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.

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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 hathitrust.org

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

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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.

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Multiple images

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.

Here’s an exception to that.

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Joel Whitney and the First Bridge

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.

An early pic of Minnehaha, showing the first bridge
Early spring, the snow is melting, the creek is thawed and the falls are falling. An undated picture by Joel E. Whitney, possibly from the 1850s. From the urbancreek.com archive.

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The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park. Part 1.

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.

a color postcard showing a small shack, labeled "The Hermit Below Minnehaha"
This postcard may show the home of the “hermit” who probably was named James McKnight. It was mailed in 1909, during the postcard craze of the early 20th century. It is not known when this picture was taken.

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The WPA Works in Minnehaha Park, 1936. Part 6: Sand

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.

Three people from the late 19th or early 20th century, standing in a shallow cave.
“Sugar Cave Minnehaha Glen,” in an undated photograph (a Real Photo Postcard)  from the early 20th century. This cave  does not seem deep enough to keep the rain off.

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Hospitality at Minnehaha Falls in the Early Years. Part 1.

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.”

Here is the first hotel at Minnehaha Falls:

In 1863, this hotel sat on the south bank of the creek above the Falls.
In 1863, this hotel sat on the south bank of the creek above the Falls.  This photograph is owned by the New York Public Library, and–unlike other institutions that monetize their 19th century collections–the NYPL released their high-resolution scan of it to the public domain on January 6, 2016.

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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.

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free enterprise at the Falls


Half a stereo view from the late 1870s. You're looking east, over the lip of the Falls.
Half a stereo view from the late 1870s. You’re looking east, over the lip of the Falls.

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.

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