St. Anthony Falls Historic District: The Heart of Minneapolis

Learn about one of Minneapolis's oldest and most intriguing areas.
By: Erin Peterson
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In a land of 10,000 lakes, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that it was water that helped propel Minneapolis from a tiny frontier town to a bustling metropolitan area. The Mississippi River was the geological feature that helped put Minneapolis on the map.

During his travels in Minnesota during the late 1600s, Catholic missionary Father Louis Hennepin came across the only significant waterfall along the Mississippi’s 2,340-mile span. He wrote about his experiences in a book -- Minneapolis’s first travel guide -- and named the area St. Anthony Falls. The designation was a nod to his patron saint, Anthony of Padua.

Though this section of the Mississippi was used to transport lumber for decades, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Minneapolis residents began a full-scale attempt to harness the falls’ power through flour milling.

The efforts were wildly successful. The area was the birthplace of companies including General Mills and Cargill, and as work opportunities grew, the population swelled to 300 residents in 1854 to 1,500 just two years later. By 1880, Minneapolis had become the largest flour center in the nation, producing 2 million barrels annually.

Minneapolis’ distinction as a flour hub didn’t come without problems -- one mill, known as the Washburn A mill, exploded in 1878, destroying a third of the city’s milling capacity in a single night. The A Mill had been capable of producing enough wheat for 12 million loaves of bread a day. After a lengthy rebuilding process, the mill opened only to explode again in 1928. Today, the site is home to the Mill City Museum, known as “the most explosive museum in the world.”

That second explosion proved to be something of a death knell for the city’s flour industry. By 1930, Minneapolis had relinquished its title as a top flour center after several cities developed more efficient milling complexes. One by one, the milling plants were shuttered or repurposed to generate electricity. The last flour mill shut down in 1960, ending the era that had helped build the town from its humble beginnings.

The city could have chosen to let the former industrial area languish, but instead, with the help of a national historic district designation, the riverfront area has flourished as a retail hub and a popular destination for active Minneapolis residents.

Bike paths wind alongside the river, offering breathtaking views for cyclists. The St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail passes along many city highlights, including the striking Stone Arch Bridge, Nicollet Island and Hennepin Avenue. More important, many of the same historic buildings exist, and the site is home to much-loved cultural institutions including Theatre de La Jeune Lune and the Guthrie Theater.

The historic district is also the city’s gathering spot for events like Fourth of July fireworks, outdoor concerts at the Nicollet Island Amphitheater, and the Mill City Farmer’s Market.

More than 300 years after Father Hennepin recorded his impressions of the Falls and more than 150 years since residents began harnessing the falls’ strength, the area continues attract and inspire visitors with its beauty and power.

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