This photograph is so worthy of study because the small refreshment stands, dance halls, illegal saloons, and “fakir booths” in or near the “Minnehaha Midway” were nearly never photographed. Only a handful of images from the era have come to light so far.
We don’t know who ran these businesses. But there probably is a little more information about the left-hand, southern pavilion. We probably have another picture of it. Like nearly all of these Midway pictures, this is considered to be a unique, one-of-a-kind image:
Is this the “Lunches” pavilion? That’s the most likely guess. We see tables and curved back chairs in both the MNHS picture and the Cracker Jack picture. The aesthetic of displaying plenty of advertising is clear in both. And we know where this isn’t: It’s not the Park Board’s work in their two refreshment pavilions, not the burned down pavilion from 1903-1904, nor the second one from 1905. That second one is still standing, after all.
There’s a bit of question about the supports for the roof. In the Cracker Jack picture, the supports appear to have a slight curve which we only see in the “Lunches” picture when looking at the Depot, not the pavilion. But, since we are not looking at the exact same uprights in both pictures, there’s room to believe that these are both the same pavilion in these pictures.
Still looking at this intriguing image, it seems that the businesses beyond the railroad depot appear on a map from the Rascher Insurance Co. that was found at the MNHS library. The original map was printed in 1892, but it was revised multiple times.
When these old insurance company maps were revised, that meant pasting paper over buildings that were no longer there, and pasting in drawings of new buildings. Reading through the pasted-over papers is a crucial part of this research and it isn’t always easy or even possible. It’s like an archeological dig.
What the map tells us, as we peer through paper and through time, is that there were two refreshment pavilions just opposite the depot, and that each was a single story tall, and had shingled roof. These were next to the easy-to-spot ice house. According to the meta-data on this map at Minnesota Historical Society, these paste-over updates were possibly done between 1904 and 1906. Other buildings removed from the map are surmised to have existed only in 1903 and 1904.
So, our black and white photo, which looks through the depot at these places, was taken between 1892 and 1902. But we can narrow down the date of what we see here because, the creation of this refreshment district happened in 1895-1896. The city directories begin to list them as they appear. With a little more work, we might be able to figure out who is standing in that refreshment pavilion, peering down the tracks, looking for the train from Minneapolis and his customers to arrive. Probably the ladies on the bench are waiting for the train, too.
The central story of Minnehaha Falls is the conflicting narratives between the virtuous, morally pure civic body and the goofy, rowdy, maybe-a-little-criminal nonsense that people actually engaged in. Call it control versus chaos, or even liberal versus conservative, though the situation had fuzzier edges that make it hard to push into any strict categories we might have today. But it was a real conflict that played out over generations. It really was a fight for the soul of Minnehaha Falls.
After the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners took ownership of the Falls in 1889, many of the refreshment vendors and fun-providers who had been located at the Falls migrated to the land just outside the park itself and set up for themselves there. Dance halls, ice cream stands and photo vendors went up on the land west of the park that is today Highway 55. Back then, it was the long thin block between Minnehaha Avenue and Hiawatha Avenue. It was called the Minnehaha Midway.
Minnehaha Falls in all her pristine and picturesque loveliness was photographed thousands of times, but the Midway was not. Only a few pictures exist of the Midway, and interpreting them has been a long-term project here at urbancreek.com. Below, one of those pictures:
There are 2 main areas of interest in this picture: the depot, and what’s beyond it. In 1899, during one of the several lawsuits having to do with controlling Minnehaha, witness Fred Ecker was reported to have said that he frequently went to a particular dance hall on the Midway. “”You go there quite often?” “Yes, I do.” “Ever see any whisky?” “Not in the pavilion. They always go to the depot steps for that. It’s a handy place.”
Are we looking at the Depot steps in this picture?
Just below the railroad platform, it seems like we might see light, possibly sunshine on railroad ties. The tracks ran west of the Depot, and so are behind the depot building. The railroad’s right-of-way ended just to the west of the tracks, and that is where the Minnehaha Midway began.
The difficulty here is that today, the Minnehaha Depot platform is not six steps up from the ground around it, and the platform itself is not made of boards. Here’s a modern picture of the Depot:
This platform is clearly brick, and it is not six steps up from the ground on the east side. The urbancreek.com research team is fully capable of mistaking the Princess Depot in photographs but is certain that this is not one of those times.
Back in the early 20th century, there was a road-paving and improvement project on Minnehaha Avenue, and it’s possible that the grade around the Depot was brought up 4 feet or so. There’s no evidence to date of this sort of gigantic road-building project, but one supposes that could explain this early Depot photograph.
At its beginning, photography required innovators. Clever problem solvers envisioned the next innovations and then invented the solutions that would make those innovations possible.
One of these was Chicago’s John Carbutt, who invented—among other things—the celluloid film that made motion pictures possible. Carbutt, of course, also photographed Minnehaha Falls on several occasions in the 1860s. Another Minnehaha photographer who was a prominent photographic inventor and who worked at the turn of the last century was another Chicagoan: George Raymond Lawrence perfected aerial photography. It was quite a feat. Airplanes had not yet been invented.
George Lawrence’s studio had the motto: “The Hitherto Impossible in Photography Is Our Specialty.” He began his inventive career with what was called “flashlight photography.” In the time before flashbulbs, he used chemical light explosions placed all over large rooms and set off simultaneously to illuminate the shot. He invented a sort of bag to capture the smoke of the explosions, thereby keeping the room pleasant after the photograph was taken. (This also stopped him from burning off his eyebrows, mustache, and hair, as happened quite often in the early experimental days.) He was famed for taking pictures of large crowds like banquets and legislatures and so on. He photographed the Minnesota House and Senate in 1901 and again in 1905.
Another of George Lawrence’s notable achievements was building giant cameras which he used for his large crowd pictures. The giant camera in the above newspaper photograph looks huge. It had an eight-inch lens and took pictures measuring 26 x 38 inches. But compared to Lawrence’s “world’s largest camera,” this is nothing. The world’s largest camera took 15 men to move it around, and the lens cap was almost as big as a manhole cover.
This camera was built under contract with a railroad to photograph their entire train in one huge exposure. The photo was submitted to the Paris Exposition of 1900, and was declared a fake: No one could take an 8-foot-long photograph. The exposition head dispatched the French Consul General from New York to Lawrence’s studio in Chicago to examine the apparatus. The photograph was proved authentic and won “The Grand Prize of the World for Photographic Excellence.”
Lawrence was famous for his panoramas, and these are his lasting legacy. He would use any tall building, or he would build scaffolds and towers to raise his camera high enough for the shot. Here was the inspiration for his invention of aerial photography. He began taking his pictures from tethered balloons. In June of 1901, while photographing the Armour stockyards in Chicago, his balloon escaped and he famously fell. The rope netting surrounding his balloon torn, the balloon broke free, and he came crashing down on the platform he had substituted for the basket. His fall was broken by the telegraph wires. He fell more than 50 feet (or 200 or 300 feet: stories varied) and was unhurt but for a few cuts, probably from all the broken glass plates. Unfortunately he needed that balloon for a shot the next day at a horse race. No replacement was available. He turned out a crew of men and built a 100-foot-tall wooden tower in just five hours. He got the shot. He was that kind of “get-it-done” innovator.
Even after his near-disastrous fall, he continued his bird’s eye photography from balloons, coming to Minnesota in 1901 and 1902 to shoot aerial pictures of both of the Twin Cities, as well as Litchfield, Hutchinson, and St. Cloud. He travelled with his own hydrogen gas plant, bringing along 4 tons of sulphuric acid and 3 tons of iron filings. When combined these would give off the 25,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas needed to fill his 80-foot-tall “bag.” These large aerial panoramas of towns, 3 feet or so in length, were intended for local people to send to their far-off friends and family who could not make the trip to see their Minnesota homes.
By 1901, this “balloonograph” photography was his predictable and practiced art. When, on August 14 of that year, Lawrence photographed Litchfield Minn. from 2,000 feet up, it was considered the first-ever photograph of an entire town in one exposure. Lawrence, ever the inventive perfectionist, saw that this technique would not give the best results for a photograph of Minneapolis or St. Paul. So he left Minnesota for a few weeks, returning to his Chicago studio where he quickly invented a panoramic camera better suited to the task.
The new device used a “sliding” or “traveling” film rather than a glass plate. Perhaps he used fellow-Chicagoan John Carbutt’s celluloid film. The new camera enabled Lawrence to take a panorama of the whole city. Apparently, shooting pictures from a balloon onto even quite-large glass plates was insufficient to get a good view of our larger cities. Not to be outdone, his assistant rigged up a way to improve communications from the ground with Lawrence a half mile up in “Cloudland.” He interwove a copper telephone wire into the anchoring cable so that they could talk. Lawrence seized on the idea of telephoning his wife while high in the sky. The general manager of the phone company allowed as how that had never been done before, but that there was no reason it could not work. A few days later, his wife telephoned him to announce the birth of their second son.
For all the hoopla of the above story–and it got days and days of coverage in the newspaper–no example of any Minneapolis or St. Paul panorama has yet turned up. Lawrence did attempt to photograph Stillwater, Minn. a short time later, but he lost the balloon to damage in a windstorm. The next year, in 1902, he took panoramas of Stillwater and of the Minnesota State Fair by constructing 150-foot-tall towers from which to take the pictures.
In 1903, Lawrence was again in Minneapolis, attempting to take a panorama of the city from a tethered balloon. Because the balloon had to be completely motionless while the plate was exposed, there were many false starts and failed attempts when taking these sky-high panoramic photos. These failures lead his always-inventive mind to launching cameras tethered to smaller balloons. With complicated stabilization constructions, and a smaller balloon presenting a smaller surface to be blown around, he expected more success. It wasn’t long, however, before he invented his kite photography technique called the Captive Air Ship.
Lawrence’s most famous pictures were taken with cameras suspended by kites, and were images of the remains of the city of San Francisco, Calif. after the earthquake on April 18, 1906. Lawrence could fly a train of as many as 17 kites, all separated by piano wire. These would lift his camera with its elaborate stabilization device, and he would take the picture from the ground. His shots of San Francisco were taken from this string of kites, the Captive Air Ship, from over 2,000 feet in the air. They were not the only panoramas taken of the disaster, but their exquisite clarity of detail made them a prized evidence of the catastrophe, and he sold them for $125 each. In today’s terms, they brought him well over a quarter of a million dollars.
It’s not known on which of his many trips to Minnesota that Lawrence photographed Minnehaha Falls. His panorama of Minnehaha was entered into the Library of Congress on March 7, 1906, just a few weeks before the catastrophe in California. The picture is clearly not March in Minnesota, however. With leaves on some but not all trees, it’s pretty obviously mid-May or September or October. Lawrence was in Minnesota in March of 1905, but that’s also the wrong time of year. Perhaps this was taken during his many prolonged visits in 1901 and 1902. But why would Lawrence wait so long to copyright his image?
For all of his innovations with balloons and kites and towers and cameras, the Lawrence panorama of Minnehaha Falls shows none of that inventiveness. The photo was taken at creek level by someone standing alongside the creek, or on a bridge. Perhaps he used the “traveling film” camera he built in 1901. The park board’s boulder wall is the only example of the built environment in the picture, and it was in place in the early 1900s. The exact date of this photograph is not certain.
The only known copy of the Lawrence panorama of Minnehaha Falls is held by the Library of Congress, and the scan they have on-line is frankly terrible. But it is easy to find copies of the panorama, and even colorized copies. Lawrence apparently sold the rights to the image to Chicago’s V. O. Hammon postcard company, which reprinted it in vast quantities.
For all his success, Lawrence had a remarkable failure when attempting to photograph animals in Africa from a balloon. That story can be found on-line. Lawrence also had an “interesting” personal life, with years of involvement with religious Dowieites; his own kidnapping of his sons; his first wife’s belief in the “Happiness” cult (she said it “fairly oozed out of her”–a charming if bawdy image); his photographic company’s bankruptcy, and his new successful career as an aviation designer. But none of that is about the Minnehaha panorama story. That quite ordinary photo represents a sadly missed chance for an aerial photograph of the falls by his era’s top practitioner of the skill. Today, we are fortunate to have drones, digital video, and the Internet and so we can see the falls from “Cloudland.”
It’s rare that Minnehaha Falls truly freezes completely. Even in the coldest winters, when you climb up behind the waterfall you can hear the trickling of moving water. Sometimes you can see the water moving through the ice.
The lip of the waterfall is more narrow than it used to be, and indeed has been getting narrower in the last 10 years with erosion. But every winter we see a wide curtain of icicles all across the western side of the Minnehaha Gorge. They are created by groundwater moving through the limestone layer that creates the lip of the falls. Starting in 1889, the Park Board has done a lot of work to de-water springs and redirect that groundwater, and much of that work has been successful. But the icicles still form.
Storyteller or liar? William Herrick–the Hermit of Minnehaha Park–was some of each. And Herrick told such convincing, engaging tales that it’s hard to believe that his stories are not true, even 100 years after his death.
His artful storytelling included details that both impressed his audience and added verisimilitude. When he told the story of his Civil War career, he left out the part about never seeing combat. He was stationed in Kansas, there to build bridges and protect the mail trains. Instead he said (truthfully) that he was stationed “near the Blue Cut country where the famous Younger and James brothers held forth.” Except that he’d been mustered out and sent home before the first James gang robbery. Surely that detail is unimportant in the higher calling of telling a good story.
Samuel Atherton Hatch was (after Longfellow) the most important story-teller in the history of Minnehaha Falls, and pretty much no one has heard of him. He died in 1904, just a few months after the publication of his obscure little tract.
Even in the years before antibiotics and vaccinations, when most people had been to funerals for small children, being “cut down in the prime of life” was a cause for shocked remorse and sadness. Death was more prevalent, but it did not matter less.
Possibly Samuel A. Hatch, who died at age 25, was just as great a guy as his obituaries suggested.
The Great Depression. Something like 25% of the work force had no jobs. Soup kitchens provided a hot meal, maybe the only one these people would get. Work relief programs were started by the presidents of the day, Hoover and then Roosevelt. These job-creation agencies worked on America’s infrastructure. And someone named Walter B. Dahlberg, possibly an employee of the parks, compiled some terrific reports on the works accomplished in the Minneapolis park system. These are available on-line for 1936-1942. (Perhaps any earlier reports were lost, or haven’t been put on-line yet.)