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A History of Minneapolis: an Overview by Staff at the Hennepin County Library

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Featuring historical photos and items from the collections of the Hennepin County Library, with contemporary photos from the Phototour of Minneapolis by Chris Gregerson.

River Transport

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Water was significant in everyday life for those living around the area that would become Minneapolis. Early travelers learned the waterways and traveled by canoe, barge, boat, and steamboat. However, the Falls of St. Anthony prevented large vessels from going much beyond Fort Snelling. A Dakota woman operated the first documented ferry (using a canoe) in the area in 1840. In the 1840s and '50s the Mississippi River, which flows through the heart of Minneapolis, was a significant vehicle for transporting logs and for supplying the power to run the mills in Minneapolis and St. Anthony Falls.

The first suspension bridge to span the Mississippi River opened January 23, 1855. John Tapper, the first toll taker, is seated on the bridge at right.
Minneapolis Collection, BR0015.

View of the first suspension bridge looking west (circa 1855). Large stacks of boards from the sawmill are visible on the shore.
Minneapolis Collection, BR0016.

Although the Mississippi River flows through the city, the Falls of St. Anthony cut off navigation of the river. In the 1850s, numerous projects were promoted in hopes of enabling steamboats to come up to the falls. However, byproducts of the sawmills and industrial waste detracted from the Falls and reduced the water flow. By the 1860s, the United States Army Corps of Engineers had agreed with the recommendation of the local business owners and developers to deepen the river and make it navigable by the building of locks and dams. However, it wasn't until 1937 that the United States Congress approved financing for the Upper Minneapolis Harbor Development Project. The project was to extend a 9-foot channel in the Mississippi River by 4.6 miles. In 1956, the St. Anthony Falls Lower Lock and Dam was completed as far as the Northern Pacific Railway bridge just upstream from the Washington Avenue bridge. The St. Anthony Falls Upper Lock and Dam was completed in 1963. The completion of these locks and dams made it possible for numerous commercial and pleasure vessels to navigate up the river to and beyond the only waterfall on the Mississippi River.

St. Anthony Falls area showing the Upper Lock and Dam (1976).
Municipal Information Library, Slide Collection, MIL3560.

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