In June of 1921, a long-planned idea of Theodore Wirth’s came into being. He had been the superintendent of the Minneapolis Parks since 1906, all during the time when America’s personal transportation system was switching from horses to cars. In 1920, he had enlisted the enthusiastic support of the Civic and Commerce Association. Plans were being considered to put a camping place at Lake Calhoun, Glenwood Park, or The Parade for tourists arriving at Minneapolis in automobiles. The Northside Commercial Club beat him to it. In June 0f 1920, they opened a camping place for 200 cars under the bridge at 42nd Ave. N. Maybe that was nicer than it sounds. The north-siders also opened another camp in 1920 at Camden Park.
Long-distance auto travel was just out of its infancy. Ten years before, a cross-country auto trip would make the hometown papers. At the beginning of the 1920s, Minneapolis was confident of 40,000 automobile tourists a season. Wirth wanted to be ready for the influx.
“The motoring tourist is a great booster who spreads his gospel of enthusiasm in a few weeks from coast to coast. A good camp, a city’s welcome, the local citizens’ hospitality, become known almost overnight to thousands of tourists,” proclaimed a letter to the newspaper. No wonder the Mayor formed a Tourist Welcome Committee. (Theodore Wirth was on it.) The Tourist Camp idea reflected a great deal of civic pride, and of course the city welcomed these tourists and their spending.
Theodore Wirth convinced the Park Board to host an auto tourist camp. Minnehaha Park was chosen as the site. As had been the case in the mid-1800s, the Falls and the pretty glen below were a central focus for tourists. Wanting to “fit up” the camp with every possible comfort, “light, water, sewer, and shelter” were to be provided. In April of 1921, various civic organizations in South Minneapolis declared that 50 men were at the ready to clear the ground for those improvements. The Park Board appropriated $2,500 toward the effort.
Scant weeks later, the camp opened with 120 spots for the auto tourist.
So enthusiastic were Minneapolis’ civic leaders that the Auto Tourist camps provided cooking facilities along with those “every possible comforts.” And it was all entirely free.
The Minnehaha Auto Tourist Camp was a popular success from the moment it opened. But perhaps Wirth and the other civic leaders over-estimated just how much automobile-tourism there was in that first season of 1921. They hosted 3,405 people in 681 autos. An average of 5 people per car: That seems high.
The Park Board was slow to remove some of the people who lived in Minnehaha Park. Once the land was officially in their control, some people were evicted, but for unclear reasons, not everyone was forced to leave.
In fact, the Park Board had a house in the park for the caretaker (the park policeman) to live in. It was located close to the west end of today’s bridge to the Soldiers’ Home. In the early years, having a policeman live in the park made some sense, as the board had a particular concern about rowdy behavior at the dance halls and saloons in the area, and they had a zoo that needed daily management. But two “hermits” are known to have lived in the park. The St. Paul Globe newspaper claimed, at his death, that one of these men was named Samuel McNott. That’s probably incorrect.
Little is known of him. He was such a mystery that his actual name was not known until his death is still uncertain. He was called “Old Jim,” and “Mississippi Jim,” and his last name was thought to be Knight, or Knights, or McKnight.
He was destitute. And a proud man, unwilling to let his family know just how low his fortunes had fallen. He had been a carriage painter, and had separated from his wife around 1882. He outlived her, in any event. There was a daughter, Laura, who had married but was perhaps separated from her husband.
After parting from his wife, he lived in a shack by the Mississippi River, across Minnehaha Creek from the Soldiers’ Home. He scraped out a living by selling bottles of colored sand collected from the sandstone banks of Minnehaha Creek. He hunted and fished to feed himself; sometimes he sold fish. When things had gotten especially bad for him, the other “hermit” in the park–the more famed and respected William Herrick–tried to locate McKnight’s family.
Herrick believed that McKnight’s name was James Knight, and that he had a brother in the furniture business in Sedalia, Missouri. In 1898, Herrick wrote to Sedalia’s chief of police, to ask for help locating the brother. Unfortunately, no one in Sedalia recognized the story.
“Old Jim” was a well-known resident in Minnehaha Park. For years, the town of Richfield (which used to include Minnehaha Falls in its boundaries) contributed $5 a month to him. When he became unwell in July of 1900, he first went to the Poor Farm for help. He soon returned to his river bank, claiming that the food at the Poor Farm was so disgusting that he could not eat it. As he became more ill, he found his way to a neighbor’s house on Minnehaha Avenue. He was weak, unsteady, and bleeding. He had fallen and broken his nose.
The neighbor called the city hospital for an ambulance, but none came. The hospital was quarantined. A doctor was supposed to come, but didn’t. Eventually, “Old Jim” was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital, where he lasted for 3 months before he ultimately died on September 22, 1900.
The news of his illness and death made all the papers. The stories made a point that death was a welcome relief from the illnesses of neglect and age. He was more than 70 years old, and “died as he lived, unloved and alone.” But the newspapers also said that the children who visited the river bank had lost “a boon companion and friend” and that they would be his only mourners. Attempts were made to locate his daughter, but it is not known if she were turned up.
James McKnight was to be “buried in the Potter’s Field.” Many indigent people were buried in Layman’s Cemetery on the corner of Cedar Avenue and Lake Street. Cemetery historian Sue Hunter-Weir reports no burial record at Layman’s Cemetery by any of the possible names. Finding his final resting place will require more diligence and search.
But the curious thing, to the curious researcher, is that no one in Minneapolis or Richfield named Samuel or James or Jim McNott or McKnight or Knight or Knights is listed in the 1880 or 1900 censuses. (The 1890 Census was accidentally lost in a fire.) is locating James McKnight in the 1900 Census. People who lived in Minnehaha Park are listed by name in the 1900 Census, and the Census was taken before his illness. Those people living in the park were the park caretaker and his family. The other “hermit,” William Herrick, is listed nearby and so is the Haas family on whose doorstep the sick and dying “old Jim” appeared. But McKnight is not listed as being in the area.
[Update] Thanks to curious reader Steve Leigh, who found James McKnight in that 1900 Census. He was a fisherman, was born in July of 1828 in Scotland to Scots parents, had spent forty-four years in the U.S. of A. He was the 179th household listed of the 180 households in Richfield. Immediately above McKnight is listed the Howard C. Odell family. And that is interesting because H. C. Odell was the Census-taker.
Howard Odell was a Territorial Pioneer, having come to Minnesota as a small boy in 1857. His father George settled in Richfield and lived on his farm there for the rest of his days. Howard, an only child, inherited his father’s land which was close to what is today 55th St. and Lyndale. Both George and Howard were active in local politics. (Perhaps the Odells’ leadership in Richfield affairs helped provide that $5 monthly stipend to James McKnight.) Over his long career, George served in nearly every civic office Richfield had. His son Howard repeatedly served as a Richfield delegate “from the country precincts” to Republican conventions. He served on various committees during campaign seasons. He also worked as a survey inspector for Hennepin County, and on at least 2 occasions, he served as a census taker.
In those days, Minnesota did a census independent of the Federal every-ten-years headcount. In 1895, Howard Odell was appointed to enumerate the populations of Richfield and “Fort Snelling Village.” There he counted James McKnight, 58 years old, born in Scotland, a painter, and a veteran of the War of the Rebellion. The age doesn’t match up with the next Census of McKnight, in 1900. Combing through 100s of Civil War records is not a task within the current activities of urbancreek.com.
In 1900, Odell was the Federal Census taker for Richfield. It was not his job to count the people of Minneapolis’ 12th ward, including Minnehaha Falls. That was the job of Wm. H. Smith, and Smith accomplished it in the first 2 weeks of June, 1900. Odell took a full 27 days to finish his Richfield census count. Nothing is known at this writing of William H. Smith except that he seems not to have done the thorough job required. At the end of his tally is another page with a few more people, counted by “James Atchison, ‘Special’ Enumerator.”
Unlike William Smith or James Atchison, who noted the locations of the households they were counting, Odell didn’t bother to describe where people lived. But we know that he was aware of James McKnight: he’d counted him in the Minnesota Census 5 years before. It is possible that he–an experienced field worker and someone who had lived in the area for decades–looked over Smith’s work, and possibly Atchison’s, and noticed yet more people missing and then added James McKnight to the Richfield tally. The Minneapolis ward 12 Census was completed by then.
The Minneapolis City Directories show no a faint trail of breadcrumbs that this man was ever a part of the city. The entries found so far show that he lived near the falls, though the description of his home varies. There is no listing for him in 1887, but in 1888, James McKnight lived “nr mouth Minnehaha Creek.” In 1889, 1890, and 1891, James McKnight was listed as a trapper residing at “52nd near 49th Ave.” But there is no 49th Ave. on today’s map. That “intersection” is pretty much exactly the mouth of Minnehaha Creek, on the south side. Maybe this was a City Directory compiler’s joke, which only lasted as long as his editor didn’t notice it. After 1891, James McKnight is not listed in the City Directory.
No on-line birth or death records appear for McKnight by any of his possible names, so to learn more, the physical records must be gone through. Some newspaper stories reported that he had been born in Nova Scotia and had moved to Iowa with his parents, but no records illuminating this have been uncovered. Two censuses reported that he and his parents were born in Scotland.
And so he continues a mystery, casting no more than a faint shadow on the veil of history. He is almost entirely lost to the century that has passed since he lived for as much as 20 years in a shack on the riverbank in Minnehaha Park.
(“The ‘Hermit’ of Minnehaha Park. Part 1.” was posted originally on 14 August 2016; and was substantially revised on 17 August 2016)
The WPA workers in Minnehaha Park accomplished lots of small tasks. They repaired playground equipment, trimmed trees and painted and repaired “stationary settees,” traffic signs, and fences. One of their efforts was to erect a ten-foot fence across the faces of the sand caves in the glen as a safety measure.
The existence of caves in the park might come as a surprise to today’s urban explorers, but the truth is these “caves” were no more than the shallow indents seen here:
St. Peter sandstone is one layer in the geologic strata of Minnehaha Park and its area. This sandstone crumbles easily into very, very, fine sand. The tiny and uniform particles are why people called it “sugar sand” and in the above picture the little indentation is called “Sugar Cave.”
Various scratchings into the soft sandstone are visible in this picture, especially on the right side. These are attempts at graffiti, and there are records of people leaving their marks in this way as far back as 1865. But something else was going on with this soft, fine, easily obtained sand, something that cannot be seen in a black and white photograph.
The story begins in McGregor, Iowa. In the 1870s, and continuing until his death in 1894, a talented young man named Andrew Clemens put sand into bottles to sell. These bottles were extraordinary: intricate pictures with tiny details, all done in as many as 40 colors of sand. His hand-made hickory stick tools and examples of his work can be seen at the McGregor Historical Museum. It is worth the trip: Clemens’ sand art is that astounding.
Clemens collected all those 40 colors of sand at Pictured Rocks, now a county park in Iowa. He sifted and ground the sand to create a supply of each color where all the particles of sand were the same size. This allowed him to pack the sand very tightly, which was essential to prevent the grains from moving and distorting or destroying the picture if the bottle were tilted.
His work was acclaimed and sought-after in his lifetime and long after. Today, Clemens’ sand bottles sell for thousands and tens of thousands of dollars. This acclaim was not unnoticed by the people who made their livings catering to the tourists at Minnehaha Falls, up the Mississippi river in Minnesota. And they all knew what a black and white photo cannot show. Minnehaha has colored sand, too.
During the period when the Falls were privately owned and also after the Park Board took over, entrepreneurs sold bottles of sand as souvenirs. In the autumn of 1888, the New York Sun reprinted a Pioneer Press story about it: “During the past year, fakirs at the falls put up many bottles, with as many as 60 layers of sand these cost as much as $5.” Minnehaha sand bottles had become a known and notable souvenir all the way back East.
In 1889, that first season when the Park Board was in charge, collecting sand souvenirs was very popular at Minnehaha. In October, on a streetcar leaving the park, “an old gentleman had pieces of red and white sandstone, but unfortunately had sat on and crushed the white. After wandering up and down the car with pieces of red sandstone looking for trade, he secured a piece of the white, and an almost audible smile went round the car.”
It wasn’t the general population who were held responsible for collecting sand and thereby damaging the park. It was the entrepreneurs, lately removed outside the park boundaries but still hovering on the edges of the park. In that same October week of 1889, the Park Board instructed their superintendent William Berry “to prevent the removal of sand from banks of creek. Bottling has become quite a business with a certain class of vendors and they have made great holes in the bluffs below the falls.”
Berry was unable to stop people collecting sand. Five years later, in 1894, a curio stand at the Falls was selling sand bottles. Berry was also unable to keep people from living in Minnehaha Park. Living in the park were two “hermits”–a common euphemism for homeless men. One was Samuel McNott or James McKnight who had a “little tumbledown shack” on the riverbank across from the Soldiers’ Home. He made his living selling colored sand in bottles until he died in 1900. In 1904, children considered it common to take a little box to the falls to collect some sand. As late as 1915, the 25-year-old daughter of Park Board Commissioner Robert E. Fischer wanted to continue her father’s former business of making and selling Minnehaha sand souvenirs. The privileges committee gave a split vote on the question, 2 for and 2 against. The full Park Board then voted it down, 7 to 5. “It would establish a very bad precedent,” to be sure, but such was not clear to almost half the board members, including Fischer, who sided with his daughter Edith.
In the decades when Minnehaha sand art bottles were a favorite souvenir, no one could produce sand art was well as Andrew Clemens. Relatively few examples of Minnehaha sand bottles exist today, but the urbancreek.com collection holds two samples.
This is clearly an inexpensive sort of sand-art bottle, done in a hurry, and meant to sell cheaply.
The second Minnehaha sand bottle is quite short, just under 3 inches.
There are at least 11 colors of sand, intricately arranged, in this tiny work of art.
The bird image is a knock-out. Not up to Clemens quality, but fairly detailed, and clearly from Minnehaha Falls.
Over the last century, the fashion for bottled sand moved from being a extraordinary art to a commemorative, highly local souvenir to becoming a skill to demonstrate today on YouTube. The colors used by modern sand artists are more garish that the gentle natural hues of Minnehaha or Pictured Rocks sand, but the most complicated images are still the stuff to amaze us.
And, those WPA safety fences–as far as is known–lasted no longer than William Berry’s efforts to keep people from carving out the sandstone and carrying it away 47 years earlier. There are no barriers to Sugar Cave today.
As early as 1863, there was a hotel at Minnehaha Falls, providing meals and accommodations to those who had come to Minnesota. Some were settlers, who came pouring into Minnesota by the tens of thousands throughout the 1860s. Others were tourists, perhaps come to partake of our famously invigorating climate. A great point was made to both groups to see our world-renowned waterfall out on the frontier of the “Great Northwest.”
Here is the first hotel at Minnehaha Falls:
Little is known about the place. It was called the Minnehaha House, or maybe it was the Minnehaha Hotel. It was run by someone named Boyden whose first name might have been George but was more likely Augustus. But the accommodations were considered “first-class” and “the character and reputation of the place were excellent.”
The 1863 to 1864 date for this picture is firm. Augustus Boyden was reported to have lived at the Falls in 1863-1864. The above photo was taken by the photographers and photographic supply company of E. & H. T. Anthony of New York. While no specific record of their photographer’s visit to Minnesota has turned up, all other pictures discovered so far published by E. & H. T. Anthony at Minnehaha Falls clearly predate 1866 and the known date of John and Mollie Carbutt’s visit in October of that year.
But, more importantly, the hotel picture has a Civil War tax stamp on the back.
Since this tax went into effect on June 30, 1864, we are certain that this object was not sold before then. But the photograph was taken before then, and of course could have been easily reprinted.
During these Civil War years, efforts to build Minnesota’s railroad network were stalled, but it was obvious that the roads would be built eventually. The track was laid past the Falls in September of 1864, though it would be another year before a train ran on that track. Perhaps Boyden invested in this hotel expecting the crowds to have easy railroad access to the Falls, and that he left the area when, after 1864, there were as yet no trains and only the smaller crowds arriving in carriages. Perhaps this New York photographer was engaged to help promote the hotel back East.
It’s easy to imagine that Augustus Boyden is the man precisely centered in the photograph, standing in front of his hotel with his children by the hand. One of them looks to be a girl, and he was known to have a daughter. But we’ll likely never know who these people are.
This picture gets reprinted all the time in books, articles, and magazines. It’s the most popularly reprinted image of Minnehaha Falls in the 19th century. And it’s easy to understand why. The caption clearly states that it is from 1860, and invites the reader back into the past with its advice, “Note costumes.” Putting precise dates on photographs of Minnehaha Falls is a difficult project, as no one knows better than the researchers of urbancreek.com. The very specific date here seems like a gift from the past.
Unfortunately, it’s wrong. On some rare occasions when this image is reprinted, the people standing in the background on the traverse behind the Falls are pointed out. But no one ever mentions the graffiti.
It’s the graffiti that makes the case. Look at the angular bridge supports in this picture. If you look carefully, you can see that there are some sort of painted letters on this bridge.
The tantalizing question is, “What does it say?”
By looking closely, one can read the words, “Mountain Root Bitters.”
And there’s the clue. The newspapers of Chaska and Taylor’s Falls in Minnesota, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin carried a few ads for Mountain Root Bitters, which were manufactured for a short time by Abel & Humiston of Sandwich, Illinois. Every newspaper ad for this product is dated 1867. No other advertising from any other year exists.
An 8×10 negative of the postcard image, most likely the original, is held by the Minnesota Historical Society. Their on-line record seems not to have any information about who took the picture or how it came to their collection. Significantly, the MNHS does not date this to 1860. One might guess that it is part of the Bromley image collection, though it ought to be credited as such if it were.
Regardless of the lost provenance, this image must date from 1867. Most copies of the postcard come from around 1908, during the great postcard craze. It’s easy to imagine that a postcard publisher reprinted the picture with a best-guess date and released it to the marketplace. No known copy of this picture exists in earlier photographic formats, notably not as a stereo image pair (though the J.W. Love and the W. H. Illingworth pictures, shown above, are stereo images).
Minneapolis and her Park Board, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had a complicated relationship with the word “pavilion.” The word means “an ornamental building, usually of light construction and designed for temporary shelter, refreshment, etc., esp. in a park […] used as a place of entertainment or recreation.”
This definition doesn’t necessarily highlight the connotations of “pavilion” that concerned moral society in Minneapolis as her park system developed. Once Minneapolitans had access to Lake Calhoun in 1879 via the Motor Line–the brand-new steam-powered public transportation: a train–the management put up a pavilion on the shores of the lake for dancing and refreshments, launched a steamboat on the lake, built a fleet of rowboats, and in the winter flooded a rink with room for 3,000 skaters. This was all organized as “proper” social activities, but with time, the grounds were sold and the neighbors began to complain.
“Residents along Calhoun Blvd. are complaining that the dancing pavilion at the lake is being conducted in a disorderly fashion, with dancing in the morning hours and drunkenness not at all unusual. The place is said to be frequented by men and women of the lowest class, and their language is shocking.” Disorderliness was a high crime in the 19th century, and in 1893 the Park Board still did not own all the banks of Lake Calhoun.
A pavilion can refer to a tent or other very temporary shelter, too. Many people–including park board members and prominent businessmen as well as hard-scrabble folks trying to get by–tried to cash in on the crowds drawn to Minneapolis parks. Called peanut stands, blind pigs, chicken shacks, dance halls, and pavilions, these often-seasonal businesses inhabited the margins of park property, and were sometimes successful enough to draw their own crowds independent of park features. Not surprisingly, success could mean crowds, noise, drinking, and rowdyism, all of which were despised by both the neighborhood and those interested in public morality.
When the Park Board acquired Minnehaha Park in 1889, they attempted to gain control over their land. Private businesses were evicted, dancing pavilions were torn down, houses were demolished. And the Park Board began to create new versions of these places where people could enjoy the uplifting aspects of visiting the parks without sinking to activities of “reproach and shame.”
Thus in 1892, the Park Board contracted with prominent local architect Harry Wild Jones to design its own pavilion. The Board reported: “A pavilion, or more properly, a shelter, was erected in the picnic grove above the falls, which was provided with tables, stove and cooking utensils for the free use of visitors.”
As described in the 1892 Park Board Annual, “This new pavilion will cover a ground space of 52×87 feet. It will have only one floor, which will be entirely clear for dancing purposes, except around the outside where six feet away from the balustrade a row of posts will hold up the roof. At one end there will be two rooms, one a waiting room 20 feet square with a large open fire-place and mantel of red pressed brick, and adjoining this is another room 20 feet square where a kitchen range will be located for the convenience of those wishing to heat water for coffee. On the outside of the balustrade a broad seat will be placed, having a back of turned balusters.
“The principal construction will be of Georgia pine, finished in natural wood; the roof will be shingled with red cedar shingles, with copper cresting, finials, and flashings. The general appearance of the building will be something similar to that of the Lake Harriet pavilion, except that being one story in height it will appear lower and the large roof will suggest protection and shelter from the weather, which in fact will be its main purpose.”
The Picnic Shelter was completed in July of 1892 and, in keeping with Park Board attempts to civilize this public park, had a policeman in charge. The shelter offered a stove to heat water for coffee, and some cooking utensils, and tables and chairs for picnickers. Dances at the Picnic Shelter had a floor manager in attendance, too. Located in the woods on the north side of the creek, it stood for a surprisingly long time.
This 1938 aerial photograph shows the rectangular roof of the current Refectory–which today houses Sea Salt Eatery–as well as the smaller Picnic Shelter.
In his annual address to the board in 1893, Park Board President Charles Loring wrote that “Public parks are as essential to the healthy development, physical and moral, of the residents of a city as are well-ventilated houses.” Having access to park land (which provided the “ventilation of the city”) was seen as a way to provide health to the underclasses. Moreover, having access to healthy out-of-doors recreation was expected to keep “the toilers of our cities from saloons and abodes of vice.” (At least at Minnehaha, those abodes of vice were right across the road.)
The 1892 construction of the Picnic Shelter was one of the Park Board’s first steps in applying their moral imprint to the city’s parks.
And then, and finally, in 1936 this 44-year-old structure was given a new coat of paint and its roof was rebuilt. Plumbing, carpentry, and electrical repairs were also completed, all courtesy of the WPA.
There’s a lot of groundwater just below the surface in the Minnehaha Falls area. This is hardly a surprise to anyone who takes winter walks in the park.
People in the neighborhood used to go to springs to get their drinking water in buckets. One well-known spring was called the Enchanted Spring, a bit further upriver from where the Lock and Dam was built. It was said to be medicinal, and that people who drank it noticed “a vast improvement in their digestive organs.”  Of course that “improvement” might have been diarrhea caused by contamination from area outhouses.
The Park Board had a great interest in dewatering, re-routing, and controlling all the unruly ground water flowing through the area. Within the Minnehaha Gorge stabilization of the sides of the gorge was important. But even unto today, the Park Board provides pumps offering safe ground water along Lake Harriet Parkway and in other places, although Minnehaha Park is not one of them. And this water supply is constantly checked for purity.
In 1936, there was a public access spring in Minnehaha Park.
The accompanying text read:
The spring at the south end of the park was rehabilitated. A rustic retaining wall was built along the bank and the running spring was diverted to a pipe extending up from an alcove in the wall. A small underpass was built to permit passage of the stream under the limestone pathway which extends along the wall.
But just where was this, and when did it disappear? The south end of the park had probably extended to 54th Street by 1936, so the spring could be anywhere between the south side of the falls and 54th St. So where was “along the bank”? Did this refer to the edge of the drop-off down to the creek level or the creek bank itself? What was that small open pavilion, that looks like nothing so much as a fish-cleaning shack? These are (as yet) unsolved mysteries.
The WPA also re-laid 600 feet of tile drain in 1936 in the south end of the park. Probably this was to manage the outflow of this spring.
One can see from the shadows that the photographer is likely facing roughly southwest, but that detail is a mere guess.
An update: The Hennepin County Library Special Collections file on Minnehaha Park includes this article from an un-recorded newspaper that was likely the Tribune. Much about this spring is explained in the clipping dated August 21, 1942:
Water Unsafe So It’s Farewell to ‘Haha Spring
The favorite spring which used to bubble in Minnehaha Park near the Soldiers Home bridge just ain’t gonna be no more.
Alderman Edwin I. Hudson of the twelfth ward asked the board of park commissioners whether something couldn’t be done about having it flow again. Residents have missed it.
Superindendent [sic] C. A. Bossen offered explanation. Dr. F. E. Harrington, health commissioner, had advised that analysis had shown the water to be unsafe for human consumption. The park board decided to close it up.
Putting up barricades, Bossen continued, had been futile in other similar cases. Folks just got at the water anyway.
Then Uncle Sam asked the park board if it had a spot somewhere for deposit of a lot of earth and rocks Uncle Sam was collecting on a big project. Uncle Sam was told the stuff might be tossed in on the spring. It was.
“Some 2,000 yards of earth and rock were thrown in there,” said the superintendent. “That spring is gone, for good.”
And now the question is: where is there 2,000 yards of 70-year-old clean fill near the Soldiers’ Home Bridge?
WPA work in Minneapolis parks included engaging fun like puppet shows for children. But their enduring efforts were the mundane and necessary improvements in infrastructure. Here, the driveway leading into Minnehaha Park from Minnehaha Avenue has been given curbs and a sidewalk:
Minnehaha Park cannot be said to have an entrance today. Years ago, when the streetcars and the trains dropped people off at the Minnehaha Depot, or nearby it, the crowds moved towards the Falls from the west. Or, they drove their carriages or automobiles down this driveway to pause in between the Refectory and the Falls and see the waterfall.
Originally graded and opened in 1892, this same driveway still exists. (The roof of the Refectory is seen through the leaves at the left edge of the photo.) It cost more than $4,000 to build, as so many springs had to be dealt with in creating the drive. This was once a throughway for cars, but that route has been gone for years. Today, the driveway circles into a few handicapped parking spots and room for buses to drop off and pick up. It provides access for trash pick-up. Now people park in lots along the Godfrey Road and walk towards the Refectory from the north. There’s still parking along Minnehaha Avenue, and those people walk over the creek on the footbridge just above the Falls. This driveway does nothing to provide an entrance to the park.
The WPA reported that:
A tarvia walk was laid down on the south side of the boulevard leading into the park from Minnehaha Avenue and curbing was installed along the length of the boulevard from Minnehaha Avenue to the concourse.
Tarvia seems to have been asphalt, or something like it.
From the earliest years of Park Board ownership of Minnehaha Falls, they worked to grow the grass. For most people, a park implies green grass lawn under mature trees. Certainly this was the accepted ideal in the infancy of landscape architecture, around the time the Minneapolis Parks system was created. Picturesque contemplation of the natural (though created) terrain was more important than playing ball, flying kites, or flower-picking.
The Park Board gained control of the Falls in 1889, the same year it created ordinances outlawing all these activities in the parks. They had a point, because back then, the falls were surrounded by barren dirt, and neither the landowners nor the businesses who rented from them cared much about growing grass.
Minnehaha had for decades been the most famous spot in Minnesota, always attracting large crowds. All those feet made growing grass unpredictably difficult for the Park Board, even with great expenses for seed and with placing “Keep Off The Grass” signs. This was a struggle every year.
And so when the WPA came to rehabilitate Minnehaha Park, one of the first things they did was grow the grass, and a fine job they did.
The WPA also trimmed and planted trees in the park. Probably, the saplings here were planted by WPA crews.
The original accompanying text read:
Minnehaha, being one of the largest and oldest of our parks and containing as it does so many natural attractions and recreational features, has always been highly patronized by city dwellers and visitors alike. Because of this popularity, it has always been difficult to maintain a good turf on the picnic grounds and lawns in the park. Last spring, W.P.A. workers resurfaced a large portion of the park with clay loam and then seeded and sodded the area. As a result of this work, a lush, thick, and even turf carpeted the park during the past summer – giving the park the finest appearance it has had in many years.
In the details of this photo–always the most interesting part–by peering through the trees, one can see a couple of buildings. Barely visible on the left is the Refectory, built by the Park Board in 1905 and housing Sea Salt restaurant today. But on the right is this: the Picnic Shelter.
The Picnic Shelter is an interesting enough place to merit its own post.
The WPA (Works Progress Administration, which became the Works Projects Administration in 1939) provided the dignity of a job to the unemployed of America’s Great Depression, while supplying rural communities needed public infrastructure and giving art and amenities to the cities.
The WPA improvements in Minnehaha Park were invaluable, and many of those–staircases and such–still serve 80 years later.
The caption originally printed below this picture reads: “Retaining wall at Minnehaha Falls, reconstructed by W.P.A.”
And the accompanying text was:
The retaining wall which extends from the ledge of the falls along the right of the gorge was rebuilt. A remarkable job was done on this wall. Were it not for the fact that the old portion of the wall is weathered it would be impossible to tell where the old section ends off and the new section begins. Another retaining wall was constructed at picnic ground number four.
This is a fascinating picture, the moreso since relatively few photographs exist of the park in this time frame. And what is this weird, inaccessible goat pen of a construction?
Whatever the intent was–to stablize the gorge or remove the viewing platform–these stone walls across what had been the middle terrace did not last.
By March of 2004, there had been a catastrophic failure of this WPA stonework. This is simply not stable ground.
The black and white pictures in this post are in the public domain, and are from “The Story of W.P.A. and Other Federal Aid Projects in the Minneapolis Parks, Parkways and Playgrounds, for the Year 1936, Minneapolis, Minnesota,” published by the Park Board.