The Rise and Fall of Minnehaha Creek's Milling Industry
Updated: Aug 14, 2022
“Minnehaha Creek rises in Grays Bay, at the east end of Lake Minnetonka, flows through a fertile valley about 16 miles long, makes itself and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famous by laughingly leaping the Falls of Minnehaha, and empties into the Mississippi River at the Soldiers’ home. That the creek appreciates the manifold beauties of the valley it waters is indicated by its reluctance to leave it. The valley is 16 miles long, but the creek itself so curves and twists, and writes a shining blue letter ‘S’ so many times against the green of its banks, that it must double that distance at least. To be the outlet of the most beautiful inland lake in the world and to form the best known cataract, save one, in North America, are signal honors indeed but Minnehaha Creek bears them modesty and waters its beautiful valley, shelters its insignificant finny inhabitants and frolics with its small-boy friends as unassumingly as its less famed rival, Bassett’s Creek, a few miles to the northward.”
- Caryl B. Storrs, The Minneapolis Tribune, June 12, 1911.
Like most students in the Twin Cities metro, I first visited Minnehaha Falls during an elementary school field trip. My teacher at the time was a huge water sports enthusiast, having canoed from the Boundary Waters to the Arctic Ocean just a few years prior. Needless to say, he was ecstatic to show thirty excited schoolchildren the impressive falls. During this field trip, our teacher told the class of the story when President Lyndon Johnson visited the falls during his presidency.
President Johnson visited the Twin Cities in June of 1964. On President Johnson’s busy itinerary was a brief visit to Minnehaha Falls with Governor Karl Rolvaag and Senator Hubert H. Humphrey. Like most Minnesota summers, Minnehaha Creek and the subsequent falls were but a trickle; the Grays Bay Dam blocking the natural flow of water from Lake Minnetonka. The Minneapolis Park Board and politicians wanted to impress Johnson, and planned ahead. The morning of the President’s visit, several fire hydrants upstream from the falls were opened, thus artificially boosting the creek’s trickle over the 53-foot Minnehaha Falls into a mighty scene.
Just like the day President Johnson visited, Minnehaha Creek has a long history of human interference via technology. With the installment of the Grays Bay Dam in 1897 came a transition for Lake Minnetonka and Minnehaha Creek. Water levels were no longer dictated by rainfall and geology; rather, a new regime emerged that used engineering and technology to mitigate the levels of these bodies of water.
Even before the implementation of the Grays Bay Dam, Minnehaha Creek’s waters have long been intervened with by Euro-American settlers, Minnetonka lake dwellers, the Minneapolis Park Board, and Hennepin County commissioners alike. The history of the manipulation of Minnehaha Creek’s water begins with its history as a milling center.
Minnehaha Creek’s marriage with Euro-American immigrants began with the construction of Fort Snelling in 1812, accelerating after the treaty of Traverse Des Sioux was signed in 1851. The creek’s first Euro-American navigator was Joseph R. Brown, a resident of Fort Snelling in 1822. Brown canoed up the creek to Lake Minnetonka with a team composed of others from Fort Snelling as well as a team of Mdewakanton men. Thus, the creek adopted its first Euro-American name, Brown’s Creek. It wasn’t until the 1850s that the name Minnehaha Creek replaced the former after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, The Song of Hiawatha.
European colonists were prohibited from settling west of the Mississippi River until the 1851 Traverse Des Sioux Treaty, which legalized settlement of Minnesota to the west of the Mississippi. Thereafter, entrepreneurial millwrights and farmers flocked upon the banks of the creek; bringing new technologies such as turbines, dams, waterwheels, and mill ponds to harness the energy of Minnehaha Creek’s water flow into a milling industry that surged Minneapolis and the surrounding lands into relevancy in the United States.
This history is not to discount the Mdewakanton Dakota community that once used the creek for food, farming, travel, and trade before the introduction of Euro-American settlement. The Mdewakanton were equipped with an array of technologies such as hunting equipment, canoes, and several farming techniques . The extent of the Mdewakanton environmental and geological impacts to Minnehaha Creek was a drop in the pan compared to that of the Euro-American settlers.
Early in Minnesota’s Euro-American history, the first industry of power was flour milling. The milling industry transformed Minneapolis from a frontier settlement into a major industrial city. In the infancy of the flour industry, mills were dispersed throughout the metro region on streams, brooks, creeks, and other tributaries that provided enough power to turn a water wheel. From before the state’s conception until about 1897, six flour mills were in operation along Minnehaha Creek’s banks. These mills proved to be important historical forces that drove development and further settlement up Minnehaha Creek and thus creating the seedlings of the suburbs of Minneapolis.
Although the powerhouse of the Twin Cities flour industry was centralized along the eastern banks of the Mississippi along St. Anthony Falls, Minnehaha Creek too had an important milling industry. The mills that dotted the banks of Minnehaha Creek from east to west were the Minnetonka Mills, St. Albans Mill, The Globe Mill, Edina Mills, Richfield Mills, and Godfrey Mill.
Likely the most famous of the mills on Minnehaha Creek, Minnetonka Mills namesake today is attributed to a neighborhood in Minnetonka just to the east of 494 on Minnetonka Boulevard. Minnetonka Mills was founded by Simon Stevens and Calvin Tuttle. Simon Stevens was the younger brother of one of Minneapolis’ first Euro-American inhabitants, John H. Stevens. One cold April morning in 1852, Stevens and Tuttle set off for the source of Minnehaha’s headwaters at Lake Minnetonka. Their goal was to find a suitable site with adequate water flow to construct a mill on the banks of the creek.
During Stevens and Tuttle’s journey, they reached the headwaters of the creek at Lake Minnetonka. Unsure if they reached the source of the creek, the two continued onwards across the frozen lake to Wayzata Bay. Here, the explorers knew they reached Lake Minnetonka, but night was fast approaching and the two needed shelter. From Wayzata Bay, the two explorers traversed the ice passing by Breezy Point, Spirit Island, and Gibson Point before making camp on Big Island.
The next day, the men crossed the lake at Big Island to Swift Point, where they followed along the eastern shore of the lake until they returned back to Grays Bay. On their return journey, the explorers marked the site for Minnetonka Mills. The explorers chose this location due to the creek’s solid banks and the abundance of timber nearby, suitable for damming and milling.
Later that year in September, Stevens and Tuttle returned to build their mill, which was completed in 1853. Minnetonka Mills first operated as a sawmill that supplied timber to the growing city of Minneapolis to the east. This mill was a crude affair, one upright saw cut all of the logs, and the process of making lumber was very difficult and required considerable time on the part of the operatives.
In this early mill, only the softer hardwoods from the upper arm of Minnetonka were cut down and rafted down the lake to Minnetonka Mills. Timber supplied from Minnetonka Mills was used to construct the first suspension bridge in Minneapolis. In addition to its operation as a sawmill, Minnetonka Mills also operated as a furniture factory where many wooden chairs, tables, benches, and bed frames were constructed for the nearby residents in Minneapolis. With the construction of the mill came several small barracks and cabins for the workers of the mill. In 1860, the sawmill at Minnehaha Mills was lost to fire, and the original settlement near the site of Minnetonka Mills was abandoned.
The site wasn’t left abandoned for long. In 1868, Thomas H. Perkins purchased the site of Minnetonka Mills where a four story gristmill was constructed. The mill changed hands several times between 1868 through 1874 until it came under the ownership of Charles H. Burwell.
Burwell heavily invested in Minnetonka Mills. Under Burwell’s ownership, Minnetonka Mills added a grain elevator, a warehouse, twelve barracks for the workers, a two-story cooper shop, an engine house with a steam engine, a new turbine wheel, and several other pieces of machinery.
By the early 1880s, Minnetonka Mills was churning out 400 barrels of flour per day, employing nearly 50 men. Minnetonka Mills went from an insignificant village to a prominent industrial town to the west of Minneapolis. The prosperous years were short lived as the economies of scale from the larger mills in Minneapolis far outpaced Minnetonka Mills. By 1886, Minnetonka Mills went out of business as operations moved to join the rivaling mills in Minneapolis. Burwell’s iteration of Minnetonka Mills was lost to fire in 1902.
Minnetonka Mills was the largest and most successful of Minnehaha Creek’s several mills. The mill was served by two railroads from Minneapolis. The St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba railway built a spur route that reached the grain elevator on the north bank of Minnehaha Creek. It’s very difficult to see this spur route using satellite imagery from today; however, Manitoba road in Hopkins roughly follows the path of the spur. The second railroad that served Minnetonka Mills was the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad, which connected to the mill building on the south bank of Minnehaha Creek. This rail line is now part of the Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trail.
Evidence of Minnetonka Mills is scant; the area has drastically changed since the late nineteenth century. The run of creek where the mill’s dam has been removed and replaced by the Plymouth Road bridge. The milling pond no longer exists, and the mill itself is long gone. However, several buildings from Minnetonka Mills heyday remain. The Burwell House, a carpenter-gothic style mansion from 1883 can be found on the northern bank of Minnehaha Creek to the west of the original dam. The Burwell property is also home to the original mill office as well as one of the workers’ barracks.
St. Albans Mill
St. Albans Mill was named after a village of the same name from 1856 to 1859 on the eastern shore of St. Albans Bay on Lake Minnetonka. The village contained a sawmill, an inn, and several dwellings. For a few short years, the village of St. Albans appeared to be mildly prosperous. However, the financial panic of 1857 and the fire at the village’s sawmill in 1859 resulted in the end of the village of St. Albans; with its townsfolk moving away to other nearby communities.
St. Alban’s namesake was revitalized when the St. Albans Mill was constructed in 1874. St. Albans Mill was about one kilometer to the east of Minnetonka Mills on Minnehaha Creek. John Alt purchased 160 acres of land surrounding the creek from Patrick McGinty in 1871. Three years later in 1874, Alt constructed the St. Albans Mill with the financial assistance of business investors from Minneapolis. St. Albans Mill was a three story structure with battened lumber walls and a sloped, wooden shingled roof.
Immediately, St. Albans Mill ran into trouble. The mill changed hands three times in its first four years of operation. Water levels were frequently insufficient, and an expensive thirty horsepower engine was installed to increase the mill’s power. Concerningly, when the dam at St. Albans Mill was closed, water backed up and frequently flooded the turbine upstream at Minnetonka Mills.
In 1881, the owners of the Minnetonka Mill purchased St. Albans Mill to put an end to the frequent flooding. St. Albans Mill was dismantled, with equipment piecemealed and sold to other milling operations in Minnesota. The 160 acres of St. Albans Mill was sold to Eliza Murphy under the agreement that Murphy was not to operate, construct, or otherwise interfere with the Minnetonka Mill.
Nothing remains of the original St. Albans Mill today. As of 2010, you could find just one of the railroad pilings sticking out above the water line here for the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba spur which stretched over the creek, but this trace of evidence has been lost in the years since. The old Murphy home from the 1870s remains, but much of this area has since been developed for condos.
Constructed in 1875 by William Day and his company, the Globe Mill was located just upstream from where Minnehaha Creek passes under Excelsior Boulevard near Meadowbrook Golf Course.
Like the other mills, the Globe Mill passed through several hands of ownership until Peter Schussler became the sole operator and owner of the mill from 1882 until he sold it in 1896. The mill was ultimately dismantled in 1898.
The Globe Mill was a small frame structure with an attached cooper shop that made the barrels in which the flour was shipped in. The Globe Mill ran a profitable business, operating a yield of 125 barrels of flour per day with a six man crew. A rail spur extended to the Globe Mill, which proved to be very helpful when the mill landed a contract to ship 80 barrels of flour daily to a company in Scotland.
The Globe Mill was a smaller operation than the Minnetonka Mill, however, the Globe Mill proved to be just as important as it helped spur the development of a village that would later become St. Louis Park. The Globe Mill, like the other mills, connected Euro-American pioneers with milling technology that helped commodify their wheat and wood products. These mills were paramount for founding the fledgling economies of the frontier metropolitan area.
There are no remnants of the Globe Mill today. A pedestrian bridge spans the approximate section of creek where the Globe Mill was once located.
Built in 1857 by Richard Strout, Joseph Cushman, Levi Stewart, and Jacob Elliot; this mill was tucked between present day Browndale Avenue and 50th Street. The mill was a two-and-a-half story building at 40 feet long and 36 feet wide. While the mill was being constructed, Richard Strout drew preliminary plans for the town of Waterville. Originally known as the Waterville Mill, it was sold off to Jonathan Grimes and William Rheem in 1859. Grimes and Rheem made improvements to the Waterville Mill, including a new dam at the site.
The mill was immediately successful. During the Civil War, the mill had a contract to provide flour for Fort Snelling. The mill ran at all hours of the day to meet the overwhelming demands for the soldiers at Fort Snelling. Grimes recollected that they were so busy milling and delivering flour to Fort Snelling that he would “catch what sleep [he] could stretched out on the bottom of the wagon” on the return journey from the Fort.
After eight years in the milling business, Grimes sold his mill to Daniel Buckwalter in 1867. With the money made from milling and the sale of the Waterville Mill, Grimes bought land to farm and construct his 1869 Gothic Revival style home. The Grimes property later became the village of Morningside, which later became reincorporated into the larger city of Edina in response to state pressure in 1966. The Grimes Home is on the National Register of Historic Places, remaining as the oldest home in Edina.
Buckwalter’s ownership of the mill was brief, selling the mill to Andrew Craik in 1869. Craik chose to change the Waterville Mill’s name to the Edina Mill. Craik chose the name Edina in memory of his boyhood home of Edinburgh, Scotland. Near the mill was a blacksmith, general store, and post office; naturally, the location of Edina Mills became the community center of the village. The village near the mill voted to secede from Richfield Township on October 12, 1888. Of the several proposed names for the new town: Hennepin Park, Waterville, Killarney Lakes, and Edina, the townsfolk chose the name of Edina.
The mill changed ownership two more times to George Milliam, then Henry Brown, until it was deemed no longer profitable and ultimately abandoned. In 1932, the mill was demolished. Today, the foundation of the Edina Mill can be found at Williams Park in Edina.
Although torn down in 1932, some remnants of the Edina Mill remain. The mill pond of the Edina Mill is still situated to the north of the Browndale Avenue bridge, and one of the millstones remain at the site of the Edina Mill. I've been informed that another millstone is set in the floor of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Edina, but I haven't been able to confirm this.
Built in 1855 by early Minneapolis locals Philander Prescott, Willis Moffett, and Eli Pettijohn, the Richfield Mill was located on the southern bank of Minnehaha Creek near the present day intersection of Lyndale Avenue and Minnehaha Parkway in Tangletown, Minneapolis. This mill was first known as the Richland Mill, where the Harmony Post Office was also located. The name was changed from Richland to Richfield after an 1858 township creation meeting. The townsfolk of the area preferred the name Richfield over Richland, thus the mill followed suit and changed their name in unison.
The Richfield Mill was powered by a water turbine and was less productive than the other mills along Minnehaha Creek, producing twenty barrels of flour in a day for the surrounding farmers and families in the Richfield area.
Prescott became the primary owner and operator of the mill from 1858 until his death during the Dakota Uprising of 1862. Prior to Prescott’s time in charge of the mill, he was a Native American farmer and interpreter for Fort Snelling in the 1830s. Prescott assisted with the farming operations at Reyataotonwe, a Mdewakanton settlement on the southeast shore of Bde Maka Ska. After Prescott’s work at Reyataotonwe, he operated a trading post at the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Croix River starting in 1839. The city of Prescott, Wisconsin adopted Philander Prescott’s namesake. Prescott later returned to Minneapolis, where he operated the Richfield Mill. In 1862 during the Dakota War, Prescott attempted to guide Euro-American settlers along the Minnesota River valley to safety. While assisting in the evacuation of Euro-American settlers near Redwood Falls, Prescott was keenly aware that a Dakota war party was closing in. Prescott urged the settlers to continue to safety while he stayed back to speak with and slow the Native Americans’ encroachment. Prescott was killed in his attempt to dissuade the Native Americans while the group of Euro-American settlers were able to continue on to safety near New Ulm.
After Philander Prescott’s death in 1862, his son, Lawrence Taliaferro Prescott, sold the Richfield Mill. The Richfield Mill continued to see ownership change several times for the next handful of years. Ultimately, William D. Washburn purchased the land the mill was on and razed it in the late nineteenth century when the city built the Lyndale Avenue bridge on the site of the Richfield Mill. The land the mill was on is now frequently visited by mountain bikers and dog walkers. There are no remnants of the Richfield Mill or its mill pond today.
The Godfrey Mill was constructed by Ard Godfrey a slight distance below Minnehaha Falls on the north bank of the creek. Godfrey was a businessman, and relocated from Maine to Minnesota in 1847 to assist with the development of the milling industry in St. Anthony. Godfrey purchased a swath of land from Fort Snelling along Minnehaha Creek just west of the Minnesota Veterans Home, where he built his mill in 1857.
Godfrey’s Mill was a wood framed two story building which measured roughly 24 feet by 30 feet. The mill was a simple structure with one clapboard door, windows on the east and west of the building, and a large water wheel on the Mill’s western side.
Like all the other mills, the Godfrey Mill changed ownership several times after Ard Godfrey sold his milling business in 1870. The mill was lost to fire in 1887. Deemed unprofitable to reconstruct the mill, the milling operation was ultimately scrapped as its workers moved upstream to the larger milling industry along St. Anthony Falls.
While the two story wooden mill is long gone, a keen eye can spot some of the limestone foundation on either side of the creek where the dam was built to serve the mill. You can find these hints on the Minnehaha Falls Lower Glen Trail, just south of the Veterans Home bridge. A plaque once adorned a boulder on the northern bank of Minnehaha Creek that signified the location of the Godfrey Mill, but the plaque was removed the last time I visited this area. On the southwest bank of the creek, the limestone remnants are roughly in the same location as the infamous gum tree
The Impact of Milling on Minnehaha Creek
The mills of Minnehaha propagated socio-economic change in the milling, farming, and timber industries, propelling the fledgling settlements of Minnetonka, St. Louis Park, Edina, and Richfield into relevancy in the nineteenth century.
Where Minnehaha Creek and the subsequent milling operations spurred the development of several western suburbs and south Minneapolis, Minneapolis and St. Paul saw unprecedented growth during the nineteenth century as well. With the formation of the milling, banking, and railroad industries in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the population of Minnesota rapidly grew from fifty thousand to over two million by the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century. By 1900, the Twin Cities were an established industrialized American metropolitan area.
The rise of the more powerful milling industry along St. Anthony Falls resulted in the end of the milling industry along Minnehaha Creek as the smaller milling operations could not compete with their much larger counterparts along the Mississippi. Frankly, the mills at St. Anthony were more easily connected by logistical rail and shipping industries, and ultimately outcompeted the smaller mills at Minnehaha Creek. One by one, the mills along the Minnehaha were either lost by fire or faced closure of their businesses as operations congregated en masse at St. Anthony Falls.
With the end of the milling era on Minnehaha Creek came the introduction of several new sources of attractions along its banks. With the help of the Minneapolis Park Board over the next several decades, the creek and its banks were slowly reclaimed for the public; thus, the creek changed from an economic milling and industrial center to an area for parks, recreation, preservation, and nature for all to enjoy.
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“Site of Ard Godfrey mill, Minneapolis.” Minnesota Historical Society, approx. 1920. http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display?irn=10823717&return=brand%3Dcms%26q%3Dgodfrey%2520mill
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Benneche, H.W.. Atlas of Minneapolis Hennepin County Minnesota. Including parts of St. Louis Park and Golden Valley Township in Hennepin County. Also Part of Ramsey County Known as the Midway District.. 1914. Hennepin County Library, James K. Hosmer Special Collections Library, collection.mndigital.org/catalog/mpls:1956 Accessed 14 Aug. 2022.
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