We’re told that we’re better off not knowing how sausage and legislation are made, but maybe starting a city from scratch should be on that list, too. Before there was a Minneapolis, there was land where the Dakota nation lived, home to sacred places that included Owahmenah (“falling waters”; we know it as St. Anthony Falls). In 1806, the Dakota ceded some of this land—100,000 acres—in a treaty negotiated by Zebulon Pike. For thirty years, the only legally-sanctioned development that occurred on that land was the construction of Fort Snelling.
In 1837, the Dakota ceded all their land east of the Mississippi River (as well as the islands in the river); Dakota leaders had been lured to Washington, DC on the premise that they would be negotiating a peace treaty with rival Sauk and Mesquawki Indians but instead found themselves at a table with Secretary of War Joel Poinsett who wanted to talk about land cessions.
The treaty opened the east bank of the Mississippi River for legal settlement, sparking an influx of folks eager to get a piece of land. Officers from the fort were officially prohibited from making claims, but that didn’t stop Major Joseph Plympton and Captain Martin Scott from trying. They were out-sneaked, though, by Franklin Steele, the sutler at Fort Snelling, who crossed the river in the middle of the night and built a token cabin on the site, shooing away the officers and reminding them that it was illegal for them to make such claims.
To guard his claim, Steele hired a series of voyageurs to maintain and live in the cabin, but, even with that help, he still had to pay off a claim jumper. It all worked out in his favor in the end as he and his good friend Pierre Bottineau, a former Indian trader for the American Fur Company, gained control of the valuable land around St. Anthony Falls. Steele looked at those falls and saw a source of power for new industries. Unlike many other communities along the Mississippi River, Minneapolis therefore owes its origin along the river not to its value as a transportation route, but for its potential–through the falls, specifically–to provide power to fuel industry.
Steele didn’t have much money to develop his land, though, so in 1847, he sold 90% of the water power rights for $10,000, money he used to build a dam and a sawmill to process timber that would soon be coming down river. His mill opened in September 1848 but was plagued by a number of problems, like the fact that he built on land that had not yet been surveyed, which is less of a problem when you have political connections like he did. Once the land was surveyed, Steele quickly gained ownership of the prime lots by paying some people to make claims on his behalf and buying many other claims. He used his holdings to plat a village on the east bank of the Mississippi River that he named St. Anthony (after the falls), giving a name and shape to a community that already had nearly 300 residents, mostly settlers from Maine and other parts of New England.
St. Anthony’s early growth was haphazard and sprawling, with almost every structure built of wood (there was plenty of it, after all). In the early years, St. Paul was the more prosperous city, growing more quickly and having better transportation connections, even after St. Anthony was connected to St. Paul by stagecoach in 1850. St. Anthony tried to claim the “head of navigation” title from St. Paul but didn’t succeed, even after the development of shallow-draft boats in the early 1850s that allowed river traffic to travel north of the falls on the Mississippi River to St. Cloud. One of the early residents of St. Anthony, hotel-owner Anson Northup, tried to get the state capital moved from St. Paul to St. Anthony; he lost that argument but won the state university for St. Anthony as a consolation prize.
Milling was at the center of the city’s economy from the beginning. The first mill went into operation around 1823 to grind flour for Fort Snelling. It was a failure; the bread from the milled flour turned out to be unfit to eat. Nearly three decades later, R.C. Rogers opened the first mill since the Fort’s unfortunate experience.
By the end of the 1860s, flour mills lined both sides of the Mississippi River. Part of the boom was due to an innovation that dramatically increased the portion of the wheat grain that could be processed, leading to a highly sought-after brand of flour that Minneapolis shipped around the world; this innovation made Minneapolis the preeminent milling center in the Midwest. The mills were dangerous places, though. On May 2, 1879, the Washburn “A” Mill exploded, killing at least 18 people and igniting a fire that destroyed many neighboring buildings.
Land on the west bank of the Mississippi River developed more slowly because it was either part of the military reservation or Indian land. If the land was part of the military reservation, any claim had to be approved by officers at Fort Snelling, a situation that invited corruption–many officers charged a fee in exchange for their permission. Settlers who didn’t agree to the terms would have their claim denied, and soldiers would march in and destroy whatever work they had done to build on the land.
Many names were proposed for the settlement on the west bank. The Minnesota Pioneer suggested the name “All Saints” might be a good fit, considering the highly pious nature of early settlers, but the first name that was officially entered into the records was Albion; it was unpopular. In the November 5, 1852 edition of the St. Anthony Express, Charles Hoag, a teacher, suggested the name “Minnehapolis”, combining “Minnehaha” (“waterfall” in Dakota) with the Greek “polis”; it struck a chord, and the name was adopted, after dropping the “h.”
When the government finally decided to reduce the size of the reserve and sell lots, it first proposed to sell land at auction to the highest bidder, which was the standard practice at the time. The folks who were already living there weren’t too happy about that, so they made plans to keep the eastern speculators at bay, by intimidation, if necessary. When the planned sales were delayed, the settlers had time to send a representative to DC to plead their case. After some effort, they convinced Congress to sell them the land they already occupied for $1.25/acre, far below what the land would have actually fetched if the auction had been held. Many of those folks then quickly sold their newly legitimate claims at the higher, prevailing rate. So the west bank of Minneapolis was basically settled by folks who got special favors because they were connected or paid bribes, then those folks went to DC to stave off competition for their not-yet-legal claims and Congress gladly complied, handing handsome profits to those settlers. Bratwurst.
In 1854, that Steele guy founded the Minneapolis Bridge Company to connect the growing villages on the east (St. Anthony) and west (Minneapolis) banks. The first bridge was completed in December 1854, a single arch span with a wood plank deck supported by cables. The toll was 10 cents, paid by brave folks who walked across the temporary and loose planks that formed the deck. The bridge was re-engineered after storm damage in March 1855 and officially opened four months later on July 4. The bridge spurred development on the west bank in an area that became known as Bridge Square, at the junction of Nicollet Avenue (the road south to Fort Snelling) and Hennepin Avenue (the road to settlements north of Minneapolis). Nicollet Avenue would eventually became the retail center for the city, while Hennepin Avenue would attract offices and banks.
By 1856 both St. Anthony and Minneapolis were doing well, each having about 4,000 residents. Franklin Steele considered founding a city downriver near Fort Snelling, but the financial panic of 1857 killed his plans; he bought sheep instead.
Economic growth slowed during the Civil War, but the region still managed to build a rail connection between St. Paul and St. Anthony that opened in 1862; the connection across the Mississippi River to Minneapolis took another three years. After the war, Minneapolis and St. Anthony boomed. Local mills processed more lumber than they could use locally; much of the excess harvested timber was shipped down the Mississippi River (as far as St. Louis) for processing.
Sawmills lined the riverfront from Hennepin Avenue to Camden Place. Nearby, lumberjack restaurants around Hennepin and Washington (the City Market District) served the mill workers; one of those merchants eventually got fed up about the number of customers who didn’t pay, so he dispensed his soup through a syringe; if a customer refused to pay, he would use the syringe to remove the soup from the bowl. (I’m guessing that was a lot easier to do for something like split pea than chicken noodle!)
A plan to merge Minneapolis and St. Anthony was defeated in 1866 (it lost by 85 votes), but the two cities were finally merged by an act of the Minnesota Legislature on February 28, 1872. The newly merged city grew quickly, especially as immigrants from Sweden, Norway, and other northern European countries flooded in to work in the mills.
Lumber production in Minnesota peaked around 1899 when 594 million board feet were processed; twenty years later, virtually all of the lumber mills were closed. As lumber milling waned, though, flour milling continued to grow. In 1885 Minneapolis was the world’s largest producer of flour. By 1900 Minneapolis also overtook St. Paul as the primary jobbing market (wholesaling) in upper Midwest, growing into the financial and banking center for the region. As transportation costs and competition increased in the 20th century, flour milling declined in Minneapolis, although many of the companies based there owned a big share of new mills that opened in places like Buffalo and Kansas City.
Besides milling, Minneapolis has also been an innovator in retail sales. As late as 1894, no stores (anywhere) sold “ready-to-wear” clothing; men’s suits were tailor made and women went to dressmakers and millinery shops. In 1894, Elizabeth Quinlan and her partner Fred Young opened a boutique at 513 Nicollet that sold ready-to-wear women’s clothing; it was just the second such store in the country. Quinlan was also the only female clothing buyer in the US at the time. In 1926 her company built an elegant new Italian Renaissance building at 9th and Nicollet for its expanded operations.
Minneapolis and St. Paul were fiercely competitive, often in very silly ways. For much of the latter part of the 19th century, both cities fudged census figures, trying to prove it was the more populated place. In 1890, the federal government intervened and demanded a do-over when they discovered that Minneapolis was counting a lot of dead people and that St. Paul had a large numbers of residents in dime stores, barber shops, and depots. The new count showed that Minneapolis was the more populous city, a title it has held ever since.
Minneapolis has seen its share of labor struggles. The first major strike was in 1889 when streetcar workers left the job in the face of a wage cut and their employer’s demand that all workers sign a pledge to never join a union; both sides eventually gave some ground and the strike ended. The truck drivers’ strike of 1934 was much more rancorous.
When Truck Drivers Local 574 went on strike in May, the company hired replacement workers; striking drivers and their supporters organized large and boisterous rallies. Police fired into the crowd, wounding many and killing two (including, ironically, Arthur Lyman, a prominent local lawyer for the anti-union Citizen’s Alliance who was in the thick of the fight acting as a special deputy for the Sherif’f). The company and drivers reached an agreement to end the strike a few days later, but the company didn’t follow through on their end of the deal, so the drivers went on strike again on July 16. Governor Floyd Olson declared martial law and called out the National Guard on July 26. A short time later, President Roosevelt intervened on behalf of the truck drivers, pressuring the company to recognize the union and negotiate with them. It worked. The company soon relented, recognized the union, and began negotiations to end the strike.
In the early part of the 20th century, Minneapolis embraced the urban renewal craze; in less than a generation, one-third of downtown buildings were razed for new development, including most of the original heart of the city. Part of the area included Bridge Square, which was the spot where the original Mississippi River crossing was built. By the early 1900s, the area had a rapidly growing population of very poor folks, including many unemployed loggers, but at least they had plenty of entertainment options with 30 brothels and 110 bars nearby. The city cleared the area beginning in the late 1950s. Minneapolis hasn’t had an especially good track record for historic preservation since that time, especially downtown.
Minneapolis today has a diverse economy, home to the headquarters of several big corporations like General Mills and Target. The city is a regional center for retail sales and health care. Minneapolis is also home to what is probably the largest college campus that spans a major river: the University of Minnesota is adjacent to downtown Minneapolis and has buildings on both banks of the Mississippi River.
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