The Minneapolis Park Board at Minnehaha: 1900s, part 1

A fine lace curtain of water.

Here’s a (likely) 1900’s image with the Falls of Minnehaha, just exactly framed.  Everyone likes to photograph the waterfall: They always have and they always will.  But look for the little details in the backgrounds and corners, those incidental features in these old pictures tell the interesting history.

An early bridge across the creek, probably built by the Park Board.
An early bridge across the creek, probably one built by the Park Board.

That’s not an especially sturdy construction, compared to the stone bridge that sits there today.  In fact, in September of 1903, the bridge across the stream as well as the dam upstream above the falls washed away in heavy rains.  The Park Board noted, “The bridge was a great convenience to the patrons of the park, and one to take its place of the proper kind and in the right location is one of the problems that we have to solve.

The Board instructed Superintendent William Berry to have a temporary bridge built across the creek above the falls in April of 1904.  Though construction was reportedly underway nearby for a permanent and sturdy bridge, the temporary bridge collapsed on May 29, 1904, dropping people into the water.  One woman nearly went over Minnehaha Falls.

And in 1906, Theodore Wirth was superintending the parks system and was out to make a big splash in his first year.  He declared that “the low wooden footbridge above the falls is a cheap crude structure and should be replaced with a cut stone bridge, or, better yet, a reinforced concrete structure with a boulder arch-ring and rubble stone parapet walls.”

It’s unknown if this picture shows the bridge that washed away in 1903, the temporary bridge that collapsed in 1904, or the sturdy replacement under discussion in 1906.  It could even be an earlier bridge yet, from the 1890s.


John Carbutt at Minnehaha Falls, part 3


Mollie Carbutt is, again, quite prettily posed against the butternut tree, while the Wilsons gaze across the gorge.  Edward L. Wilson was a prominent publisher of the “Philadelphia Photographer” magazine, which seems to have had some national acclaim.  And John Carbutt was among the most inventive and studious of early photographers.  This image was printed as a photograph and pasted into the “Philadelphia Photographer.”

There’s reason to wonder who took the picture, though likely it was Carbutt who pushed the button.   There is a second man in this picture, standing below the bluff to Mollie’s left.  He could be a random Minnehaha visitor, or he could be John Carbutt, or he could be Carbutt’s assistant.  If Carbutt appears here , then his assistant took the picture.

viewing the falls, 1890s

These solid citizens commemorated their pleasant dat at Minnehaha Park with a photograph.
These solid citizens commemorated their visit to Minnehaha Park with a photograph.

This undated photo from some time in the 1890s shows a place to sit built into the edge of the park board platform.  That seating seems not to have lasted into the 20th century (see images in older posts, below).

Stone construction is hard, heavy work.  Probably this was rebuilt because of the basic instability of the site.

viewing the falls, 1900’s: part 2

Vandalism? Disrepair? Deterioration?

This photo is from 1904, and shows that the Park Board’s viewing platform wasn’t holding up as well as one might hope.  This looks like a combination of vandalism and deterioration, with groundwater probably playing a part in the crumbling edge.  The land where this platform was looks like this today:

This side of the Minnehaha gorge is geologically unstable.
This side of the Minnehaha gorge is highly unstable.  This photo is from 2014.

The slumping visible here shows just how unstable the land is.  Vegetation might be used to secure the side of the gorge, but has not succeeded on its own.  There has never been any sign of the Park Board putting deliberate plantings here.

viewing the Falls, 1900’s: part 1

From 1890 until perhaps 1920, one could nearly touch the falling water at Minnehaha Falls. We cannot get so close today.

We can’t get this view of Minnehaha Falls today.  After the Park Board took ownership of Falls, they built a huge stone platform just where the photographers used to have people pose.  Not everyone liked this behemoth.  Charles “Father of the Parks” Loring wrote:

“The park board have undoubtedly made one serious mistake, which will someday be rectified. It grew out of the fact that for years a wood platform was used by a photographer, when romantic visitors, and lovers, wished their pictures taken, with the falls for a background. The public little realize how near we came to have the beautiful crescent destroyed by a building, which was to be let to the said photographer. Minnehaha will always be an attractive place, and some day the falls and the crescent below them will be restored to their natural condition. Every stone that has been built into the walls and steps will be removed, and until this is done, I do not wish to visit the spot again. The sight of that last wall cost me a sleepless night, and the thought of it now gives me unpleasant feelings.”

De-watering springs at Minnehaha was an early Park Board engineering problem.

The ground around Minnehaha is alive with water.  This is why the falls, when frozen, present that wide landscape of icicles.  Springs used to just bubble up, and all that water had to be routed away from structures like roads or this platform.  This detail picture show a pipe pouring water into some kind of catchbasin or sewer.  Did people drink this water, at this late date?

French & Sawyer

French & Sawyer, photographers from Keene, New Hampshire, published this image of the falls taken probably in the early 1870s.

It was a relatively simple matter for John Carbutt to come to Minnehaha in the 1864-1866 period.  He was in Chicago, and by 1865 there were trains between the Twin Cities and Chicago.

It took five days to travel to Minnesota from New York in the early 1870s.  Probably it took another day to get from New Hampshire to New York.  And perhaps French & Sawyer came out from Keene NH to the Great Northwest to photograph places like Minnehaha Falls.  This photo is from the late 1860s (at a guess).  Minnehaha was world-famous then, and fame was an inducement for photographers to visit here.

John Carbutt at Minnehaha Falls, part 2

Mollie Carbutt standing between Edward L. Wilson, left, and Mrs. Wilson. Note that the bridge is not in good repair.
Mollie Carbutt standing between Edward L. Wilson, left, and Mrs. Wilson. Note that the bridge is not in good repair.

Carbutt took this picture in October 1866, and it’s interesting for several reasons.  That very first bridge across the creek is in terrible condition with obvious broken railings.  It’s now a few years old.

But look at Mollie Carbutt.

Here’s a woman, at the very dawn of photography, who knew how to get her picture taken.  She is 22 years old and she has mastered the art of “look pleasant, please.”  In contrast, Mrs. Wilson is fussing with her buttons and seems unaware of the camera.

one of the very first photos of Minnehaha Falls

Dating pictures of Minnehaha Falls is an imprecise art.  The images themselves, as well as the physical objects–the photographs–offer little clues.  Mostly, no one wrote the dates on these pictures, so assigning a date means putting together these little clues, and doing research, and then making best-guesses.

Taken no later than 1864, and my guess is that it was closer to 1860.
Taken no later than 1864, and my guess is that it was closer to 1860.

It’s a fine view of the falls, but the waterfall is slightly hidden behind those tree branches.  And for every subsequent picture taken from this viewpoint, the branches have been cut away, as you can see.


John Carbutt at Minnehaha Falls, part 1

John Carbutt and Edward L. Wilson and their wives.
John Carbutt and Edward L. Wilson gazing at their wives across the Minnehaha gorge in 1866.

John Carbutt, based in Chicago, was among the most innovative of 19th century photographers.  He was the first to print on celluloid, opening the door to the entire film industry.  And he perfected the printing of X-ray photographs on glass plates.

Carbutt also took commissions for series of images on the frontier.  He was most celebrated for his images taken along the Union Pacific Railroad as it rushed west across Nebraska towards the 100th Meridian and the completion of the trans-continental railroad.  But Carbutt also took a few series of pictures in Minnesota, including some for the Northwestern Packet Company.

In October 1866, Carbutt came to Minnesota for a third time.  With him were his wife Mollie and the prominent photographer, writer, and publisher Edward L. Wilson and his wife.  The trip was immediately before the Union Pacific junket.  There’s no indication that Mollie Carbutt or the Wilsons accompanied him on the western trip, so he probably took Mollie back to Chicago, since there he boarded the train for the 100th Meridian.

This picture was taken in the first two weeks of October, 1866.