The WPA Works in Minnehaha Park, 1936. Part 5: Picnic Shelter Maintenance.

The Picnic Shelter in Minnehaha Park, designed by Harry Wild Jones in 1892. The design is reminiscent of a similar, much larger pavilion at Lake Harriet.  This photograph is of unknown provenance and was published in a 2013 research report for the Park Board.  It appears to be (but isn’t) a cropped and horizontally flipped copy of the image further down in this post, which was published by the Park Board in 1936. These pictures are both cropped (and one is flipped) from a single larger image.

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.

The Picnic Shelter at Minnehaha Park. While often described as a pavilion, this was never a place where the Park Board offered refreshments and it was not replaced by the Refectory with the red roof that stands today near the Falls.
The Picnic Shelter was often described as a pavilion, but was never a place where the Park Board offered refreshments and it was not replaced by the Refectory with the red roof that stands today near the Falls. This picture was published in 1936 by the WPA with the caption: “Picnic Pavilion at Minnehaha Park, painted and repaired by W.P.A.”

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 slashings. 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 aerial photo makes clear that the Picnic Shelter and the Refectory were not the same building, and stood at the same time.
This aerial photo makes clear that the Picnic Shelter and the Refectory were not the same building, and that they stood at the same 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.

The WPA works in Minnehaha Park, 1936. Part 4: A Spring in the Park.

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.

Frozen ground water in Minnehaha Park. This was taken below the Wabun Picnic Area, standing on the driveway at Lock and Dam #1.
Frozen ground water in Minnehaha Park. This was taken below the Wabun Picnic Area, standing on the driveway at Lock and Dam #1 on January 24, 2016.

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.” [1]  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.

conduit for water under a retaining wall
The original caption for this picture read: “Retaining wall at spring in Minnehaha Park, constructed by W.P.A.”

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? 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?

[1] “Godfrey Tract Offers Choice Lots.” Minneapolis Tribune, January 17, 1909

The WPA works in Minnehaha Park, 1936. Part 3: Driveway and Sidewalk.

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:

The original caption was: "Looking east from entrance to Minnehaha Park, showing curbing and walk installed by W.P.A."
The original caption was: “Looking east from entrance to Minnehaha Park, showing curbing and walk installed by W.P.A.”

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.  But a throughway for cars 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.


The WPA works in Minnehaha Park, 1936. Part 2: Groundskeeping.

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 original caption for this picture read: "Picnic grove at Minnehaha Falls - resurfaced and sodded by W.P.A.
The original caption for this picture read: “Picnic grove at Minnehaha Falls – resurfaced and sodded by W.P.A.”

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 poorly-documented Picnic Shelter.
The poorly-documented Picnic Shelter.

The Picnic Shelter is an interesting enough place to merit its own post.

The WPA works in Minnehaha Park. 1936. Part 1: Retaining Wall.

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.

At some point between the late 1920s and 1936, the Park Board's giant viewing platform was finally removed. It was replaced by... whatever this is.
At some point between the late 1920s and 1936, the Park Board’s giant viewing platform was finally removed. It was replaced by… whatever this is.

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?

If only someone had cut that tree down.
If only someone had cut that tree down.

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.

March 31, 2004

By March of 2004, there had been a catastrophic failure of this WPA stonework. This is simply not stable ground.

Even after WWI….

The behemoth platform built by the Park Board lasted for decades. Really a surprisingly long time.

Here’s a snapshot dated June 30, 1922 of the top of Minnehaha Falls:


By peeking at the edge of the image, we can see the platform railing, still in place, at least 21 years later:


Joel Whitney: 1850’s?

The Minnesota State Historical Society created a directory  of early Minnesota professional photographers.  It’s an indispensable tool for photo-historians and researchers.

This picture was taken by Joel E. Whitney.  He was notable for taking the very first picture of Minnehaha Falls while working with Alexander Hesler in 1852.   They took a few dozen daguerrotypes of the Falls on that day, and perhaps a few survive today.   This is not one of them.

An early picture of the Falls. There is no sign of development beyond the foot path.
An early picture of the Falls. There is no sign of development except the foot path.

This picture (technically a photograph, which daguerrotypes were not) was taken with a stereo camera and sold as a stereoview by Whitney’s Gallery of 174 Third St., Saint Paul.  The directory of photographers admits of both the Combs & Whitney Studio, and the Whitney & Zimmerman Studio at this address, and that these existed between 1867 and 1871, but it does not offer a date for the studio named “Whitney’s Studio.”

This same picture was also published by Whitney with an earlier back mark, one with the address of “Third and Cedar, St. Paul.”  The directory dates this address to 1851-1867.  Given all this, it is certain that this photograph predates 1867, it also predates the well-documented Carbutt visit of October 1866, and probably predates the Civil War.  Most likely, this is Minnehaha Falls in the late 1850s, just after Franklin Steele took ownership of it for the first time in 1857.

Joel Whitney called this viewpoint “the Middle Terrace.” Unfortunately, the name seems not to have stuck.

In the 1880’s: souvenir pictures

Before the Park Board owned Minnehaha Falls, it was in private hands.  Here, an un-recorded photographer took this family’s portrait on some sort of built platform structure on the south side of the Minnehaha gorge.

A series of photographers had the concession of selling tourists their photos in front of Minnesota's most famous view.
A series of photographers had the concession of selling tourists their photos in front of Minnesota’s most famous view.
There was a well-used pathway behind the Falls.
There was a well-used pathway behind the Falls. One wonders if Grandmama would allow that girl to try the route.  As soon as the Park Board took ownership of the Falls, they fenced this route off.

The photographer’s concession was rented by many of the notable early Minneapolis photographers.  The rental payment was a significant piece of annual income for those who owned Minnehaha Falls.

The Minneapolis Park Board at Minnehaha: 1890’s, part 1

Even without a mist-throwing torrent flinging itself over the edge of the Falls, the Falls had its charm.  But the Park Board was responsible for the public’s safety.

Probably from the dry mid-summer: a trickle of water over Minnehaha Falls.
Probably from the dry mid-summer: a trickle of water over Minnehaha Falls.

“Persons are not allowed…”  It’s an advisory tone, not a mandate. That sign also mars the picturesqueness of the scene.



At this time, the Park Board had yet to build its boulder wall on the north side of the Minnehaha gorge.

Viewing the Falls, 1900’s part 4


The Park Board seems to have gotten the groundwater problem under control here, as the catchbasin is gone and the surface looks dry.  This rare look at the sides and edges shows just how gigantically inappropriate this viewing platform was.


This photo is undated but, because we see the back of a thin rectangular “warning” sign, it seems like this is from the 1900s, and of a similar age as this picture.

For those readers who would like to know what that sign says, it was photographed. ThinSign.