Sawmilling at the Falls

Sawmill

Sawmills were often built on platforms out over the river, powered by water that drove machinery through systems of shafts, gears, and belts.

 

Godfrey House

Ard Godfrey, a millwright from Maine, helped Franklin Steele build the first dam and sawmill in St. Anthony. The Godfrey family built a house in 1849 near the corner of Main Street and Second Avenue S.E., behind the Upton Block. It was later moved to its current location on University Avenue and was restored in 1979 by the Woman's Club of Minneapolis. It is the oldest remaining house in Minneapolis.

 

Father Hennepin

The Nelson-Tenney sawmill was one of many built upriver from the falls in the 1880s. Its tall smokestack signaled the new steam technology that made the move away from the falls possible.

Long before farmers plowed Minnesota's western prairies, lumberjacks were felling pines in the northern forests. Beginning in the late 1840s, trees from Ojibwe lands upriver were being made into boards in sawmills at the Falls of St. Anthony. By 1850, logs from lumber camps along the upper Mississippi and Rum rivers were sent down the river to one of four sawmills that stood along a dam that crossed the river's east channel.

Sawmilling in the 19th century was a dangerous and environmentally destructive business. Like trees, mill workers were considered plentiful and expendable. Safeguards were few and accidents frequent. Testimony to this was the city's thriving business in artificial limbs. Piles of lumber and sawdust also made fire an ever-present threat to mills and nearby buildings.

By 1890 sawmills powered by steam were spread along the river in north Minneapolis. The industry peaked in 1899 with the frenzied cutting of Minnesota's remaining forests, most of which were obtained through treaties with the Ojibwe. For six years Minneapolis was the largest sawmilling center in the nation, but by 1910, with the timber gone, nearly all the sawmills had closed.