Storyteller or liar? William Herrick–the Hermit of Minnehaha Park–was some of each. And Herrick told such convincing, engaging tales that it’s hard to believe that his stories are not true, even 100 years after his death.
His artful storytelling included details that both impressed his audience and added verisimilitude. When he told the story of his Civil War career, he left out the part about never seeing combat. He was stationed in Kansas, there to build bridges and protect the mail trains. Instead he said (truthfully) that he was stationed “near the Blue Cut country where the famous Younger and James brothers held forth.” Except that he’d been mustered out and sent home before the first James gang robbery. Surely that detail is unimportant in the higher calling of telling a good story.
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.
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.
The American papers Back East began twittering about it. The Governor-General of Canada, a landed aristocrat no less, was coming west from Ottawa to visit Her Majesty’s dominion. It would be the first time any Governor-General ever visited Manitoba. And in 1877, the easiest way to get to Manitoba was via America’s trains and steamboats.
The famous one was Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava. An English and Irish peer, he was a rising star in Queen Victoria’s diplomatic service. Notably, he achieved the ultimate honor and became the Viceroy of India. In 1877, he had been the Governor-General of Canada for five years.
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.
This picture gets reprinted all the time in books, articles, and magazines. It’s the most popularly reprinted image of Minnehaha Falls in the 19th century. And it’s easy to understand why. The caption clearly states that it is from 1860, and invites the reader back into the past with its advice, “Note costumes.” Putting precise dates on photographs of Minnehaha Falls is a difficult project, as no one knows better than the researchers of urbancreek.com. The very specific date here seems like a gift from the past.
Unfortunately, it’s wrong. On some rare occasions when this image is reprinted, the people standing in the background on the traverse behind the Falls are pointed out. But no one ever mentions the graffiti.