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.
From the earliest years of Park Board ownership of Minnehaha Falls, they worked to grow the grass. For most people, a park implies green grass lawn under mature trees. Certainly this was the accepted ideal in the infancy of landscape architecture, around the time the Minneapolis Parks system was created. Picturesque contemplation of the natural (though created) terrain was more important than playing ball, flying kites, or flower-picking.
The Park Board gained control of the Falls in 1889, the same year it created ordinances outlawing all these activities in the parks. They had a point, because back then, the falls were surrounded by barren dirt, and neither the landowners nor the businesses who rented from them cared much about growing grass.
Minnehaha had for decades been the most famous spot in Minnesota, always attracting large crowds. All those feet made growing grass unpredictably difficult for the Park Board, even with great expenses for seed and with placing “Keep Off The Grass” signs. This was a struggle every year.
The WPA (Works Progress Administration, which became the Works Projects Administration in 1939) provided the dignity of a job to the unemployed of America’s Great Depression, while supplying rural communities needed public infrastructure and giving art and amenities to the cities.
The WPA improvements in Minnehaha Park were invaluable, and many of those–staircases and such–still serve 80 years later.
The Park Board seems to have gotten the groundwater problem under control here, as the catchbasin is gone and the surface looks dry. This rare look at the sides and edges shows just how gigantically inappropriate this viewing platform was.
Here’s another nicely posed tourist at Minnehaha, on the Park Board’s large stone platform. During the 1890’s, the Park Board also built the boulder wall that still exists today on the north side of the gorge.
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.