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.
In taking the first images of Minnehaha Falls, Alexander Hesler and Joel E. Whitney made 25 or 30 daguerrotypes in a single session on August 15, 1852. It was an unusual beginning to the photographic record. Mostly, professional photographers took one-off tourist pictures or scenic shots of the Falls. And some of these were, in fact, reprinted endlessly. But it actually was quite rare, in those early years, for a photographer to go down to Minnehaha and take several pictures in a sequence.
Throughout the 19th century, and largely different from today, people approached the Falls from the south side. Upstream on the road–now Minnehaha Avenue–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 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.”
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.
Before the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners came to own Minnehaha Falls in 1889, it was privately held by Franklin Steele, George W. Lincoln, and a few others. These landowners rented out their land to people running saloons, restaurants, and hotels, and to photographers.