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Vol. 48, No. 1-2                                1989



Scott F. Anfinson
Minnesota Historical Society

© 1989 Minnesota Archaeological Society


Table of Contents
Historical Background
Archaeological Site Inventory

- Bassett's Creek
- Gateway
- West Side Mill District
- Gasworks Bluff
- Brewery Flats
- Milwaukee Road
- Boom Island
- Hennepin-Central
- Nicollet Island
- East Side Mill District
- Interbank

Historical Figures and Photographs  (big thumbnails)   (medium)   (small)
References Cited
Chronology Chart


Over the last seven years, the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) has been involved with an extensive program of archaeology along the central Minneapolis riverfront (Figure 1). This work was in response to two highway projects; the extension of the West River Parkway and the replacement of the Hennepin Avenue bridge. Because the sponsors of these projects applied for federal funds, archaeological review was required by Section 4f of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

The author of this report served as Municipal-County Highway Archaeologist during this time and was responsible for determining what impacts the projects would have on archaeological sites in the area. At first the task seemed simple, especially to an archaeologist who had been trained to deal with prehistoric remains on the Great Plains; the intense land disturbance in the heart of an urban center would certainly have destroyed most archaeological sites.

But it quickly became apparent that archaeological sites are disturbances. Sites do not have to be abandoned or ancient. Minneapolis is a very large and very complex archaeological site. The central riverfront is the most complex area of this extensive site since this area was the initial focus of white settlement and at one time was the city's industrial center.

The project quickly went from something simple to something incredibly complex. The literature search was daunting; there were so many sources at so many locations. The field problems were even more daunting; surface reconnaissance and shovel testing were almost useless along the rubble strewn riverfront. Parking lots covered some sites. Active utility lines criss-crossed the area.

The complications of doing archaeology in a city were compounded by the scarcity of descriptions of similar projects in the archaeological literature. At the beginning of the West River Road project, urban archaeology in the New World was in its infancy. Eastern cities were discovering buried remnants of their past that suddenly became significant as the country passed its 200th birthday. In the Midwest, however, most cities were just over 100 years old and their history seemed a little too recent to be of archaeological value.

While the complexity of the task was indeed daunting, there was also the excitement of entering a new field of endeavor. Urban archaeology was given a chance to prove itself in Minneapolis. The success of the exercise can be demostrated by the fact that the officials that once resisted the need for archaeological review are now some its staunchest defenders. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) has even proposed the development of an archaeological park where extensive mill ruins will be exposed.

    The West River Parkway Project

The concept of a parkway along the Minneapolis riverfront originated in the mid-1880s when the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners hired the prominent landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland to design a park system; Cleveland included parkways as part of his plan. The western riverfront in south Minneapolis from Minnehaha Falls to 23rd Avenue South was largely undeveloped at that time, so this land was acquired by the Park Board in the early twentieth century and the parkway for that segment was largely completed by 1940 (Wirth 1945:159-162).

While a more aestheticallly pleasing, multi-use riverfront in central Minneapolis had been envisioned since at least 1917, by the late 1960s it became apparent that such a riverfront was necessary to the continued economic health of the downtown district. What once had been the most important section of Minneapolis had become an embarrassment. The economic heart of the city in its first century had become skid row by the beginning of its second.

In 1968 the City Council authorized a study of the central riverfront to establish a framework for future development. The historic importance of the area was formally acknowledged in 1971 when the St. Anthony Falls Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1976 the Riverfront Development Coordination Board was created by the City Council, the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, and the Park and Recreation Board to coordinate planning and development in the central riverfront area.

An opportunity to extend the West River Parkway through downtown Minneapolis was presented in the mid-1970s with the reappearance of funds for the Great River Road program. The Great River Road had originally been proposed by the federal government in 1938, envisioned as a 2,000 mile parkway along the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. This parkway was to provide scenic and recreational opportunities with regard to both natural and cultural resources.

No other segment along the entire Great River Road provided as ideal a potential for the fulfillment of the program's goals as the West River Parkway along the central Minneapolis riverfront. This segment traverses an area of the Mississippi River Valley that contains one of the few true gorges along the river and the river's only true waterfall. Culturally, the area was a magnet for early white settlement and became perhaps the largest direct-drive industrial waterpower center the world has ever known.

An initial archaeological effect assessment for the project was undertaken in 1982 and the results of this assessment appeared in the 1982 Annual Report of the Municipal and County Highway Archaeological Reconnaissance Program (Anfinson 1983:17-29) and in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the West River Parkway Extension. This initial assessment did not involve any subsurface testing since there were many alternate routes and limited time and money. The conclusion of the initial cultural resources assessment was that the use of existing roads away from the river held the least potential for directly affecting archaeological sites and had the least impact on the integrity of the St. Anthony Falls Historic District.

In late 1982 the MPRB selected a preferred route that was the closest to the river of various alternatives. This route was chosen because it not only brought people close to the river, but it excluded intervening private development. A Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was signed by the MPRB and the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to insure that archaeological sites and historic structures would be protected. To their credit, the MPRB agreed to live up to the terms of the MOA even after federal funding for the project fell through prior to construction.

In order to fully assess the archaeological impacts of the route, the MPRB contracted with the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) in the summer of 1983 to conduct archaeological testing within the proposed park boundary. Jeffrey Tordoff, a former MHS staff archaeologist on the Fort Snelling project, was hired by the MHS to direct the field work and write the necessary reports.

Because the contract was not implemented until the 1983 field season was well underway and a preliminary report was required by late 1983 for the Final Environmental Impact Statement, the Municipal-County Highway Archaeologist undertook the extensive literature search that was necessary before the field work could be completed. The literature search was printed as a supplement to the 1983 Annual Report for the Muncipal-County Highway Archaeological Program (Anfinson 1984).

The literature search documented that over 50 potential archaeological sites existed along the Parkway route. Archaeological investigations along the West River Parkway in 1983 documented 21 sites even though very little sub-surface testing was done in the West Side Mill District and the Gasworks Bluff area (Tordoff 1984). Based on this information, it was possible to alter construction plans in a number of areas to minimize site destruction.

Archaeological testing continued in 1986 in conjunction with the start of construction on the north half of the West River Parkway project (Tordoff 1986; Tordoff and Clouse 1986). The 1986 excavations intensively examined several sites in the mill district and several sites that were unnavoidable by the Parkway construction. Some construction monitoring was also done.

The most recent archaeological work on the West River Parkway was done in 1989 (Szondy and Clouse 1990). This work focused on several flour mills in the proposed Mill Ruins Park and on a brewery at the south end of the project.

The northern half of the West River Parkway, extending from Plymouth Avenue to Portland Avenue, was completed in 1987. A southern segment from the existing West River Parkway to just beyond the Washington Avenue bridge was completed in 1990. Land acquisition for the intermediate segment is still underway.

    The Hennepin Avenue Bridge Project

In 1980, Hennepin County submitted a proposal to replace the Hennepin Avenue bridge over the Mississippi River. Since the century old steel arch bridge was a historic structure, the SHPO delayed issuing an impact assessment until after the structural integrity of the bridge had been thoroughly investigated. The 1983 West River Parkway archaeological survey found remains of an earlier suspension bridge on the west side of the river further complicating the effect assessment.

The replacement of the Hennepin Avenue bridge was given an Adverse Effect finding by the SHPO in 1985 because the project would destroy a historic structure and would also impact archaeological remains of earlier structures. In order to mitigate the adverse affects of the construction, Hennepin County was required to provide detailed documentation of the steel arch bridge prior to its demolition, to sponsor archaeological testing to examine remains of the two earlier bridges, to reduce disturbance of the archaeological remains as much as possible, and to conduct monitoring of the construction.

Hennepin County contracted with the Minnesota Historical Society to undertake the archaeological testing. This work was completed late in 1985. Extensive tower and anchor remains of both an 1854 suspension bridge and an 1876 suspension bridge were found on the west side of the river (Tordoff and Clouse 1985). Construction plans were altered to miss the tower remnants and an 1876 anchor was removed for preservation.

Deep burial by approach road fill prevented pre-construction archaeological testing on the east (Nicollet Island) side of the Hennepin Avenue bridge. When construction began in 1988, monitoring documented tower and anchor remains that were even better preserved than those on the west side. The east side tower remnants were destroyed by the subsequent construction, but anchor remnants of both the 1854 and 1876 bridges were preserved in place. The south half of the new suspension bridge was opened for traffic in 1989 and the north half opened in 1990.

    A New Perspective

While the West River Parkway and Hennepin Avenue bridge projects have been responsible for initiating the archaeological investigations car-ried out on the central Minneapolis riverfront, the lessons they have taught are applicable to the entire riverfront and the city as a whole. Archaeological potentials on the east side of the river have largely been ignored because the developments there have been undertaken without federal funding and prior to the riverfront highway projects. A number of important sites were no doubt destroyed by the construction of Riverplace and the Winslow House apartments.

There has clearly been a bias towards regarding standing structures as the only significant cultural resources in the St. Anthony Falls Historic District. Even with the lessons of the riverfront archaeological investigations, significant archaeological resources continue to be destroyed. Most of this destruction is not due to malice or even lack of interest, it is due to ignorance. Since sites are usually buried, their presence and potential are unknown to developers and officials.

Because of the riverfront archaeological work on the highway projects, archaeological sites are now an important part of historical management and interpretation of the area. The ongoing SHPO-sponsored restructuring of the St. Anthony Falls National Register District includes of archaeological sites, an aspect not considered in the original nomination. The St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board, established by the legislature in 1988, has featured archaeological sites in their interpretive plan.

The principal purpose of this publication is education. If the results of riverfront archaeology are disseminated and the locations of potential sites described, archaeological sites along the Minneapolis riverfront, elsewhere in the city, and even in other cities may get consideration prior to urban development projects. That consideration will hopefully lead to their preservation or at least archaeological exploration prior to construction. Cities are sites. Significant sites that can not only make our past more understandable and exciting, but make our present and future more rewarding.

Vol. 48, No. 1-2  © 1989 The Minnesota Archaeological Society

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