Still looking at this intriguing image, it seems that the businesses beyond the railroad depot appear on a map from the Rascher Insurance Co. that fellow historian Stefan Songstad found at the MNHS library. The original map was printed in 1892, but it was revised multiple times.
When these old insurance company maps were revised, that meant pasting paper over buildings that were no longer there, and pasting in drawings of new buildings. Reading through the pasted-over papers is a crucial part of this research and it isn’t always easy or even possible. It’s like an archeological dig.
What the map tells us, as we peer through paper and through time, is that there were two refreshment pavilions just opposite the depot, and that each was a single story tall, and had shingled roof. These were next to the easy-to-spot ice house. According to the meta-data on this map at Minnesota Historical Society, these paste-over updates were possibly done between 1904 and 1906. Other buildings removed from the map are surmised to have existed only in 1903 and 1904.
So, our black and white photo, which looks through the depot at these places, was taken between 1892 and 1902. But we can narrow down the date of what we see here because, the creation of this refreshment district happened in 1895-1896. The city directories begin to list them as they appear. With a little more work, we might be able to figure out who is standing in that refreshment pavilion, peering down the tracks, looking for the train from Minneapolis and his customers to arrive. Probably the ladies on the bench are waiting for the train, too.
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:
There are 2 main areas of interest in this picture: the depot, and what’s beyond it. In 1899, during one of the several lawsuits having to do with controlling Minnehaha, witness Fred Ecker was reported to have said that he frequently went to a particular dance hall on the Midway. “”You go there quite often?” “Yes, I do.” “Ever see any whisky?” “Not in the pavilion. They always go to the depot steps for that. It’s a handy place.”
Are we looking at the Depot steps in this picture?
Just below the railroad platform, it seems like we might see light, possibly sunshine on railroad ties. The tracks ran west of the Depot, and so are behind the depot building. The railroad’s right-of-way ended just to the west of the tracks, and that is where the Minnehaha Midway began.
The difficulty here is that today, the Minnehaha Depot platform is not six steps up from the ground around it, and the platform itself is not made of boards. Here’s a modern picture of the Depot:
This platform is clearly brick, and it is not six steps up from the ground on the east side. The urbancreek.com research team is fully capable of mistaking the Princess Depot in photographs but is certain that this is not one of those times.
Back in the early 20th century, there was a road-paving and improvement project on Minnehaha Avenue, and it’s possible that the grade around the Depot was brought up 4 feet or so. There’s no evidence to date of this sort of gigantic road-building project, but one supposes that could explain this early Depot photograph.
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.”