Some pictures of Minnehaha Falls and the area around it add more mystery than they solve.
This picture shows the 1880s fence on the north side of the falls. It shows that the ground was trampled bare on the south side, which was a problem the Park Board worked to solve as soon as they took ownership.
There are nearly no other pictures of Minnehaha taken from this spot. This is a unique image.
And it is indeed Minnehaha: the waterfall can be glimpsed between the horse’s tail and the lap robe thrown over carriage front. But what to make of the constructed edge just between the buggy and the Falls? Straight edges almost always mean something architectural.
Quite possibly that straight stone edge is seen from the other side in this post. Possibly the Park Board stabilized the edge, then grew grass and put up railings, wire fences, the bridge above the Falls, and all those other improvements, all in the space of a few years.
Unfortunately, by the turn of the last century, the job of professional photographer left Minnehaha Falls, and with it the vast piles of 19th century souvenir shots that constitute the photographic record. In the 20th century the photographic record is much harder to find and much harder to study. That’s why this photograph is unique.
In 1752, it was decided that George Washington was born on January 22, 1732. Before that, he was born on January 11, 1731. It is not known how he felt about the change.
Two hundred years later, much was made of the bicentenary anniversary of Washington’s birth. A national commission was formed in late 1924, chaired by President Coolidge. The group needed seven years to plan sufficient honors for the occasion. And, indeed, states formed their own commissions, histories were written or rewritten, music was composed, and a seemingly vast amount of celebration occurred. And one of these celebrations was orchestrated by the (now defunct) American Tree Association.
Their idea was to plant trees, of course. The American Tree Association put out a booklet describing the idea, and yes: It’s about as sappy as possible.
Throughout the 19th century, and largely different from today, people approached the Falls from the south side. Upstream on the road, there was indeed a bridge over the creek, but the roadhouses and hotels and such were south of the creek, and the railroad depot (when the railroads came in) was put where the people were, on the south side. It was closer to the Fort, after all, and the Fort was the only legal settlement in the earliest years. Minnehaha Falls were within the military reservation at the beginning of European settlement in Minnesota.
Someone, some time in those early years, built a bridge to allow people to cross the creek below the Falls.
The American papers Back East began twittering about it. The Governor-General of Canada, a landed aristocrat no less, was coming west from Ottawa to visit Her Majesty’s dominion. It would be the first time any Governor-General ever visited Manitoba. And in 1877, the easiest way to get to Manitoba was via America’s trains and steamboats.
The famous one was Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava. An English and Irish peer, he was a rising star in Queen Victoria’s diplomatic service. Notably, he achieved the ultimate honor and became the Viceroy of India. In 1877, he had been the Governor-General of Canada for five years.
From a slow and steady start, Minnehaha’s tourist camp blossomed into a popular destination. After only a few years, more than 4,000 cars a season came through the camp. In the 1850s through 1880s, Minnesota had been proud of her ability to draw in southern tourists escaping the sultry heat of summer. In the automobile age, tourists came from much closer. Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin provided 43% of all Auto Tourist Camp tourists in 1925. Add in Minnesota herself and the Dakotas to find that 63% of the Tourist Camp users were regional folks.
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.
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.
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. Stories exist of actually room-like caves, but no photographs have been found. This picture of a “cave” is no more than a shallow indent in the sandstone cliff.
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.”
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.