Book Review: The Minneapolis Riverfront

Book Review: The Minneapolis Riverfront by Iric Nathanson

The city of Minneapolis grew up around the Mississippi River, and in particular, Saint Anthony Falls, which provided hydropower for the many flour mills that at one time made Minneapolis the flour milling capital of America.  This book, part of the “Images of America” series, tells the story of that patch of river and city.

The Minneapolis Riverfront

The Falls were first written about by Father Louis Hennepin in 1680 when he beheld the falling waters known to the natives as Kakabikah, Minirara or Owahmenah, depending on their language.  Father Hennepin immediately renamed the falls after his favorite saint.  Saint Anthony Falls was an important stop for Lieutenant Zebulon Pike in 1805, where he negotiated the purchase of some native land to build the military base later known as Fort Snelling.

Fort Snelling’s soldiers used the falls to power a sawmill to help build their fortifications and furniture, and soon other white folks were doing the same.  The settlement grew, and eventually the city of Minneapolis (“city of waters”) was born.

Due to overenthusiastic improvement attempts, the natural deterioration of Saint Anthony Falls (it would have disappeared in another couple of centuries) accelerated, and in 1869, the Army Corps of Engineers built a concrete apron that permanently altered its appearance, but stabilized its location.

Meanwhile, businesses and homes were built along the riverfront.  Unfortunately, a combination of changing milling practices and the Great Depression drove many of the flour mills out of business, and by the mid-20th Century, the riverfront area had become economically blighted.

Some stabs were made at revitalizing the area in the 1980s; I have fond memories of Riverplace, a destination shopping center where I got my first taste of authentic South Indian cuisine.  The business climate wasn’t quite right, and after a disastrous attempt to turn Riverplace into a gigantic nightclub, it quietly became just another office building.

Reclaiming much of the waterfront for parks, a museum and upscale living space has worked better, and in the 21st Century, the riverfront is doing well.  Recently, they even relit the Grain Belt sign, a gaudy artifact of Minneapolis’ history with beer.

The book is heavily illustrated with black and white reproductions of paintings and photographs of people and places of the Mississippi River and Saint Anthony Falls area.  There’s a few spellchecker typos; it could have used another editorial pass.

The primary market for this book is of course inhabitants of Minneapolis and the surrounding area of Minnesota, though it should also be of interest to tourists in the area.  (You could certainly do worse for a souvenir!)   A collection of the various “Images” books for the city would be a good resource for authors writing books set in the Twin Cities to allow descriptions of local flavor.  People from other cities might want to see if Images of America has a volume for their neighborhood.  (And if not, there’s your chance to write one!)

I note that these volumes are a bit expensive for their size–check to see if your local library has copies to inspect before you buy.

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