Minneapolis Stories and Tips

Minneapolis' Origins: Mill Ruins Park

Mill Ruins Park Photo, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Despite Johan Kohl's lament, it was inevitable that the power of the Mississippi's St. Anthony's Falls would be fully tapped. The River’s power was first harnessed for cutting lumber, although the soldiers at Fort Snelling also pioneered its use for grinding flour. Both industries were well established when Kohl lamented the falls' usurpation by commerce in the mid-1800s. Lumber eventually yielded the waterfront to grain, and the ruins of the milling industry are now preserved and explained in brand new Mill Ruins Park.

The structures on the banks themselves are largely gone, although foundations and a few walls can be seen. A walkway runs along the west/south shore, with a large number of signs chronicling the growth and decay of mills and Minneapolis itself. Buildings behind the River, and along Washington Avenue, have been reclaimed for use, including the Mill City Museum, which is far more interesting than you might suppose--the history of the milling industry is the history of Minneapolis. The complex sits just behind the ruins of Washburn A, the huge complex built by the company that evolved into General Mills. This modern, celebrated factory exploded in 1889, taking the lives of a few dozen employees. The financial rewards of milling were too great not to rebuild, and the golden age began, as Minneapolis produced the flour that fed the nation, if not the world. Most of it came from the fields of the upper Midwest, but the flourmen used the railway to bring harvests from across the country. Maps of the country’s railways and bushels per year illustrate how they processed crops from across the country with the power provided by St. Anthony’s Falls. The men who ran the mills ran the state, with several serving terms as U.S. Senators at the peak of the milling industry.

In the end, the development of electric power moved the center of the grain industry away from Minneapolis. By the 1930s, Buffalo had replaced the Twin Cities as the nation’s flour producing capital. General Mills maintained its headquarters here (and still does) but gradually reduced its presence on the river and at other area locations. The area sat abandoned for several decades, its status highlighted by a 1991 fire eerily reminiscent of the earlier Washburn A explosion. Mill Ruins Park preserves that original structure, with the jagged shell of the building open to the sky, its twisted beams now a setting for evening summer concerts and other activities. Exiting through the riverside door, be sure to note the lentil above the door that memorializes the nearly 20 victims of the explosions. It’s clear that this disaster shook the young city, calling into question the foundation that had driven its rapid growth and expansion.

To your left are what now passes for the falls, both preserved and tamed by years of work by the Corps of Engineers. The locks are here, too, and the riverboat Minneapolis Queen docks further upstream, providing another chance for a river tour and a passage through the locks. To the right is the large green space that begins Mill Ruins Park, featuring pleasant gardens, thick green grass, and what has to be an artificial mound whose peak is reached via a gently climbing spiral path. As my afternoon wound to a close, I kicked off my sandals and took a steeper, greener path to the top. The cool grass felt great between my toes, and I gazed out over the river and all it had wrought before heading back down to meet my brother for dinner.

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