesota Historical Society opened its Mill City Museum in the ruins of the Washburn A Mill, which a fire had destroyed in 1991. The Guthrie Theatre opened in the same year.[8]

In 1766, Jonathon Carver, explorer, declared after viewing St. Anthony Falls that a “more pretty and picturesque view” could not “be found throughout the universe.” Until the 1860s, St. Anthony was a landmark for travellers who came from around the world to see the beauty of the natural waterfall. Now, two and a half centuries later, people are returning to the falls for the same reason. The face of the falls may have changed from its natural splendor to an artificial apron, but its ability to instill awe has not.[9]



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1. “11 Most Endangered Historic Places: Pillsbury A Complex,” National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2011, http://www.preservationnation.org/travel-and-sites/sites/midwest-region/pillsbury-a-mill-complex.html

2. Shannon M. Pennefeather, Mill City: A Visual History of the Minneapolis Mill District  (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003), p. 128

3. John O. Anfinson, “Spiritual Power to Industrial Might: 12,000 Years at St. Anthony Falls”, Minnesota History 58/5&6 (Spring/Summer 2003), p. 267

4. Lucile M. Kane, The Falls of St. Anthony: The Waterfall that Built Minneapolis (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987), p. 185

5. Annette Atkins, “At Home in the Heart of the City”, Minnesota History 58/5&6 (Spring/Summer 2003), p. 302-303

6. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 130

7. Kane, The Falls, p. 187-189

8. Pennefeather, Mill City, p. 131-132

9. Jonathon Carver in Shannon M. Pennefeather Mill City: A Visual History of the Minneapolis Mill District  (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003), p. 6

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