Washburn Crosby Mill, 1920
Boundaries: Generally bounded by Plymouth Avenue, Second Street, 10th Avenue South, Sixth Avenue Southeast, and University Avenue.
Neighborhoods: North Loop, Downtown West, Downtown East, Marcy Holmes, Nicollet Island/East Bank, St. Anthony West
Date of Local Designation: 1971
Date of National Designation: 1971
Historic Profile: The City of Minneapolis, like many cities, developed around a major water resource. Unlike most other metropolitan centers, Minneapolis did not use its waterway primarily for transportation. Instead the falls of St. Anthony along the Mississippi River was harnessed to create power for what was to become the most important milling complex in the nation. Although today the milling industry is essentially a memory along the waterfront, the buildings that developed the city into a milling and trade center remain in what is designated as the St. Anthony Falls Historic District.
The falls of St. Anthony is the only major waterfall on the Mississippi River. Named by the Belgian missionary Father Louis Hennepin in 1680, the cataract provided cartographers for the next two centuries with one of a few authenticated landmarks of the North American interior. Although the waterfall’s fame attracted explorers such as Jonathan Carver and Zebulon Pike, the district was the area’s waterpower potential that led to its initial development.
The treaties of the United States government and the Dakota Ojibway opened the east bank of the Mississippi River for settlement in 1837. Franklin Steele and the sutler at Fort Snelling, successfully claimed the east bank and corresponding water rights to the falls. Steele platted the town of St. Anthony in 1849 and built a mill and dam alongside the river. Other mills were constructed and St. Anthony grew from a population of 300 in 1848 to 3,000 only seven years later.
Opposite the falls, the land along the west bank of the river was part of Fort Snelling until 1852, when settlers were allowed to establish claims. In 1853 Robert Smith, a Congressman from Illinois, purchased the west bank with the same intentions as Franklin Steele. The town of Minneapolis developed alongside the west bank of the river and by 1856 had swelled to over 1,500 inhabitants, contrary to the 300 people living there two years before.
That same year, both Smith and Steele had formed joint-stock corporations to develop the waterpower of their respective shorelines. The east group called itself the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company, and the west group became the Minneapolis Mill Company. As many as sixteen sawmills lined the falls and jutted into the Mississippi from both shores. Minneapolis, however, grew more rapidly than its east bank adversary and the two towns merged in 1873.
During the 1860s, flour mills began to replace sawmills as the principal industry using the power of the falls. By 1880, the 27 mills of Minneapolis were producing over 2 million barrels of flour annually, making Minneapolis the largest flour center in the nation, a title the city held until 1930. In 1882, a new phenomenon, the nation’s first hydroelectric plant, furnished lighting for the city’s business district. The falls once again served a new function – generating electricity rather than direct power to the town and mills. It was not until 1960, however, that the last flour mill at the falls was converted to generating electricity.
Today, the district includes both the East and West Side Milling Districts, in addition to various homes, commercial buildings, significant bridges and elegant churches. The Pillsbury A Mill, a six-story limestone structure, was the largest mill in the world at the time of its completion in 1881. The Ard Godfrey House is a Classic Revival frame cottage constructed in 1848 for the man who came to build Franklin Steele’s sawmill, the first at the falls. Our Lady of Lourdes Church is one of the oldest churches of continuous use in Minneapolis. Described as the most elegant house of worship in the territory, this church was built in 1858 of native limestone. Originally a rectangular building, the church was enlarged during the 1880s to include a transept, an apse, a sacristy, and a Gothic steeple.
The falls of St. Anthony were instrumental in the development of Minnesota’s largest city in all its stages of growth. In addition to its original natural beauty, the falls furnished direct power to the lumber and flour industries and electrical power for industrial and residential use. Centered around this influential landmark, the St. Anthony Falls Historic District reveals the origins and early history of Minneapolis.
1868, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
1920, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
"St. Anthony Falls: A Preservation and Planning Study for the St. Anthony Falls Historic District," 1979.
"A Review of the Boundaries of St. Anthony Falls Historic District," April 1981.
"National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form," 1971.
Updated May 2010