Archive for October, 2011

Minnehaha Falls – yet another of those iconic sites in the Twin Cities. And easily accessible by bike, thanks to some forward-thinking park planners in the late-nineteenth century. Perhaps not impressive as the more famous waterfalls like Niagara or Yellowstone, but a genuinely tranquil spot for us city-dwellers, especially if you take the time to descend into the glen and stroll along the path by Minnehaha Creek.

The Falls are ever-changing. Last October, the first time I visited the Falls, they were running quite impressively, the water roiling in the pool below before flowing down the creek.

The Falls in October 2010.

Last week when I visited, things looked a lot different.

By October 2011, the Falls was just a pale memory of its spring incarnation.

The flow of the creek is now totally dependent on snow and rainfall again – and it’s been dry for a while now – but for many years a system of pumps kept the water rushing over the Falls (including water drawn from the Mississippi). Back in August of 1964 drastic steps had to be taken to ensure a good flow during a severe drought: in honor of a visit by President Lyndon Johnson, fire hydrants upstream from the Falls were opened, thus ensuring that the President could view a cascade rather than a feeble trickle.

The photo on this interpretive panel at the park shows President Johnson and Hubert Humphrey enjoying Minnehaha Falls in 1964.

The image of the falls has been recorded innumerable times from early on in Minnesota history, e.g. this lithograph by Henry Lewis from 1854 and this Benjamin Franklin Upton photograph including Dakota men looking down on the falls (Minnesota Historical Society collection).

But these images don’t capture the Fall’s environs or what it was like to visit or play at the falls in the days before Minnesota was even a territory. Charlotte Clark Van Cleve spent a few of her childhood years in the early 1820s at Fort Snelling and as an adult, she waxed nostalgic about visiting the falls as a child:

But the most charming of all our recreations was a ride to “Little Falls” [apparently as compared to St. Anthony Falls, the “Big Falls”] now “Minnehaha.” The picture in my mind of this gem of beauty, makes the sheet of water wider and more circular than it is now, I know it was fresher and newer, and there was no saloon there then, no fence, no tables and benches, cut up and disfigured with names and nonsense, no noisy railroad, no hotel, it was just our dear pure “Little Falls” with its graceful ferns, its bright flowers, its bird music and its lovely water-fall. And while we children rambled on the banks, and gathered pretty fragrant things fresh from their Maker’s hand, listening the while to sweet sounds in the air, and to the joyous liquid music of the laughing water, there may have been some love-making going on in the cozy nooks and corners on the hill side or under the green trees, for in later years, I have now and then come upon groups of two, scattered here and there in those same places, who looked like lovers, which recalled to my mind vividly what I had seen there long ago.

A young couple has found its way up under the overhang near the Falls themselves. October 2011.

That enchanting spot, so dainty in its loveliness, is hallowed by a thousand tender associations and it seems more than cruel to allow its desecration by unholy surroundings and various forms of vice. Standing beside it now, and remembering it in its purity, just as God made it, my eyes are full of unshed tears, and its mellifluous ceaseless song seems pleading to be saved from the vandalism which threatens to destroy all its sweet influences and make it common and unclean. But as I, alone, of all who saw it in those days long gone by, stand mourning by its side, there dawns in my heart the hope that the half formed purpose now talked of, for making it the centre of a park for the delight of the two cities between which it stands, may be perfected, thus saving it from destruction and making this bright jewel in its setting of green, the very queen of all the many attractions of this part of our State. Surely no spot in ours or any other State offers such beauty or so many inducements for such a purpose, and coming generations will forever bless the men who shall carry it out, thus preserving our lovely Minnehaha and the charming surroundings for their own delight and the enjoyment of those who shall come after them.

(From ‘Three Score Years and Ten’ Life-Long Memories of Fort Snelling, Minnesota, and Other Parts of the West by Charlotte Ouisconsin Van Cleve, 1888, available as an EBook #20232 through Gutenberg EBooks.)

Henry Snelling, son of Colonel Josiah Snelling, also recorded his memories of growing up at Fort Snelling in the 1820s. In his Memoirs of a Life from my notebook and journal, with additions and reflections, he gushed (sorry, couldn’t resist) about Minnehaha Falls, writing:

Two miles north of the fort is the celebrated cascade Minnehaha (Laughing water); and a most lovely and beautiful gift of God it was at that time, a very paradise of nature. How the hand of man has improved (?) it I know not, for I have never visited it since my boyhood days. Here I have wandered down and along the grassy and forest covered slopes of the cool and placid stream gathering the beautiful flowers that adorned the velvet robe of loveliest green that covered our mother earth or sat beneath the musical sounds of the Laughing water as it fell into the crystal-like basin at my feet …

The bike path along Minnehaha Parkway allows bikers to enjoy the creek at several places along the way to Minnehaha Park from Lake Harriet.

How often I have gone to that beautiful creation of God to take the beautiful fish of the stream, that sporting in the sunlight near the surface flashed their golden and silver rays into my eyes as they chased each other in gleeful pastime, or gently approached the shore into the cooling shadow of the trees, and I could not do it. No sooner seated within the magic circle of those laughing water and I was lulled into forgetfulness of all else save present happenings; so serene and blissful that to bring death into the scene seemed sacrilege. Birds were all around me caroling their sweetest notes, the waters danced before me, the wind murmured among the leaves above me with aeolian sweetness, and the flowers around me sent a delicious fragrance to my nostrils. How could death enter this value of exquisite delight, surely here, if no where else, God is manifest in His works.

(Unfortunately, Henry suffered from the common misconception that Minnehaha meant ‘laughing water,’ when in fact it means ‘waterfall’ or ‘rapid water’ in Dakota.)

However charming the Falls may be for us today, how much more magical they must have been in those days, before the picnic tables and benches, before the necessity of restoring the native prairie along the hillside. But the area still inspires visitors. Following down the creek from the Falls I encountered a family that was clearly as entranced by the place as Henry and Charlotte were in their time.

A group of kids with adults enjoyed a beautiful fall afternoon building these whimsical, and possibly Arctic-inspired, statues in the creek below the Falls.

But rather than fishing, these children were leaving their own whimsical mark on the creek with their stone sculptures – reminiscent of Arctic inuksuk – guarding a section of the creek.

The children - and perhaps others before them - left behind several of these stone statues in Minnehaha Creek below the Falls.


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Fall is here and once again the Twin Cities are being blessed with absolutely perfect weather for biking and exploring. I don’t believe there is a better time of year to be in Minnesota, now that the humid days of summer are past and the leaves are glowing with color – from bright yellows to oranges to deep reds to burnished browns. The trees change from one day to the next, first just the edges of the leaves near the crown licked by flame, then more and more as if the fire is slowly spreading downwards until the tree is finally ablaze. It lasts such a short time, but it makes up for winter. If we are lucky, the fall will stretch on…and on…and on! 

The east side of the Mississippi River from the Lake Street Bridge, late September 2011.

There is so much to see on days like this, things that are easy to miss if you are driving along at sixty miles an hour, but reach out and grab you when you’re on a bicycle. Take the Mississippi River, for example. The closest many people get to the river is to drive over it on one of the many bridges in the metro area, bridges from which it is almost impossible to see the water or the river banks. But the river is a treasure and was critical to the early residents of what became Minnesota. It is easy for us to become disconnected from our natural surroundings, even when we still rely on them to supply our needs, but two hundred and more years ago, the river was central to life in this area.

Looking down at the Mississippi River just below Fort Snelling from the overlook on the east side of the river, late September 2011.

For a superb view of the mighty Mississippi, visit the overlook over the old bridge abutment on the east side of the river just south of Highway 5 on the East River Road bike path.

The overlook on the East River Road bike trail just south of Highway 5 (West 7th Street).

Not only do you have a good view of the rivers and the fort, some very informative panels on area geology and history, and some surprisingly comfortable fake boulders to rest on, there is no question about where you are!

Part of one of the attractive and informative metal panels at the overlook. This bit shows the location of Dakota communities and other important places along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.

Yes, indeed. In case there is any doubt, you know where you are! Actually, this shows your position in relation to the rivers, which are shown in tan paving stones along the overlook.

And directly across the river from you sits Historic Fort Snelling on the west bank of the Mississippi. Built out of the very limestone bluff it sat on, the fort controlled the major communication routes of the time – the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers below.

View of Historic Fort Snelling from the east side of the Mississippi River. The fort is almost invisible with all the trees in the foreground.

But a modern photo can’t really convey the imposing presence of this limestone edifice in 1820s Minnesota. Today’s lush tree cover and the predominance of highways and bridges in the area disguise the fort’s dominance in what was then an oak savanna landscape with tall prairie grass and occasional trees, as seen in this Seth Eastman painting at the Minnesota Historical Society, The Prairie Back of Fort Snelling (1846-1848). Built between 1820 and 1825 under the command of Colonel Josiah Snelling, the fort was originally known as Fort St. Anthony. It was renamed Fort Snelling in honor of the colonel in 1825 on the recommendation of General Winfield Scott. (For a more complete survey of its rich history, visit the official website.

It’s hard to imagine how the fort would have appeared to both the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples and the European Americans who arrived here in what must have seemed to them an isolated and lonely place. The Round Tower was the first building completed and is now the oldest standing building in Minnesota, one of four original buildings still standing at the fort.

Restored prairie on the west side of the Round Tower give a better impression of what the 1820s landscape would have been like.

Finished in 1820, it must have been a very impressive sight as visitors approached from the prairie to the west of the fort. The fort has been modified constantly since its original construction, a fact the complicates our attempts to imagine life there in the 1820s. In 1860 the Round Tower retained some prominence in the landscape, at least in this carte-de-visite at the Minnesota Historical Society, but by 1900 the poor tower seems to have been reduced to a curiosity visited by sightseers.

And by 1938, the tower seems almost insignificant, lost in the hustle and bustle of the street running right past it (possibly West 7th Street), standing alone with no evidence of the original stone wall that surrounded the fort in this photo from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Today a visit to the fort can take you back to a rougher but seemingly less complicated time – the 1820s.  Although you have to be ready for the noise of the muskets and cannon firing, and I’m not sure that doing laundry in the 1820s was exactly uncomplicated!  In spite of this time travel quality to your visit, the fort is still located near numerous transportation routes – Highway 5, Highway 55, and of course the airport. The latter is particularly hard to ignore even within the walls of the fort as planes roar incongruously overhead with great frequency!

Traveling on two wheels is much more peaceful.

This plane seems to be flying directly over the commandant's house at Fort Snelling, the oldest house in Minnesota (1823).

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