Saint Anthony Falls on the Mississippi River
Minneapolis, Minnesota USA
We began our Travel Date of the Mississippi River Heritage Trail by crossing the river on the Stone Arch Bridge, heading toward downtown Minneapolis.
The Falls of St. Anthony are the focal point of the Mississippi River at this point. Today, they are actually not a falls, but rather the St. Anthony Dam.
In this blog I will share my explorations and findings about this fascinating local landmark and its journey from being a “falls” to a vibrant dam!
St. Anthony Falls
I have always wondered where – exactly – was St. Anthony Falls. I knew it was on the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis. I had crossed the various bridges into the city and saw the dam. . . but it took me awhile to realize that the dam – WAS the falls! Or at least it USED TO BE the falls.
I wondered. . .
What did the “falls” look like when it actually was a . . . falls?
I was so excited when I discovered several paintings of the actual falls at the Mia (Minneapolis Institute of Art). These artworks are included below in the sections on the history of the Falls.
St. Anthony Falls: As a “Falls”
St. Anthony Falls is the Mississippi River’s only great waterfall. It is a place where the power of the growing river is manifest.
The Severed Rock…
200 years ago it was a waterfall.
In its earliest days, the Ojibwe called the falls “Kakabika” meaning “the severed rock.” St. Anthony Falls was a natural waterfall, always changing with the river relentlessly eroding the edge of the fall. It moved upstream about four feet each year! Soft sandstone lay beneath the limestone edge, readily washed away by the river. The limestone was undercut, and as it collapsed, it filled the river with huge slabs. These “severed rocks” are the footprints of the waterfall. They follow the river channel for miles where the waterfall has been. Over time, they turned the river downstream into a treacherous rapids. One the bank of the river, we can still see the slabs of limestone, remnants of the fall’s origins.
Today it lies beneath a concrete “apron.” In it long history, it has been remade by water, rock, engineering, and the demands of a expanding city.
Join me as I step back to more recent history as we take a peak at the falls as seen by our ancestors – including my grandfather and great-grandparents!
The Early Falls: c. 1840s
In Paintings by Albert Bierstadt and Henry Lewis
Albert Bierstadt painted “The Falls of Saint Anthony” in 1880 offering an image of the Falls as they were earlier, in his own time, recreating their original beauty.
His desire was to convey the original grandeur of the location in a depiction that contains a veiled critique of the destruction of one of the most unique natural sites in the United States.
In the foreground, Bierstadt depicts a man with a stick seen from behind and wearing a hat. Recent research has suggested that this figure could be the Franciscan missionary Louis Hennepin who discovered the Falls in 1680, nearly 350 years ago. (More on Father Hennepin in my blog on Hennepin Island, coming soon!)
From 1846 to 1848, Henry Lewis traveled up and down the Mississippi River making sketches for a huge panorama which he completed in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1849.
Those sketches remained a creative wellspring for Lewis. In later years he made additional paintings based on them such as this one of St. Anthony Falls while he was living in Düsseldorf, Germany.
“Falls of St. Anthony” by Henry Lewis.
When I realized that one of the best paintings of the original falls is in Madrid Spain, I think it is exciting that we have so many original paintings of the area in our local art museum. I can’t think of anyone who would appreciate them more then visitors who will also enjoy the falls as they are today – like locals!
The Early Falls: c. 1840s
In Paintings by Seth Eastman
This watercolor by Seth Eastman takes on a completely different subject in the history of St. Anthony Falls. I found the story fascinating, and worthy of sharing.
Eastman illustrates the tale of Anpetu Sapawin, or Dark Day. She was so upset about her husband having a second wife that she took her baby and paddled to her death over St. Anthony Falls. The view is shown from the south in present-day downtown Minneapolis. The work was reproduced in an 1852 publication called “The Iris.”
Before the invention of the camera (mid-1800s), artists with their paint brushes were the primary way to document the largely unsettled land west of the Mississippi River.
In my research in the Mia Collection on St. Anthony Falls, I discovered the legacy of Seth Eastman. He is remembered as the best-known interpreter of Minnesota Territory.
Trained in drawing at West Point military academy, he first came to Fort Snelling in 1829. In 1841 he returned as a commissioned officer for a seven-year stay. (artsmia.org)
Info in this section form the website: collections.artsmia.org/search/st anthony falls
This 1847-48 rendition of the Falls of St. Anthony by Seth Eastman shows the falls and adjacent riverbanks nearly untouched by the commercial development that would come with Euro-American settlement.
The only hint, in the middle distance, is the first dam built above the falls (in 1848), between the east bank of the Mississippi and Nicollet Island.
The Early Falls: c. 1860s
In Photographs by Benjamin Franklin Upton
Benjamin Franklin Upton (b. 1818) was a photographer who produced stereoscopic views in the United States.
Called “Upton’s Views,” he photographed natural features, architectural sights, forest groves, and recreational endeavors around the Minneapolis, St. Anthony, and St. Paul.
Photography provided a way for artists to record scenery and history in a totally different way than on a painted canvas. Benjamin Franklin Upton was one such photographer whose pictures provide a glimpse into the stark reality of the falls and life for those who relied upon it.
One of those groups whose life relied on the falls were the millers. The unstable falls was a threat to business. By the 1860’s efforts were made to stabilize St. Anthony Falls with a protective covering, an “apron.” A milling tunnel collapse in 1869 revealed that the falls had receded to within a few hundred feet of the limestone’s end. After thousands of years, St. Anthony Falls neared the end of its natural lifespan.
A feat of engineering in the 1870’s preserved the falls, stabilizing it from below with a concrete wall, and from above with an apron.
Today the legacy of that enormous undertaking is the falls you see and the city that grew and prospered from their power.
Info in this section from “St. Anthony Falls Lock Walk” brochure by the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.
The Early Falls: 1888
In Paintings by Alexis Jean Fournier
One can step back in time and see today’s metropolis as a booming young city simply by viewing the naturalistic paintings of Minneapolis by Alex Jean Fournier.
Alexis Jean Fournier (1865-1948) was an American artist, born in St. Paul, MN. . An Impressionist painter of major importance in Minneapolis from 1883-1893, he is also renowned beyond Minnesota as an important and enduring figure in the Arts & Crafts Movement.
“Mill Pond Minneapolis” by Fournier (painting on the left) was the first painting I discovered of the St. Anthony Falls at the Mia. By this time, the falls of the 1840s and 60s had already been modified. The date “1888” caught my attention!
These paintings, completed in 1888, have a special place in my heart. My great-grandparents and their 5 children (including my grandfather), immigrated from Sweden to Minneapolis in 1888. They lived on the flats of the Mississippi River for several years before moving to a farm in central Minnesota.
My great-grandfather worked at the “A” Mill on the opposite side of the river from this painting. It is fun to think that this was what the falls area looked like for him as he went to work in 1888!
Farnham’s Lumber Mill (painting on the right) was one of several early mills located at St. Anthony Falls.
For fifty years, beginning in 1880, Minneapolis was known as the flour-milling capital of the world.
The falls made this area a thriving center of industrial activity in the 19th century, supplying cheap energy to saw timber and grind flour.
Lower St. Anthony Falls: Today
Today, St. Anthony Falls is in two sections: the Lower Falls and the Upper Falls.
The Lower Falls as seen below from the Lock and Dam Park, downtown Minneapolis side.
The Lower Falls are the ones thought of first. They are the most visible from the Stone Arch Bridge and river walk ways. They are also the largest.
The Lower Falls as viewed from the Stone Arch Bridge is seen below.
The Lower Falls as seen from Hennepin Island Park, Saint Anthony Main area is pictured below.
Upper St. Anthony Falls: Today
The Upper Falls
This photo of the Upper Falls was taken from Hennepin Island Park with the 3rd Avenue Bridge in the background.
The Upper Falls are “up” the river, shallower, and form a horseshoe to bridle the water so it does not hit the Lower Falls with such a vengeance. It is the one seen best from the Nicollet Island Pavilion and Hennepin Island Park.
The 3rd Avenue Bridge can be seen in the background. At the date of this posting, this bridge is under major re-construction.
The photo above is of the Mississippi River up river from the Upper Falls. Downtown Minneapolis is on the right. Nicollet Island and St. Anthony Main area are on the left.
Close up of the Upper Falls from Hennepin Island Park, St. Anthony Main area. It circles under the 3rd Avenue Bridge.
St. Anthony Falls: the Lock
Info on the Lock and Dam is taken from the brochure “St. Anthony Falls Lock Walk” Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.
St. Anthony Falls was a barrier to river navigation for centuries before the lock was built. The falls and its rapids were a huge obstacle for boats on the Mississippi. Historically, native people, fur traders and explorers would need to unload their boats and portage around the falls. The falls marked the end of river navigation for steamboats. Captains docked safely in St. Paul, downstream from the falls, loading and unloading passengers and goods. This built St. Paul into a prominent commercial hub while isolating Minneapolis from most river commerce.
River above the Lock and Dam. P.C. Cher B. 9/18/21
As Minneapolis grew, the city dreamed of sharing the commercial successes of its neighbor. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, two sets of locks were built at St. Anthony Falls. This engineering project allowed barges to ascend beyond the falls, connecting Minneapolis with the commerce of the Mississippi. The lock offered a safe route around the waterfall until it closed in 2015.
View of the locks (no longer used). P.C. Cher B. 9/18/21
In June 2015, the end of an era arrived as the final barge locked through Upper St. Anthony. In an attempt to halt the spread of invasive fish, especially silver and bighead carp, Congress closed the lock. With the lock’s closure, St. Anthony Falls is now a barrier to the carp’s upstream spread.
However, the lock closure was ultimately a good thing and very timely. It closed at a turning point for Minneapolis. Like many river cities, Minneapolis was discovering the Mississippi River. The river area, once a center of industry, was becoming the city’s central park. Minneapolis questioned the future of large barge transportation in the city even before the lock closed. Ways to repurpose its harbor to accommodate the river’s changing role in city life were debated and executed. The Mississippi riverfront has an entirely new role for us – and an entirely new vibe for us all to enjoy!
View of the Lower Falls from the Lock and Dam. P.C. Cher B. 9/18/21
Visiting St. Anthony Falls & Heritage Trail
The Heritage Trail circles the falls from all sides, providing an easy to follow path with stunning views of the river from a variety of vantage points. (See the orange line in the map on the right.)
On our Travel Date, we followed this trail, exploring and discovering as we went. It was a great adventure on a gorgeous Minnesota September day!
Both of these images provide a good look at the configuration of the current falls, the paths that connect points of interest and how to cross the river. (Remember: The 3rd Avenue Bridge is currently closed as of this posting.)
Where to Start: You can start at any point along the Heritage Trail that is convenient or interesting to you. We worked backward considering free parking options and where we wanted to end our day. The St. Anthony Main area starting point, by the north end of the Stone Arch Bridge, was perfect for us because we wanted to end our day at The Astor, a favorite outdoor cafe in that area. (And we found free on-street parking only a few blocks away. YAY!). If you are coming from downtown or NE Minneapolis, then you’d want to start at those points. It is flexible to fit for your wants, needs and schedule!
We took 2 Side Trips: One Side Trip was to take a tour of the Guthrie Theater and visit the 35W Bridge Collapse Memorial site. (More on these sites in later blogs – coming soon!) The other side trip was for a more in-depth exploration of Nicollet Island. (Details on this recently posted blog.) A 3rd side trip option is currently closed but will reopen on November 4, 2021: The Mill City Museum, next the Mill Ruins Park and the Lock & Dam Park.
The “St. Anthony Falls Lock Walk” was the valuable source for much of the information our our self-guided tour and in this post. It was a brochure that we picked up at the information booth by the entrance to the Lock and Dam area from the National Park Service. The ranger was very helpful in directing us in the area. I’m not sure if the ranger and tented booth are only seasonal, but I’m sure it is available if you contact them.
- Self-Guided Tour led by Cher B. with Skip B. on 18 September 2021.
- All Photos by Cher B or Skip B unless otherwise noted.
- Brochure: “St. Anthony Falls Lock Walk” by the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior.
- Minneapolis Institute of Art “Mia” website: artsmia.org
- National Museum Thysesen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain website: museothyssen.org