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Sawmilling: The City's First Industry

Saint Anthony Falls Heritage Trail

Long before farmers plowed Minnesota's western prairies,
lumberjacks were felling pines in its northern forests.
Beginning in the late 1840s, trees from Ojibway lands
upriver were being cut into boards by sawmills at the Falls
of St. Anthony. But the value of agriculture soon surpassed
lumber throughout the state. The economic importance of
flour milling pushed sawmills away from the falls, where
space was at a premium. By 1890 most of the sawmills, by
then powered by steam, were spread along the river in north
Minneapolis. The industry peaked in 1899 with the frenzied
cutting of Minnesota's remaining forests. For the next six
years Minneapolis was the nation's largest sawmill center, but
by 1910, with the timber gone, nearly all the mills had closed.

Nineteenth-century sawmilling was a dangerous and
environmentally destructive business. Like trees, mill
workers were plentiful and expendable. Safeguards were
few and accidents frequent. testimony to this was the city's
thriving business in artifical limbs. Piles of lumber and
sawdust also made fire an ever-present threat to the mills
and nearby buildings.

The east channel became crowded with dams, tailraces, flumes,
and sawmill debris. The tailraces still functioning today are
outlets for hydroelectric facilities operated by northern
States Power Company. These share Hennepin Island with
the University of Minnesota's hydraulic laboratory, built in the
1930s. Hennepin Island and the east channel are now part of
the Minneapolis Central Riverfront Regional Park.

The Nelson-Tenney sawmill was one of many built upriver from the
falls in the 1880s. Its tall smokestack signaled the new steam
technology that made the move away from the falls possible.

Water rushed over the falls on the east side of Hennepin Island in the 1860s. In the left foreground on Hennepin Island
is the River Mill and a sluiceway for lumber. In the upper left background is the Winslow house, a favorite destination of
southern tourists who came to see the falls. some buildings on Main street still stand and are part of St. Anthony Main.

A disastrous fire in the Boom Island lumber yards in 1893
destroyed much of northeast Minneapolis.

"The natural appearance of the falls is entirely obliterated
by the means used for improving their power. The Falls of St.
Anthony would hardly be recognized by those who had
visited them when nothing but the rock, the foaming water
and the trees were to be seen"

James. L Greenleaf - Report on the Waterpower of the Mississippi River, 1887

Don't miss the rest of our virtual tour of Minneapolis, Minnesota in 168 images.