Old St. Anthony

Old St. Anthony

Old St. Anthony is located across the Mississippi river from what is now downtown Minneapolis. It took its name from St. Anthony Falls, the only waterfall on the Mississippi's 2,300 mile length. Known in Dakota as Minirara (curling water) or Owahmenah (falling water), and in Ojibwe as Kakabikah (severed rock), the English name originates from the explorer Father Louis Hennepin who named the falls for his patron saint in 1680.

The land that eventually became the State of Minnesota in 1858 was acquired by the United States in many stages. Land east of the Mississippi was claimed by the government with the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. This officially opened the land for American settlement and establishment of new states, ending claims that some of the original 13 states had made on the territory at the close of the Revolutionary War.

Land west of the Mississippi was acquired from the France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Zebulon Pike lead an expedition into the new area in 1805 and established land for a fort at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers through a treaty with the Dakota. Work was begun at the confluence in 1819 on Fort St. Anthony. Upon its completion in 1824, the name was changed to Fort Snelling in honor of the first commander of the post.

To support the fort, grist and sawmills were constructed in 1821 on west side of St. Anthony Falls, located about eight miles upstream. Land on west bank (now downtown Minneapolis) was part of Pike's 1805 treaty and was owned by the government. As civilians could not legally live on military lands, a settlement grew across from the falls on the east bank on land outside of military jurisdiction. Franklin Steele obtained ownership of a portion of land in 1838. By 1848 he had constructed a dam and sawmill, and in 1849 he registered the plat for the town of St. Anthony.

Interest in settling the west bank grew. By 1850, John Stevens was operating a ferry with claim to 160 acres on the west side that he negotiated for that service. This land eventually became downtown Minneapolis. Others had made claims that were illegal at the time but were later recognized when the government officially opened the land for settlement in 1852.

By 1869 there were ten flour and sawmills on the St. Anthony side and 16 flour and sawmills on the Minneapolis side of the falls. Various dams, shafts and canals were constructed to channel and distribute water power to the mills. This had a negative impact on the structure of the falls. Erosion of the leading edge of the falls was constant due to the geology of the river bottom. The falls were created by a harder limestone cap that eroded more slowly
than the underlying sandstone. Historians estimate that the regular erosion rate of the
falls was about four feet per year. Due to the construction of water distribution methods,
more limestone was exposed which weathered more quickly, causing up to 36 feet of erosion per year.

One of the largest construction projects was a tailrace tunnel to channel spent water from mills that William Eastman and John Merriam operated on Nicollet Island. The tunnel was to be six feet square and 2,500 feet in length, cut through sandstone underlying the riverbed. In October, 1868 with 2,000 feet of the tunnel completed, the upstream end collapsed. This created a whirlpool with tremendous force, enlarging the tunnel which in turn increased suction. Hennepin Island began to subside and the falls were in danger of collapse.

Commerce halted for days while citizens of St. Anthony and Minneapolis attempted to build structures to support the falls. Most of these were sucked into the maelstrom. By the end of October, a temporary dam was built, and over the winter, repairs were made on the tunnel. Spring floods in April, 1870 destroyed the improvements. Several aprons and dam configurations were built to attempt to regulate water flow and save the falls. It wasn't until 1885 that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considered the falls stabilized, and returned the maintenance responsibility back to the City of Minneapolis.

In 1872 St. Anthony merged with Minneapolis. The town that had grown up on available land on the east bank could not compete with the city that could expand westward, linked by railroads and settlement literally all the way to the Pacific.
by Cynthia Lapp, MLA Graduate Candidate


Millett, Larry, Lost Twin Cities, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002

"Minnesota History: A Chronology," Minnesota State University, Mankato,

“Falls of St. Anthony,” A History of Minneapolis, Minneapolis Public Library Staff,

U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, “Engineering the Falls: The Corps Role at St. Anthony Falls,”

U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Minnesota Pre-1908 Homestead & Cash Entry Patents CD-ROM, cited on Becker County Minnesota Geology Site,

The Canadian Encyclopedia, “Convention of 1818,”

The Metropolitan Council,