The West Side milling district was created in 1858 when a great canal was constructed along First Street South to improve distribution of water to the fast-growing milling industry. By the 1880s, Minneapolis had become the flour milling capital of the nation, a distinction it held for the next 50 years. The engine of that booming economy ran on water - the waterpower of St. Anthony Falls. Water entered the canal above the falls, flowed through underground headraces, then dropped into turbine pits as deep as 50 feet. The turbines, connected to machinery in the mills above, were thereby sent spinning. The water then returned through tailraces to the river below the falls.
Minneapolis millers led the country in applying new technologies to the problem of producing fine flour from the hard spring wheat grown on the northern plains. Using a series of steel rollers instead of a single set of millstones, and removing fragments of bran with middlings purifiers, they achieved flour of premium quality.
In the 1880s and 1890s, two dozen flour mills, connected by a system of canals, sluiceways and tunnels, dominated the west bank at the Falls of St. Anthony. They also dominated much more. These towering mills cast their shadows over thousands of farms across the northern wheat belt. Their strength rested not only in waterpower but in money and organization. By 1889 three companies controlled two-thirds of the flour production at the falls. The names of mill owners and grain traders like Washburn, Pillsbury, Peavey and Cargill became household words across the Northwest.
Through the Minneapolis Millers Association, these men managed the market and - some said - controlled the prices paid to farmers. Wheat growers fought back by forming organizations of their own - the Farmers Alliance, the Equity Exchange, the Nonpartisan League and the Farmers Union.
In 1930, as freight rates and tariffs made it more economical to mill wheat in Buffalo, N.Y., Minneapolis companies moved their operations there. Many of the old mills were soon torn down. In 1965 an era ended when General Mills closed its mills at the falls. The once great flour mills stood empty, although some have been adapted to new uses. Fire ravaged the Washburn A mill in 1991 and the Humboldt Mill in 1997, leaving the structures in ruin.