Early St. Anthony and Minneapolis

Franklin Steele

Franklin Steele

 

For American Indian people, the Falls of St. Anthony was both a landmark and a sacred place.

In the 1850s hundreds of oxcarts driven by French Indian people (Metis) creaked along St. Anthony's Main Street on their way to St. Paul. They brought furs and hides from what is now Manitoba over trails from the Red River of the North. These trails later became the routes of railroads and freeways.

 

Winslow House

By 1855 a number of frame buildings stood along Main Street. In that year brothers Moses and Rufus Upton constructed a business block from locally made brick and opened a store on the ground floor. The upper floors housed several lawyers and, for a while, the offices of the Minnesota Republican newspaper. In 1857 the Winslow House, a luxury hotel, opened on the hill overlooking the falls.

 

Winslow House

The first bridge ever to span the Mississippi River was completed in 1855, replacing the ferry. Built by private interests, it was a wooden suspension bridge with a roadway only 17 feet wide.

Speculators raced to claim land and waterpower rights at the falls as land became available. In 1838 Franklin Steele, the sutler (civilian storekeeper) at Fort Snelling, staked his claim to the east side of the falls in a moonlight caper that out-maneuvered the fort's commander. Handicapped by lack of capital, he was slow to develop the waterpower. It was ten years before Steele and several partners built the first dam across the east channel, started operation of a sawmill, and laid out the town site of St. Anthony.

Settlers from New England and New York were drawn to this place in the 1850s by the lumber industry and by the power of the falls. Educated, religious and often self-righteous, these people valued industrial enterprise and favored laws against slavery and liquor. On the Mississippi River, they came face-to-face with Canadian voyageurs, western fur traders, Indians and southern slave holders. The conflicts, compromises and understandings that resulted put a special stamp on the character of Minneapolis.

By 1860 St. Anthony had become a favorite summer resort for wealthy southerners who traveled on steamboats up the Mississippi to escape the summer heat. Often they and their slaves stayed at the luxury hotel, the Winslow House. One such slave was Eliza Winston. Slavery was illegal in Minnesota, and a local free black woman named Emily Grey persuaded her to leave her owner. A court sustained Winston's right to freedom, but a pro-slavery crowd threatened harm. Anti-slavery people in the town hid her, and she later made her way to Canada. During the Civil War, tourists from down river stopped coming, and the hotel closed.

Crossing the Mississippi River was a risky venture at best. American Indians, fur traders and soldiers crossed just above the falls, where the Hennepin Bridge now connects with Nicollet Island. The first documented ferry was operated by a Dakota woman with a canoe in 1840. In 1850 John H. Stevens received permission from the army to operate a ferry at this same spot. Danger lurked, however. Rowboats and rafts were always at risk of being swept over the falls by strong currents or destroyed by logs that had escaped from booms upriver.

The suspension bridge built in 1855 was hailed as a great step in opening the West, but its real importance lay in uniting the small milling communities of St. Anthony and Minneapolis. The village of Minneapolis (meaning "waterfall city") grew rapidly on the west bank. In 1872 it absorbed the older town of St. Anthony across the river.