At its beginning, photography required innovators. Clever problem solvers envisioned the next innovations and then invented the solutions that would make those innovations possible.
One of these was Chicago’s John Carbutt, who invented—among other things—the celluloid film that made motion pictures possible. Carbutt, of course, also photographed Minnehaha Falls on several occasions in the 1860s. Another Minnehaha photographer who was a prominent photographic inventor and who worked at the turn of the last century was another Chicagoan: George Raymond Lawrence perfected aerial photography. It was quite a feat. Airplanes had not yet been invented.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
It’s that fence that helps date this picture. Most likely it was taken after the scandalous 1857 purchase of Fort Snelling by Franklin Steele and his shadowy partners from Back East. That was the first time that Steele owned the Falls of Minnehaha.