HISTORY OF THE ST. ANTHONY FALLS INDUSTRIAL DISTRICT
 


St. Anthony Falls 1857

    Above a narrow channel where the Mississippi River courses between steep bluffs, St. Anthony Falls churns away at the bedrock over which it descends. Named by Father Louis Hennepin during his travels here in 1680, it is the only significant waterfall on the entire Mississippi River. From that early date the waterfall became an important cartographic landmark in the interior of North America. Known and visited by Native Americans for countless generations, the falls' natural beauty and spiritual qualities remained unaltered until the early 19th century. The cataract attracted Euroamerican explorers, fur traders, the military, and even American tourists as early as the 1830s. The falls' earliest service as an energy source respected the natural features of the setting, however its later use for waterpower brought about irreparable changes resulting in the conversion of the region from a natural to a cultural landscape.

    This region was acquired by the U.S. government by treaty in 1805, but was not purchased and occupied by the federal government until 1819 when it became part of the Fort Snelling Military Reservation. In the early 1820s, Fort Snelling (originally named Fort St. Anthony) was provided with lumber and flour by constructing a sawmill and gristmill on the west bank of the falls, near the foot of present-day South Seventh Avenue. Although the Army rarely used these mills after the 1830s, the structures remained until the 1860s as a reminder of the pioneering efforts to extract a renewable source of energy.

    The industrial demand on the falls as an energy source that came during the last half of the nineteenth century was not content to simply extract a seasonally fluctuating resource. Modification of the landscape and the source of the power itself created a setting that remains engineered, imprisoned, and honeycombed by improvident entrepreneurial endeavors. These modifications were so severe that civil engineers of the late-19th century becried warnings about future disasters due to the focus on immediate profit and the lack of foresight in their "engineering" efforts.

    Independent corporations developed the waterpower of their respective riverbanks. The west side organization was named the Minneapolis Mill Company, and one on the east side became known as the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company. Both businesses were incorporated by the legislature within 24 hours of each other in 1856. The only cooperative venture of the two companies was the construction of a rock-filled, timber-cribbed structure called the St. Anthony Falls Dam built between 1856 and 1858. The dam essentially divided the river's flow into millponds along opposite shores and became the engineering headworks for waterpower development and allowed the beginning of an extensive and systematic exploitation of waterpower.

    Water was directed from the millponds into canals that ran under the street parallel to the river. The canals supplied waterpower to mills constructed along their route, giving the milling districts a linear configuration common to most waterpower districts. Mills drew waterpower from the canal by a short headrace, sent it through a device to convert kinetic energy to mechanical energy and returned the spent flow to the river by means of a tailrace. For mills on the inland side of the canal, the tailraces were tunneled beneath the power canal to return to the river.

    The industrial district's history documents major disasters, each of which seemed to redouble efforts to make up for lost time. The initial, most costly, and potentially the most devastating of these was the near total collapse of the falls by foolhardy attempts to expand waterpower use of the falls. Tunnels excavated beneath the limestone bedrock attempted to carry water beneath the river and below the falls ended in roof collapse and undermining of the falls in 1869. It was only with Herculean efforts and the intervention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the falls and its waterpower potential remained in existence. In 1878 the west side district received a setback of dramatic proportions. The Washburn Mill, constructed in 1866 as the world's largest flourmill, exploded on May 2, 1878. The explosion destroyed not only the Washburn but also a number of adjacent mills and facilities and set others on fire. Reconstruction of those damaged or destroyed began almost immediately with the installation of what was then the most modern technology.

    The half-century between 1880 and 1930 saw intensive technological refinement and the addition of supplementary power systems. The "New Process" of flour production solved the problems of flour discoloration and gluten deficiency with the result being that flour from spring wheat produced over 10 percent more bread per barrel than winter-wheat flour. The demand for Minneapolis flour soared. Between 1870 and 1880, sixteen new flourmills were constructed. From 1880 to 1930, the west side mills helped establish Minneapolis as the nation's leading flouring center.

    Due to changes in tariff laws and the development of cheaper and more reliable hydroelectric power elsewhere, the flour companies that began in Minneapolis shifted their operations from Minneapolis to newer milling complexes in Chicago, Kansas City, and Buffalo. After Minneapolis ceded first place in flour production to Buffalo in 1930, dramatic changes occurred to the west side district. In 1931 alone, at least 8 flourmills were torn down. Several of the abandoned mill sites were converted into a generating facility known as the Consolidated Hydroelectric Plant. As a result of the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam construction in the early 1960s most of the remains of the west side mills were covered with rubble and the canal was filled with sand and paved over.

    Today archaeologists from the Minnesota Historical Society are recording the remains of early Minneapolis mills. These mills are being researched for inclusion in Minneapolis' Mill Ruins Park. Follow the excavation through periodic updates.
 

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