Minneapolis and St. Paul are aquatic cities. More than 100 springs of varying flow can be found on the west bank of the Mississippi River Gorge. Countless more springs can be found on the eastern banks of the river. While most of these springs are but small fissures of water through the limestone walls of the river gorge, a handful of the springs once emerged into magnificent waterfalls.
There once was over a dozen cascading falls along the banks of the Mississippi River Gorge, a deep channel that cuts into the bedrock between Minneapolis & St. Paul to the south of St. Anthony Falls. However, the advent of settlement, industrialization, and development of sewage systems in the area at the turn of the 19th century have greatly impacted the watershed of these small but plentiful streams. Today, these ex-cascades outnumber the seldom waterfalls that remain.
10,000 years ago, before these tributary waterfalls came into existence, the Mississippi was a much larger river. The Mississippi flowed in two courses around a rocky island where the Minnesota Veterans Home now stands.
Just downstream from this ancient island, the precursor to St. Anthony Falls was slowly eating away at the limestone riverbed as it worked its way upstream. As the Mississippi spilled over the limestone edge of the falls, the water washed away the sandstone bed underneath. The undermined and weakened limestone collapsed, allowing St. Anthony Falls to inch its way further upstream ever so slowly.
When St. Anthony Falls reached the southern edge of the knobby island where the Minnesota Veterans Home now stands, the waterfall divided into two separate falls. Each of these falls began to eat away at the riverbed on either side of the island.
The eastern set of falls had the advantage because it had a short straight channel to eat away at; these falls continued their course upstream to form the river gorge and the St. Anthony Falls we know today. The western falls had to travel around a bend in the island. These falls heaved and eroded furiously, but its best efforts eventually joined with the mouth of Minnehaha Creek. As Minnehaha’s waters now supplied the gorge below, Minnehaha Falls was born.
As the eastern falls continued upstream to form St. Anthony Falls, the water level of the eastern channel was lowered beneath the eroding falls. Thus, Minnehaha Falls was left behind at the mouth of Minnehaha Creek, where it now serves as a tributary to the Mississippi. Today, the Minnesota Veterans Home is no longer on an island. Rather, this slice of land is now a peninsula straddled by Minnehaha Creek to the west and the Mississippi to the east.
As the Mississippi River and progression of St. Anthony Falls carved a deep gorge, surrounding springs and streams naturally flowed towards the low lying river. As these tributaries approached the banks of the Mississippi, they tumbled into ravines surrounding the gorge, creating many magnificent waterfalls.
There are several waterfalls both present and lost within Minnesota’s two largest cities. These tributaries have been modified by the urbanization, industrialization, and introduction of stormwater infrastructure. The closer you look throughout the Mississippi Gorge, the more you just might find - water like silver strands plunging into the grottos below. Here, let's dive into these waterfalls, where they’re located, and their history.
The Cascades of Minneapolis
Chalybeate Springs once flowed from a rocky overhang underneath the bluffs on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River just below the Pillsbury A Mill. Chalybeate Springs was a collection of five small spring-fed falls that erupted from the Glenwood Shale cliff face. Known as “the elixir of life”, its waters were noted for being refreshingly cool and clean with a mineral taste. The springs were also thought to have medicinal properties that could cure many ailments. These springs were heavily sought after by surrounding residents who often filled tanks of the spring water for their homes.
In the 1870s, Chalybeate Springs became a popular congregating place for citizens of all classes and creeds. Local musicians would frequently serenade local residents as they lined up in droves to get their fill of the medicinal waters. A copper sundial was also placed near the springs; on any given day it wasn’t uncommon to find several individuals calibrating their watches at the dial. As with all great things, the springs also attracted young deviants who would cat call the women and rile up the men who frequented the springs. When the copper sundial was stolen in 1880, the city posted a police officer at the springs in response while the local newspapers sternly conveyed, “unless the rowdyism is ended before long, a description of the scamps will appear in these columns as a guide for the public to go by.”
In the 1880s, an entrepreneurial citizen offered a new way to travel to Chalybeate Springs; the opportunistic resident began to charter regular boat trips on the Mississippi underneath the rocky outcropping at the springs. For more daring tourists, the tour guide paddled his boat up the Chute Tunnel; a 900-foot-long man-made tunnel created in 1864 in an attempt to provide a canal to power the mills on the east bank. The Chute Tunnel opened up to a collection of natural limestone caves beneath the Pillsbury A-Mill complex. This trip, together with the gurgling springs, the spreading elms, the shady nooks, the view of St. Anthony Falls, the Chute Tunnel, and the roar of the mighty Mississippi as it rushed past, was once a popular, romantic, and daring tourist attraction.
Because of the rumors of Chalybeate Springs’ medicinal properties, plans were underway to create a bottling company that would bottle and ship these healing waters to communities throughout the country. However, just before the bottling operation began it was learned that the spring water was innocent of any medicinal or healing properties. In reality, the spring water was quickly becoming polluted from runoff from the mills on the bluffs above. Plans for the incorporation of the bottling company were quickly scrapped, and Chalybeate Springs lost both its popularity and its miraculous healing powers. In 1885, Chalybeate Springs and the surrounding land was sold to industrial ventures. Over the last 140 years, Chalybeate Springs have passed obscurely into history.
The Three Sisters: Fawn’s Leap, Silver Cascade, and Bridal Veil Falls
In a span of about a mile-and-a-half there once were three waterfalls that plunged over the cliffs of the Mississippi River Gorge’s east bank. From north to south, these falls were Fawn’s Leap, Silver Cascade, and Bridal Veil Falls. Of the three falls, only Bridal Veil remains - though in a much diminished state compared to its former glory.
An 1888 editorial in The Minneapolis Tribune advocated for turning this area into a park by the name of Riverside Park. The anonymous writer suggested, “A city park should be located where nature has provided the hills, the valleys, the precipices, the running water, the water falls, and all the variety of scenery. There is just such a place at our very doors. Bridge the river where it is intersected by Washington Avenue continued and you are landed in a region that is at once picturesque and possessed of unlimited capabilities. Let anyone follow down the river bank and he will be struck with the great advantages of this locality for a park.”
Of these three waterfalls, the first sister was Fawn’s Leap. The location of Fawn’s Leap was roughly adjacent to the present location of the 35W bridge in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood. Fawn’s Leap was a nearby reprise from the hustle and bustle of the early years of industrialization in St. Anthony and Minneapolis.
Fawn’s Leap was fed by a small surface stream that rose from marshland in the then-sparsely populated area on the outskirts of St. Anthony. As the small tributary traveled downstream towards its mouth at the Mississippi River, its small muddy banks gave way to a thirty foot cataract that emerged out of the limestone face on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River Gorge. Rightly named Fawn’s Leap, the gully of the falls was once teeming with mammalian wildlife and a plethora of flora and fauna. Fawn’s Leap met its demise by the hands of industrialization in the early 1880s when the Stone Arch Bridge was completed in 1883. These falls stood in the way of railroad tycoon James J. Hill’s plans to construct a railroad depot for his Great Northern Railway company near the intersections of Hennepin and Nicollet Avenues on the west bank of Minneapolis. The encroachment of the Great Northern Railway tracks on the eastern bank of the Mississippi all but decimated Fawn’s Leap. The railroad cut off Fawn’s Leap from its source, thus, the waterfall seldom displayed its former glory only after large rainfalls. As time progressed, the waterfall and its grotto were leveled for the development of warehouses. This waterfall has mostly been lost to memory, with its last reference being in a 1935 article remembering the former Fawn’s Leap.
The second sister was colloquially known as Silver Cascade. Silver Cascade was a short jog to the south of Fawn’s Leap, near the present-day location of the heating plant on the University of Minnesota’s east bank. Silver Cascade was fed by Tuttle’s Creek which originated in the marshes of the Como neighborhood. This was a small brook that flowed southwest from the Como neighborhood into the Dinkytown area before discharging into the Mississippi River. The former headwaters of Tuttle’s Creek are near the aptly named SE Brook Avenue in the Como neighborhood.
Silver Cascade was by all means a beautiful waterfall. Protruding from the falls were a collection of large, rocky drops which the water lazily plunged over to create an assembly of several small cascades. This waterfall was popularly photographed in winter due to the magnificent ice formations. However idyllic Silver Cascade once was, this waterfall too stood in the way of Minneapolis’ industrialized surge during the late 1800s.
The first intrusion of industry at Silver Cascade and Tuttle’s Creek occurred In the 1870s as a wholesale pickle factory opened immediately to the north of the University, diverting Tuttle’s Creek as a source for water power. Much like Fawn’s Leap, Silver Cascade was also nixed by the construction of the Great Northern Railway which separated the waterfall from its natural water source in 1883. The rest of Tuttle’s Creek was subjected to a sewage drain that ran underneath the university. Part of the former creek is displayed in the 1898 city atlas, but by the 1903 atlas, the creek is no more.
The third sister of this trio of waterfalls was Bridal Veil Falls. Once an old trysting place for couples looking for a romantic getaway, Bridal Veil Falls was once an impressive waterfall with its waters emptying into a wild ravine that flowed into the Mississippi. Bridal Veil Falls exists today with none of its former glory. Over the last century plus, the existence of Bridal Veil Falls has come into contention many times.
Just to the north of the railroad tracks opposite Surly Brewery lies the former headwaters of Bridal Veil Creek, once rising from swamps and ponds straddling the border of Minneapolis & St. Paul. As this area gave way to industry and the development of the St. Anthony Park, Como, and Prospect Park neighborhoods during the early 1900s, the creek was buried into a culvert underneath city streets. What remains of Bridal Veils’ headwaters are now a collection of isolated eutrophic storm retention ponds.
In 1909, plans were made to fill the Bridal Veil Creek bed in its entirety, thus diverting the outflow of water into nearby storm drains. This suggestion came after Minneapolis Park Board Superintendent, Theodore Wirth, examined Bridal Veil Creek during that summer. Wirth reported that the creek, which once had a modest watershed area that formerly made Bridal Veil Falls famous, had become a vile and polluted stream.
Wirth lamented, “at present a very small amount of water is running in the creek channel… The territory through which the creek runs is rapidly building up with [grain] elevators, warehouses, factories and railroad yards and has been used for a dumping ground for so many industries that the water is now a menace to the public health.”
Wirth’s observations were met with pushback. The St. Anthony City Improvement Association consulted with the Park Board to discuss any possibilities of cleaning and restoring Bridal Veil Creek to its former glory and avoid subjecting the creek into a de facto sewage drain.
Despite the Improvement Association’s efforts to preserve the creek, Wirth’s vision for the area prevailed. During the early 1900s, Bridal Veil Creek was entombed into a drainage system underneath railroads, factories, and homes. Today, Bridal Veil Falls now emerges from a drain pipe underneath East River Parkway, north of the Franklin Avenue Bridge. Here, the sickly falls dutifully plunge to the river below, without any of the former magnificence or splendor that the falls were once revered for.
In the early 1950s, Bridal Veil Falls' existence came into contention again when much of the water flowing into the Bridal Veil culvert was joined by a new connection to the city’s storm sewer system. Thus, the little water which flowed from the mouth of the culvert at Bridal Veil Falls was joined with wastewater from the surrounding industrial facilities. The falls were now mired with a slurry of chemicals and effluent waste.
Complications only continued at Bridal Veil Falls with the encroachment of Interstate 94 during the mid to late 1950s. Interstate 94 was dug into a 16-foot deep trench so it could underpass East River Parkway, 27th Avenue SE, and Franklin Avenue without disrupting the flow of traffic. The new path of Interstate 94 was at a lower elevation than the precipice of Bridal Veil Falls. As the culvert that fed Bridal Veil was now lower than the peak of the falls, the waterfall was nearly rendered obsolete. In an effort to conserve the falls, engineers had to construct a new drainage culvert several feet below the previous culvert's precipice to keep some water flowing into the falls. Luckily, the engineers corrected the storm sewer system and redirected the wastewater runoff to a wastewater treatment facility in St. Paul.
Today, Bridal Veil Falls is an urban explorer’s paradise conveniently tucked away beneath East River Parkway and out of sight from peering onlookers. In the winter, the falls are particularly popular amongst ice climbers. Here, you can find graffiti covering the mouth of the falls and retaining wall that supports the parkway. If you plan to visit, I suggest bringing a trash bag and gloves to clean up the detritus and waste from the storm sewer runoff.
Once described in the Minneapolis Tribune as the ultimate cure for hangovers, a small hidden waterfall amongst the hustle and bustle of Minneapolis - Hajduk Springs - can be found in a grotto along the bluff side below the intersection of East 24th Street and West River Road.
Hajduk Springs were originally discovered by Seward resident Harry Hajduk in 1971. Hajduk popularized the spring, boasting that the clean mineral water was better tasting and purer than the city’s tap water. Hajduk reported the spring to the Minneapolis Park Board, who tested the water purity and confirmed that the spring was 100% pure. After the Park Board informed Hajduk that the spring had a clean bill of health, Hajduk next worked with the Center of Community Action to build steps and a trail down to Hajduk Springs.
The small trail spur to Hajduk Springs used to connect to the Winchell Trail, however the spur has since fallen into disrepair. To the adventurers who would like to rediscover Hajduk Spring, first head along the limestone cliff face near the Winchell Trail. If you are traveling in the right direction, the first hint of Hajduk Springs will be the gurgling sounds of the rushing water. Carefully follow the sound of the rushing water and soon, you’ll find an outcrop of stone and see the spring.
Hajduk spring gushes from a limestone crack about 20 feet above at about 15 gallons per minute. The spring falls into a mossy bed below, joining with a tumbling brook that joins with the Mississippi River below. Although be warned, this is not an easy hike - especially if you're nursing a hangover.
I could only find one historical reference for Atwater Falls in a 1935 article from The Minneapolis Journal. In this article, a reporter interviewed S. S. Johnson, an early settler who came to Minneapolis as a boy in 1860. The Johnson’s lived at 1312 8th Street S. in an old neighborhood of Minneapolis called the Atwater Addition. This slice of Minneapolis just southeast of downtown was said to contain a small marshland located where the present interchange of Interstates 94, 35W, and Highway 55 meet. Johnson recollected that out from this marsh once “ran a beautiful winding creek that made its way diagonally to the river, into which it plunged over the picturesque Atwater Falls.” The Atwater Addition neighborhood, the marsh, and the falls have since been lost to development. When reviewing Johnson’s memory and claims of the falls location, as well as surveying a few old maps, my estimate is that the Atwater Falls exited into the Mississippi River Gorge somewhere on the bluffs above the Annie Young Meadow. Today, there is a small trickle of water that tumbles over the limestone retaining wall and shale cliff face adjacent to West River Parkway upstream from the meadow. This could just be the remnants of the lost Atwater Falls.
Much like Atwater Falls, there’s only one reference to the Minne-Boo-Hoo Falls in a 1901 article. The falls’ name was a play on words, contrasting with the more jovial name of Minnehaha Falls. It’s cited that this waterfall was about three-quarters of a mile north of the Veterans Home, in a deep ravine where the falls sluiced over a ten foot drop before entering the Mississippi River Gorge. This measurement would put the location of these falls somewhere near the southern end of the Winchell Trail.
My assumption is that the Minne-Boo-Hoo Falls name has been lost to time, but the location of the falls remains as a stormwater culvert, where the former falls now exist as a dry shale face, re-emerging after heavy rainfall. If my assumption is correct, this is a very likely candidate for the lost Minne-Boo-Hoo Falls.
Hidden in plain sight in the Minnehaha Dog Park lies Novelty Falls. Novelty Falls is across the Mississippi River from St. Paul’s Hidden Falls. Once a limestone quarry operated by the Minneapolis Park Board in the early 1900s, the area was later turned into Minnehaha Dog Park. There are several remains of the old quarry, namely, a few old kilns and an old incinerator still within the park’s boundaries.
Novelty Falls tumbles over a roughly fifteen foot sandstone cliff. During the drier season, Novelty Falls runs dry. In the winter and spring, Novelty Falls provides a sizable trickle of snow and rain runoff.
Coldwater Spring (Mni Owe Sni)
About one kilometer south of Novelty Falls is Coldwater Spring. Producing over 140,000 gallons of water daily, Coldwater Springs is a historic place in the southeast reaches of Minneapolis. The spring is carved out of St. Peter sandstone near Fort Snelling. This brook flows for roughly one kilometer before it plunges over a sandstone bluff into a tree-lined backwater of the Mississippi River.
Once a sacred gathering place for the Dakota and other Native Americans, Euro-American settlers came upon Coldwater Creek in the 1820s when Camp Coldwater was erected near the source of the spring at the apex of the bluffs along the Mississippi while Fort Snelling was still being constructed. Camp Coldwater became a cradle of Minnesota heritage as it was one of the first places where there were regular interactions between the Dakotan people and Euro-American settlers. When Fort Snelling was completed, Camp Coldwater slowly crumbled into memory as years of spring floods covered the location in a deep layer of silt.
Coldwater Spring returned to memory in the late 1990s when the proposed reroute of Highway 55 was plotted to put Coldwater Spring and the surrounding heritage sites on the chopping blocks. The paramount concern for many was to preserve the site for its Native American history. However, a secondary concern was that the road project risked interfering with the flow of groundwater to Coldwater Spring and the destruction of a large swath of ancient prairie oak savannah. Thus, a protest group known as the Earth First movement occupied a few acres of land at Riverview Road to peacefully protest the Highway 55 reroute project.
Highway 55 eventually prevailed. However, changes to the original plan were made to protect the flow of the spring. Coldwater Spring has since been painstakingly restored into a prairie oak savannah - one of the few remaining in the United States.
The Cascades of St. Paul
Kavanagh Falls were a cascade over several steps of rough limestone ledges named after the former owner of the land these falls were once on, the land today is now in the grounds of the Town and Country Club. In an 1891 article, a columnist wrote of Kavanagh Falls, “The plateau falls abruptly away to a picturesque glen or gorge, through which a brook purls to the level of the lawn, and then leaps laughingly to the river below. To make travel in the area easier, a bridge once spanned the Kavanagh Gorge. The spring that once fed Kavanagh falls remains on the grounds of the Town and Country Club. However, the bridge and gorge that these falls once tumbled into has since been filled to provide additional parking spaces for the Town and Country Club members.
As an aside, there was another unnamed waterfall in the close vicinity of Kavanagh Falls. This second falls was to the north, closer to Meeker Island. With the construction of the Lock & Dam downstream at the Ford Bridge, the Mississippi waters rose roughly fifteen feet to make this section of the Mississippi easier to navigate. Thus, both Meeker Island and this unnamed waterfall were erased from the landscape.
At some point, the ravine that Kavanagh Falls tumbled into was filled. One researcher, Drew Ross, took to investigating what came of Kavanagh Falls. Ross concludes when the Lake Street-Marshall Avenue Bridge was reconstructed in the late 1960s, Mississippi River Boulevard was reconfigured to run underneath the newly constructed bridge. Ross furthers, “as Mississippi River Boulevard was reconfigured, Town and Country saw an opportunity to expand their clubhouse grounds. They purchased the properties north of the clubhouse, removed one house, and arranged to have the dirt that was removed for the Mississippi River Boulevard/Marshall intersection fill Kavanagh Ravine… They increased their parking, built a new swimming pool, tennis courts, and an outbuilding. This also eliminated the need for a bridge over Kavanagh Ravine.”
Compared to the history of several of the other falls in Minneapolis & St. Paul, the nixing of Kavanagh Falls occurred relatively recently within the last 55 years. The loss of Kavanagh falls is another predictable let down by the hands of city planners of the past. The once beautiful falls are now no more than a parking lot for a private country club. What’s more important to you, preserving a natural waterfall and ravine 10,000 years in the making, or improving your short game?
Shadow Falls (Minnesheena)
Kavanagh Falls and the unnamed waterfall mentioned previously were once two of the several small cascading falls along the east bank of the Mississippi river between the Ford Bridge and Meeker Island. However, the advent of settlement and development of sewage systems in the area at the turn of the 19th century have greatly impacted the watershed of these small but plentiful streams. Today, Shadow Falls are the best kept remains of these ex-cascades.
Shadow Falls can be found along East River Parkway near the intersection with Summit Avenue. Here, you can find Shadow Falls Park. A small tributary runs through the ravine of the park, where a dearth of water tumbles over a small limestone ledge into a grotto below to form the mysterious waterfall for which the park is named after.
In the late 1890s, suggestions were made to supplement the small stream with a water pump to enhance the falls, however this was not exploited as the falls are not easily reached and there wouldn’t be much return on investment. Today, Shadow Falls is a popular hiking spot near the St. Thomas campus. It’s best to visit these falls when the autumn colors are in full force.
Located just south of the new Highland Bridge development in St. Paul, Hidden Falls has been heavily tampered with and modified during the development of St. Paul.
Originally, the source of Hidden Falls was a spring and natural surface drainage from the Highland Park area. Just like other creeks and waterways in the Twin Cities, the encroachment of development has forced this water system into an underground drainage pipe.
Hidden Falls now emerges from said drainage pipe on a limestone cliffside. If you ignore the drainage pipe, you can focus on the several romantic drops the falls plunge over before meandering through Hidden Falls Park, where it joins with the Mississippi River.
Homer's Odyssey / Crosby Farm Falls
This hidden waterfall is largely unknown and the least visited of the falls in St. Paul. Nestled deep within a slot canyon off the beaten path in Crosby Farms Regional Park lies the secretive waters of Homer's Odyssey.
The land was once owned by a farmer and St. Paul resident Thomas Crosby. Crosby owned and operated his farm until 1886. This land continued to be used as farmland until the 1960s, when the land bought by the city of St. Paul and turned into a municipal park.
The falls are not marked on any trail, thus the falls are largely hidden to most passerbys. Homer's Odyssey lies within a limestone canyon where the outlet of water finds its way into Lake Crosby.
This hidden waterfall is tucked away between neighborhood developments in Mendota Heights (I know, it’s not St. Paul but I couldn’t resist). The falls themselves are a modest trickle of water into a rocky grotto below. In the winter, these falls make for a magnificent icy display. This waterfall is deep in the woods above the Mississippi River just downriver from Bdote. However enticing it may be to discover Ivy Falls for yourself - be warned - the falls are on private property and there is no way to access these falls without trespassing.
Our Picturesque Little Waterfalls
These many waterfalls were once (and in some cases - still are) places where you could find relief from the city. You descend into a world filled with the sounds of rushing water, or wind rustling the oak and linden trees, or squirrels chattering in the branches above. The closer you look, the more you will find - water like silver strands pouring over the hillsides, tiny plants in a bed of moss, and a collection of insects and animals that call these falls home.
Unfortunately, we've lost many of the original waterfalls in Minneapolis & St. Paul. Chalybeate Springs, Fawn's Leap, Silver Cascade, Atwood Falls, Minne-Boo-Hoo, Kavanagh Falls, the unnamed waterfall, and yet another waterfall that I couldn't find information about called Lilly Giggle Falls have all been lost during the last century-and-a-half. Luckily, the Twin Cities still have many waterfalls that we can admire today.
Next time you find yourself at one of these hidden places, it seems right to pick up the debris of the city - pieces of paper, candy wrappers, cans and beer bottles - thus returning the falls to the way nature intended.
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