“Before Main Street was built, this was a very natural area,” said our Minnesota Historical Society guide, Monica. We stopped on a little rise in the earth in Father Hennepin Bluffs Park. Between gaps in the foliage below us, we could see the Mississippi River rolling steadily toward the Gulf of Mexico.
“This area is full of natural features,” Monica continued. “Do you hear the water?” It was a quiet Saturday morning, and if you listened closely, you could hear the rush of St. Anthony Falls. “According to the old stories, you could hear the falls for miles before you could see them.”
Back in 1680, when Father Louis Hennepin first laid eyes on them, the falls were called Owamni-yomni by the Dakota, which can be translated as “falling water,” “turbulence” or “swirling water.” The Ojibwe called it Gakaabika, or “severed rock.” The river, to the Dakota, was “Haha Wakpa.”
The falls originally were about 180 feet tall and much closer to the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, but the ground beneath them eroded at the rate of about four feet per year. When Hennepin saw them and named them for his patron saint, St. Anthony of Padua, they were farther downstream than they are now. They reached their present position in the 1880s.
The area held great religious significance for the Dakota. Offerings were made to the swirling waters, a source of spiritual power. According to Dakota oral tradition, women went to give birth on Spirit Island, and eagles nested there. People harvested maple syrup from Nicollet Island. The Dakota saw land as their relative.
When you came upriver, the falls were a large obstacle to navigation, so travelers got out and portaged their canoes around them. Monica said the paths they trod are still visible on the river banks below the falls.
Falls as a source of power
When white settlers came to the falls, they saw them as a power source for turning trees into lumber and grain into flour. One of those was Major Joseph Plympton, stationed at Fort Snelling. He commissioned a map of the area, following a treaty with the Dakota that led to white settlement. However, the map he commissioned didn’t include the area east of the falls – he wanted to claim the land for himself.
Land claiming was a first-come, first-served affair back in 1837. Franklin Steele, the civilian shopkeeper at the fort, got wind of Plympton’s scheme, and he and a small group of men camped on the land. They were eating a leisurely breakfast when Plympton and his men arrived. Steele, who built the first sawmill at the falls, at one time owned all the land in a mile-wide swath from the falls to Nicollet Island.
As settlers poured into Minnesota territory, sawmills along the east side of the river ran around the clock to meet the demand for lumber. Main Street was filled with the buzz and whine of saws at all hours; it was known as “Sawmill Row.”
As we strolled down Main Street, Monica said the nascent town of St. Anthony was a very cosmopolitan place in 1855, three years before Minnesota became a state. Languages heard on the street included Dakota, Ojibwe, French and English. Seven of Pierre Bottineau’s children attended school in the area. They spoke French; the teacher spoke English.
Tourist haven, and a bid for freedom
Tourism was a big draw to the area prior to the Civil War. Like Minneapolitans who head to Duluth to escape the heat, Southerners came north to St. Anthony during the summer months. Many of them stayed in the Winslow House Hotel, built in 1856 near Our Lady of Lourdes Church. The 200-room hotel was built from Platteville limestone, found easily along the banks of the river.
For entertainment, tourists could relax in mineral springs near where the Stone Arch Bridge now stands, play croquet on the lawn or take a 10-cent torchlight canoe ride in the caves under Main Street.
Among the Southern tourists were the Richard Christmas family from Mississippi, who stayed at the Winslow House in 1860. They brought with them an enslaved woman named Eliza Winston, who took care of their daughter.
During their stay, Winston met Emily Grey, a free Black woman who was married to Ralph Grey, a barber at the nearby Jarrett House. (Of the 14 African Americans living in St. Anthony in 1857, four were barbers, Monica said.) The Greys, some of the first Blacks to settle in St. Anthony, were prominent citizens in the burgeoning town. In her walks down Main Street, Winston told Emily she wanted her freedom. To keep Winston from going free, the Christmases moved to a cabin by Lake Harriet. The county sheriff tracked them down, and took Winston to freedom. The Greys helped her file a lawsuit, and the judge ruled in Winston’s favor. She later moved to Ontario.
Commerce along Main Street
Main Street was not the restaurant-and-entertainment district it is today. Several businesses crowded along the east bank of the Mississippi. “There was more than one each,” Monica said, rattling off a list that included hardware stores, the Martin & Morrison sawmill, dressmakers, pharmacies, grocery stores, book stores, land agents and bars. Salisbury and Setterlee operated a mattress factory at 2nd and Main.
The largest business on Main Street was the Pillsbury A Mill, built in 1881. It was the largest flour mill in the world, and operated until 2003. For 50 years, the Pillsbury mill and the flour mills across the river made Minneapolis the flour milling capital of the world. They were the economic engine of Minneapolis and the state. During World War I, flour milling was so critical to the war effort that the U.S. Army stationed a regiment on Main Street to guard the mill. The Pillsbury A Mill, the flagship of Charles Pillsbury’s business at 316 Main relied on water power supplied by St. Anthony Falls to grind its wheat. Now, the building holds artists lofts, but its electricity once again comes from hydropower.
Other users of hydropower were the electric companies. The Minnesota General Electric Company built a generating station on Main Street in 1882 to power arc lights at the sawmills. The company became part of Northern States Power (Xcel) in 1908. The 13.9-megawatt plant is the sole user of hydropower at St. Anthony Falls. The building next to Waterpower Park is now used for storage.
A few old buildings remain along Main Street to recall the hustle of the 19th century. The oldest commercial building on Main Street is the home of the Aster Café at 125 Main. The Pracna building at 117, built in 1890 by Frank Pracna, once laid claim to being the “oldest bar on the oldest street in the city.” It was vacant during the tour, but there appeared to be some renovations going on inside. The Salisbury & Satterlee Mattress Company, 201-219, manufactured mattresses at until 1977. The building most recently housed Vic’s Restaurant and Tugg’s Tavern; both businesses succumbed to the COVID-19 pandemic.
https://minneapolishistorical.org/items/show/99, The Winslow House Hotel, Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association
Old Minneapolis page, Facebook
Hage, Christopher and Rushika February, Nicollet Island, Arcadia Publishing, 2010
Historic Main Street Walking Tours are scheduled Aug. 29 and Sept. 12 and 26. Tours begin at the gray door on the west side of the Pillsbury A Mill building, 301 SE Main Street. Cost is $14; Minnesota Historical Society members receive a 20% discount. Tickets: https://www.mnhs.org/
Below: Salisbury & Setterlee mattress factory on Main Street, photo taken before 1883. The now-closed Vic’s restaurant and Tugg’s Tavern were the most recent occupants of the building. Winslow House Hotel. Closed in 1861, it was used briefly by Macalester College and the Minnesota College Hospital, then torn down in 1886 to make way for the Exposition Building, which was demolished and replaced by a Coca-Cola plant. The Lourdes Square condos occupy the ground now. (Photos courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)