Railroad stories, part 1: the Princess Depot and environs

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:

the old train depot at Minnehaha Falls, and some buildings behind it
Facing west, at the south end of the Minnehaha “Little Princess” depot. This pretty little structure was built around 1875, and still stands today. But nothing else in this picture exists today. –image from the Minnesota State Historical Society, with permission under the “personal website” category.)

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?

A closer look: are they steps or, possibly, a fence?

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:

A nice modern shot of the Depot, taken just west of the tracks, and facing northeast. It’s showing the other side of the depot from the historic picture. This was taken by architectural historian Richard Kronick, and is used with his kind permission.

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.

A clear picture of the Princess Depot and her relationship to Minnehaha Avenue. In this picture, the tracks are behind the building; we are looking west. If those pavilions were still there, that wall behind the Depot would run right in front of them. Today the Depot is obviously at grade. This photo was taken on April 8, 2013 by Tony Held, who volunteered at the historic Minnehaha Depot in the late 1990s. The photo is used with his kind permission.

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.

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