Moving Water and Earth

When Father Louis Hennepin first saw the great falls of the Mississippi in 1680, he was on furlough from a prolonged captivity at Mille Lacs Lake. The Flemish cleric and his Dakota escorts portaged downstream along the east bank on what is now Main Street in Minneapolis, then beheld the cataract he would later document to be forty or fifty feet high. This figure was exaggerated (though somewhat prescient), but empirical accuracy was never a missionary priority, and Hennepin ventured only to tally souls. The cataract was called Minirara by his guides in honor of the water’s playful descent, close phonetic kin to the nearby “laughing waters” memorialized by Longfellow. But unlike the classic bridal veil at Minnehaha Creek, here a great flood spilled over ledges across a half-mile of river, spouting and tumbling through fields of broken limestone, producing a thunder that drew the ear from miles away. The dutiful Hennepin divested the site of its evocative animism, and christened the falls for Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things.

Not until Zebulon Pike’s 1805 expedition was the only waterfall on the Mississippi technically surveyed at just over sixteen feet, about as high as an upended canoe. This natural wonder quickly became a scenic refuge for southern tourists escaping the summer heat. But money men were also scheming along the riverbanks, seeing only industrial power uncapitalized, and by 1870 the falls had been completely harnessed by the young city’s industrial pioneers. They had no notion that their seizure of the river’s power also halted a geologic process in its final moments.

The St. Anthony Falls of the seventeenth century—splendid, romantic, and terrible as they were to Dakota and Franciscan alike—were the faint echo of their cataclysmic origins just downstream from St. Paul. A dozen millennia ago, a surge of ice-age runoff first flooded over and eroded the stubborn Platteville limestone to create a cataract just as impressive as today’s Niagara Falls (another natural wonder first documented by Father Hennepin). Absent the ambitions and interventions of Minneapolis millers, the river would by now have eroded to the last reach of the Platteville limestone twelve miles from its start, and our legendary falls would have dissolved into a series of rapids through the underlying sandstone.

Even the newest residents of condominia overlooking this site should recognize St. Anthony Falls’ major components: the central spillway, or apron; the millpond fronting St. Anthony Main, which once powered a large share of the city’s industry but now generates a thread of the electricity we consume; and the boondoggle Upper St. Anthony Falls lock on the downtown side.

There’s a fourth component, however, that has for decades gone virtually unnoticed: The St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, a bastion of water-power research embedded in the middle of the river on Hennepin Island. Rampant nature created these falls, but engineers have preserved them, and so it is most fitting that the last significant use of the Falls of St. Anthony is a playground for engineers.


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