The central story of Minnehaha Falls is the conflicting narratives between the virtuous, morally pure civic body and the goofy, rowdy, maybe-a-little-criminal nonsense that people actually engaged in. Call it control versus chaos, or even liberal versus conservative, though the situation had fuzzier edges that make it hard to push into any strict categories we might have today. But it was a real conflict that played out over generations. It really was a fight for the soul of Minnehaha Falls.
After the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners took ownership of the Falls in 1889, many of the refreshment vendors and fun-providers who had been located at the Falls migrated to the land just outside the park itself and set up for themselves there. Dance halls, ice cream stands and photo vendors went up on the land west of the park that is today Highway 55. Back then, it was the long thin block between Minnehaha Avenue and Hiawatha Avenue. It was called the Minnehaha Midway.
Minnehaha Falls in all her pristine and picturesque loveliness was photographed thousands of times, but the Midway was not. Only a few pictures exist of the Midway, and interpreting them has been a long-term project here at urbancreek.com. Below, one of those pictures:
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.
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.
Samuel Atherton Hatch was (after Longfellow) the most important story-teller in the history of Minnehaha Falls, and pretty much no one has heard of him. He died in 1904, just a few months after the publication of his obscure little tract.
Even in the years before antibiotics and vaccinations, when most people had been to funerals for small children, being “cut down in the prime of life” was a cause for shocked remorse and sadness. Death was more prevalent, but it did not matter less.
Possibly Samuel A. Hatch, who died at age 25, was just as great a guy as his obituaries suggested.
The Great Depression. Something like 25% of the work force had no jobs. Soup kitchens provided a hot meal, maybe the only one these people would get. Work relief programs were started by the presidents of the day, Hoover and then Roosevelt. These job-creation agencies worked on America’s infrastructure. And someone named Walter B. Dahlberg, possibly an employee of the parks, compiled some terrific reports on the works accomplished in the Minneapolis park system. These are available on-line for 1936-1942. (Perhaps any earlier reports were lost, or haven’t been put on-line yet.)
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.