transportation, part 1: earliest days.

Background research at continues on a near-daily basis. The great difficulty in telling stories about Minnehaha Falls is locating their edges. Bits of these tales come bobbing down the metaphorical creek, plunge over the lip of the cataract, and float downstream to meet the river. People and stories come to the Falls, though their tales might begin or end elsewhere. In that light, then, a bit about transportation. This is a big topic about which there is quite a lot to say.

Sepia-toned water fall picture.
Facing west: an early picture of Minnehaha Falls, taken in or after 1865. The north side of the creek, behind that zig zag fence, had been privately owned since the early 1850s.–from the archives.

In those early days the territory was not yet organized and there were nearly no roads at all.  Only a few  thousand European-American people (those in the Army along with non-native settlers and traders) lived in Minnesota. Most of the land was empty and nearly all of it was owned by Native Americans.  Back then, how did all of these new people get to Minnehaha?  Walk the mile from Fort Snelling, or take a horse… those were the obvious easy ways to get to the Falls in those earliest frontier days.

A couple of bridges are seen in the depths of the image.
A closer look into the depths of this image shows a railroad bridge just behind the smaller bridge.  The  Army at Fort Snelling likely built that first bridge for foot and carriage traffic between the Fort and St. Anthony Falls.  It was either that, or they routinely waded the creek, and that was unlikely to be anyone’s first choice during most of the year.  The railroad first crossed the creek in 1865.

Before becoming was famous, and long after, Minnehaha Falls were the picturesque favorite of everyone in the area. Tourists and even picnic parties visited the Falls while they visited the Fort.  Minnehaha was, after all, on the Fort Snelling Military Reservation.  Pioneer Charlotte Ouisconsin Van Cleve had been born during her parents’ journey to build Fort Snelling. In 1888, before the creation of Minnehaha Park, she described her childhood memories of Minnehaha Falls:

But the most charming of all our recreations was a ride to “Little Falls” now “Minnehaha.” The picture in my mind of this gem of beauty, makes the sheet of water wider and more circular than it is now, I know it was fresher and newer, and there was no saloon there then, no fence, no tables and benches, cut up and disfigured with names and nonsense, no noisy railroad, no hotel, it was just our dear pure “Little Falls” with its graceful ferns, its bright flowers, its bird music and its lovely waterfall. And while we children rambled on the banks, and gathered pretty fragrant things fresh from their Maker’s hand, listening the while to sweet sounds in the air, and to the joyous liquid music of the laughing water, there may have been some love-making going on in the cozy nooks and corners on the hill side or under the green trees, for in later years, I have now and then come upon groups of two, scattered here and there in those same places, who looked like lovers, which recalled to my mind vividly what I had seen there long ago. That enchanting spot, so dainty in its loveliness, is hallowed by a thousand tender associations and it seems more than cruel to allow its desecration by unholy surroundings and various forms of vice. Standing beside it now, and remembering it in its purity, just as God made it, my eyes are full of unshed tears, and its mellifluous ceaseless song seems pleading to be saved from the vandalism which threatens to destroy all its sweet influences and make it common and unclean.

(Charlotte was born in 1819, and got her middle name from having been born in Wisconsin en route to Minnesota.  Her description above  is from the 1820s or early 1830s. The vice and vandalism that so bothered her would begin to leave historic footprints in another 30 or so years.)

Throughout the 1850s, great changes began to come to Minnesota. Though the railroads had yet to enter Minnesota, in 1854 the expanding national network of railroads reached the Mississippi, meeting the river at Rock Island, Illinois. It was an important accomplishment, and was ably celebrated with The Grand Excursion. Over a thousand people took “the cars” to Rock Island and then steamboats to St. Paul to see the Minnesota frontier. Once in St. Paul, they hired horses and carriages to take them sightseeing to St. Anthony Falls, Minnehaha Falls, and Fort Snelling. The excursionists crossed the river at St. Anthony Falls and at Fort Snelling on rope ferries.

A fire of Fort Snelling in the distance with a flatbottomed ferry boat on the near shore. A wagon with a couple of people in it was on board, and a two ferrymen lounged against the ferry's railings.
The rope ferry at Fort Snelling.  Here the ferry is just putting a wagon ashore on the east side of the Mississippi. .–An 1860s picture from the archives.

The rope ferry used the river’s current to propel the ferry  from one side of the river to the other, following a stout rope or cable strung from bank to bank.   Early versions of this technology relied on the current and hand-over-hand pulling the ferry along the cable to the far side.

A closer look at the ferry, ashore on the Mississippi's east bank. Three men are in a buggy drawn by 2 horses
The Fort Snelling ferry across the Mississippi used both the river’s current and a winding mechanism to move the ferry.  The winding winch is visible at both ends of the ferry.  And the rope strung across the Mississippi is also clearly shown.

In 1855, the first-ever bridge across the Mississippi opened at St. Anthony, replacing the rope ferry that had been in use above St. Anthony Falls.  This bridge connected the towns of St. Anthony and Minneapolis.  And it definitely aided subsequent tourists taking the “Grand Rounds” tour (of St. Anthony, lakes Harriet and Calhoun [now Bde Maka Ska], then Minnehaha and Fort Snelling).  The Minneapolis park system still thinks of its best circuit as The Grand Rounds.

A few of a wooden bridge, with 2 towers on each side of the bridge. The area around the bridge is messy.
The first-ever bridge crossed the Mississippi a few miles upstream of Minnehaha Creek. It opened in 1855, and was built by a company owned by Franklin Steele. The blocks of limestone that are strewn about (and being sat-upon) are probably being used to build the replacement of this bridge, as can be seen at the left edge of this image.   –from the archive

That new bridge, though not appearing to be flimsy, was said to sway dangerously in high winds.    Warning signs were posted on it right away.

A sign on the first bridge across the Mississippi, warning that heavy teams cross with 100 feet of distance between them.
“Heavily loaded teams” were to cross the bridge 100 feet apart.  And anyone riding or driving fast than a walk would be fined $10.  This was a lot of money in that time.  The actual fare to use the bridge was 5¢.

Years before statehood was conferred on Minnesota in May of 1858, visitors could also reach Minnehaha by boat.  Pioneer Ard Godfrey had a claim along Minnehaha creek downstream of the Falls and was milling lumber there as early as 1853. “Godfreysport” was the landing he built to ship out lumber and later grain. That landing was in use for decades, including long after his claim had been sold as a location for the Soldier’s Home.  And thus, from quite early on,  it was easy to disembark a steamboat from the Fort or from St. Paul at the mouth of Minnehaha Creek and walk upstream to view the waterfall.

A steamboat on the Mississippi, with no sign of the Intercity Bridge (the Ford Bridge), nor any sign of Lock and Dam #1.
The  steamboat “Gracie A. Mower” makes for the Godfreysport landing.  Postcard from the collection.

The steamboat landing was in use for more than 50 years, well into the 20th century.  An unanswered question: since there was a cable across the river downstream at Fort Snelling, how did steamboats get past it to the mouth of Minnehaha Creek and the Godfreysport landing?

a tripod-shaped structure at one end of the ferry route.
On the top of the bluff on the east bank was a tripod supporting the ferry rope.  This is a long way above the water.  (For extra fun, notice the superstructure of the train bridges crossing the Minnesota River. ) This picture is from the archive and dates from the 1860s or 1870s.

The rope was anchored on a tripod on the St. Paul side of the river.  There was certainly some similar arrangement on the opposite side, though no picture has yet come to the attention of  This means that the closer to shore, the higher the rope.  Perhaps steamboats making the run upstream to Minnehaha Creek were able to slip past underneath.  Or, something as simple as a pole could have been used to raise the rope just high enough for the smoke stack to pass.

Pavilions at Minnehaha, part 2

For many reasons, quite a few neighbors around Minnehaha Park absolutely hated the commerce that sprang up outside the park from the 1890s onwards.  All the commercial businesses were not equally hated. Everyone needed grocery stores near by, and James R. Hartzell was one who ran a grocery at 50th and Hiawatha. He was popular and respected. In many years he also ran the pony ride concession at the park.

But others running businesses near but outside the park had a harder time of it, with prominent citizens doing everything they could to run them out. This worked less well that one might think, though the ultimate result was that places designed to draw crowds and provide entertainments were closed down but neighborhood conveniences stayed.

The Hiawatha Confectionery in the summer of 1924. Apparently they sold everything from postcards to houses.  The place was at 4900 42d Ave. South in Minneapolis.  –from the urbancreek archives

Continue reading “Pavilions at Minnehaha, part 2”

Pavilions at Minnehaha, part 1.

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.

Two different refreshment pavilions just past the Minnehaha Depot. One has plenty of advertising, for Ives Ice Cream, Cream Soda, and Lunches. The other has a man looking down the tracks towards Minneapolis.–from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Continue reading “Pavilions at Minnehaha, part 1.”

railroad stories part 2: mapping the refreshment pavilions

the old train depot at Minnehaha Falls, and some buildings behind it
Facing west, at the south end of the Minnehaha “Little Princess” depot. Look beyond the depot building: there are 2 different businesses. –from the Minnesota State Historical Society.

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 fellow historian Stefan Songstad found at the MNHS library. The original map was printed in 1892, but it was revised multiple times. Continue reading “railroad stories part 2: mapping the refreshment pavilions”

Railroad stories, part 1: the Princess Depot and environs

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 Below, one of those pictures:

the old train depot at Minnehaha Falls, and some buildings behind it
Facing west, at the south end of the Minnehaha “Little Princess” depot. This pretty little structure was built around 1875, and still stands today. But nothing else in this picture exists today. –image from the Minnesota State Historical Society, with permission under the “personal website” category.)

Continue reading “Railroad stories, part 1: the Princess Depot and environs”

A panorama of Minnehaha Falls

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.

A man with an impressive mustache who is probably in his 30s.
George R. Lawrence, probably taken after he perfected his “flashlight photography” and learned to contain the smoke and sparks of the simultaneous chemical explosions he used to illuminated large crowd shots.

Continue reading “A panorama of Minnehaha Falls”

going behind the Falls and getting hurt

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.

Continue reading “going behind the Falls and getting hurt”

The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park, part 4

a man rides away from hot pursuit, looking over his shoulder at the two men chasing him on horseback
This dime-novel-esque illustration of William Herrick fleeing hot pursuit perfectly conveys the breathless excitement of Herrick’s stories. And it was drawn by Art. M. Johnson, who was a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, and who went on to become a distinguished illustrator and botanist. –from the Library of Congress collection, preserved by the Internet Archive on

Since we don’t know exactly where William Herrick’s sod house was, we don’t know whose permission he secured to build it.

Continue reading “The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park, part 4″

The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park, Part 3.

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.

a picture of an older man wearing a hat. And a mustache
William W. Herrick in the early 1900s, when he was renowned as the Hermit of Minnehaha Falls. Stories painted him as a kindly if eccentric man who had lived a life of glorious adventure but now just wanted to quietly cultivate his garden.–from “Hermit of Minnehaha Falls” edited by Samuel A. Hatch

Continue reading “The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park, Part 3.”

The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park. Part 2.

During the later part of the 19th century, photography was in the midst of a major transition as an art form.  Since its invention, photographers had concentrated on likenesses and “fidelity to nature.”  But as the 19th century wound down, they began producing images in the style of paintings, moody and atmospheric works of art.

A group of women on the sore, staring out to the sea that is just out of frame on the left.
“Watching for the Return” by Alfred Steiglitz.

Evocative photographs like this one helped define photography as an art form. This image was exhibited by the Minneapolis Camera Club and the Fine Arts Society at their first joint photographic salon in February 1903. Steiglitz was a nationally prominent artistic photographer in the Photo Secession movement.

Continue reading “The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park. Part 2.”