It is in the cities bordering the Mississippi River that its culture is the most visible. The Dakota called the Mississippi River, Hahawakpa, “river of the falls.” Long before the Europeans arrived, the Mississippi River served as a major thoroughfare by Native tribes. The 50 foot falls, presently located at Minneapolis’ riverfront, were first seen by a French Catholic friar in 1680 who named them after Saint Anthony. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase, the Dakota and Ojibwe still controlled the lands around the great falls. But in 1838, Dakota land east of the Mississippi, encompassing all its sacred places, was opened to white settlers. In 1851, the Dakota signed the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux ceding the land west of the Mississippi for settlement the next year.[*]
The land surrounding Minneapolis, now known as the Red River Valley, is an ancient lake bed, larger than the five great lakes combined, covering much of Minnesota, and crossing the Dakotas and Manitoba. The black water-retentive soil, left behind after glaciation, spent thousands of seasons as prairie grasslands. Managed by indigenous people with fire, this area grew rich in nutrients – perfect for growing grains.[†] Settlers, a large number of conservatives from New England, and New York, as well as Scandinavian and Canadian immigrants longed for a new life, productive farmland, and entrepreneurial opportunities. Industrialists were drawn to this area by the potential power of the river and these falls. Thus Minneapolis’ rise and culture are directly tied to both the river and the landscape.
First, I had visited the Mill City Museum, to fully understand the impact of the river/landscape on the industry of wheat and flour and how that industry influenced the culture of the city.The museum is built into the ruins of what was once the largest flour mill in the world. Waterfalls have powered mills for thousands of years. It was only natural that mills would develop at the powerful St. Anthony falls to mill the abundant crops of the Wheat State. By the 1880’s two dozen mills flanked the falls. Gold Medal, Pillsbury, and General Mills, became household names, and by the 20th century, this region was referred to as the world’s breadbasket. The St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail seemed like the perfect short urban hike to explore the Minneapolis riverfront and see examples of the city’s culture.
I began from the Stone Arch Bridge, behind the Mill City Museum. Reserved for foot and bike traffic, with separate lanes, the bridge was originally the major railroad bridge crossing the Mississippi at Minneapolis. Crossing the river, the path meanders through Father Hennepin Bluffs State Park. This side of the river originated as the community of St. Anthony until absorbed by Minneapolis in 1872. Side trails take one down steps and to planked pathways and vista points at the Mississippi’s shore below the falls of St. Anthony. Along Main SE Street, the Pillsbury building now stands empty. Old shops and buildings have been transformed into restaurants, and bars. The weather in early October was unseasonably warm, enabling us, and everyone else, to dine outside in short sleeves. The trail heads back toward downtown crossing Nicollet Island and then turns back toward the Mill along the river. Most of the riverfront is protected as part of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.[‡]
[*] St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board, http://www.mnhs.org/places/safhb/index.shtml
[†] Mill City Museum
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