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.
Some pictures of Minnehaha Falls and the area around it add more mystery than they solve.
This picture shows the 1880s fence on the north side of the falls. It shows that the ground was trampled bare on the south side, which was a problem the Park Board worked to solve as soon as they took ownership.
There are nearly no other pictures of Minnehaha taken from this spot. This is a unique 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.”
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:
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.
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.
“Persons are not allowed…” It’s an advisory tone, not a mandate. That sign also mars the picturesqueness of the scene.
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.
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.
Between the bridge and the Falls, the Park Board installed a barbed wire fence, just barely visible here. Perhaps then, as now, people threw pennies into the creek and this was to keep people from trying to reach them when the water was low.
A Park Board groundskeeper was busy raking the grass just above this now-long-gone stonework and iron railing.
Peeking into the depths of this picture, we see that more barbed wire fence was installed. Who knows why, as it looks like this fence just wanders across the park.