By John Crippen
A turn-of-the-last-century logging camp; a modest house on the Mississippi that sparked the dreams of a young boy; an early-statehood-era farm; a flour mill; a fort and its surroundings that have layers of contested meaning; a collection of houses from the pre-statehood era; a railroad magnate’s palatial house. What—if anything—do these things have in common?
Well, for starters, they are all part of Minnesota’s state network of historic sites—but then again, so are another couple dozen places around the state. A more compelling connector is their location on the Mississippi River. The river was often the reason for their locations, and it provides an ongoing power to give them identity and meaning in our current era. But what are these mysterious places, anyway?
The representation of a 1900 logging camp is found at the Forest History Center, in Grand Rapids. First created in the 1970s, it is meant to act as an example of the mobile timber cutting operations from the height of the white pine logging era. Rivers like the Mississippi were critical elements of this work, as they carried the logs away to the lumber mills. In recent years, the Forest History Center has worked hard to expand their programming from that original concept, now talking about people and forests over time, and weaving together human history, environmental issues, and a wide variety of recreational activities.
A little bit downriver at Little Falls is the Charles Lindbergh House and Museum—the place where young Charles learned to tinker with machines and hatched a dream to fly airplanes. In many ways, this house is a springboard to look out, rather than a haven to stay in. One of the most compelling places here is the three-season porch, where Charles slept to the sounds of rustling pine trees and woke up to views of the river flowing by. And while Lindbergh’s adult life was marked by a famous flight, a horrific kidnapping of his child, and racially charged rhetoric of isolationism prior to World War II, visiting this place makes it seem that it was no accident that he spent his final decades engaged in environmental activism.
As the river flows through the Anoka Sand Plain, it broadens and gets shallower—and here you will find the Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River. Oliver Kelley pursued land speculation and then farming by the book, but became most famous for being a key founder of the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry—usually known simply as The Grange. Like the Forest History Center, the Kelley Farm was long defined by this narrow slice of history but has since expanded its scope. Now, a visitor can explore agriculture—and its relationship to the surrounding environment—in a more holistic way, and over time.
And on, then, to St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, where Mill City Museum inhabits the remains of the Washburn A Mill. The Museum explores the power of the Mississippi, where logs from the north woods and grain from the farms were processed for the use of the world. Although a great deal of time is spent celebrating the wonderment of what remarkable people once achieved here, the museum also helps visitors create new cultural connections in the present moment, and to understand the more hidden environmental and cultural costs of this global business.
Following—backwards—the route of St. Anthony Falls through the only gorge on the Mississippi, you will find Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote. Like the sites at St. Anthony Falls, the river looms largest here. Bdote is a key place in the Dakota homeland, where Ȟaȟá Wakpá and Wakpá Mni Sóta come together. Not coincidentally, it is the strategic vantagepoint that the U.S. government commandeered in the nineteenth century to exert its influence westward—first for trade, then for settlement, and at various times, for war. The story of this place is still being written, and contested.
On the other side of Pike Island from Fort Snelling, on the Minnesota River, is the Sibley Historic Site. Saved in the early twentieth century as “Minnesota’s Mount Vernon,” it features the house of Henry H. Sibley—fur trader, first state governor, and a key participant in the U.S./Dakota War and subsequent tragic events of 1862. But the site also contains the houses of the DuPuis and Faribault families, which have their own stories to tell from that pre- and post-statehood era, as well as burial mounds from further back in time. Complicated, multi-racial history here is personal and close. But it is also removed and distant, with the houses standing uninhabited, and a later-era railroad bed standing as an imposing and disorienting barrier to the river system that was once just outside the front doors.
And then, finally—the James J. Hill House in St. Paul, not technically on the river, but high on one of its bluffs, surveying it from afar. Hill got his start down on the river flats, but made his name by replacing it as a transportation giant with his railroads. This place, too, ties back to St. Anthony Falls, where Hill built the iconic Stone Arch Bridge to connect places in defiance of the river’s reality.
Each of these places helps us understand our evolving relationship with the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers; and often, our evolving relationship helps us see these places in a newly relevant light. Truthfully, only the most dedicated river aficionados dutifully tick visits to each place off their bucket lists to complete the set. More often, people come to one of these places for other reasons, then find to their delight that it is yet another place with a connection to the beloved Mississippi River.
In Minneapolis, the mantra during the recent decades of riverfront revitalization has been that the city “turned its back on the river.” But that is not really true. People just used it in a different way—for industry rather than recreation and marketing. Since the side effects of industry were so toxic, of course people would look elsewhere for recreation or daily living. But the laborers who went to the river every day would look quizzically at someone who accused them of turning their backs. Rather, we just have different people looking at the river now, for different reasons.
At the Oliver Kelley Farm, intrusive development on the other side of the river has caused managers to accentuate the screen of trees that grew up through the twentieth century between the farm and the river. This makes it harder to understand the Kelley family’s initial dependence on the river. A windmill drew water from where? The house is facing away from the highway for what reason? But intrepid visitors are rewarded by surprising river encounters. People who look in the distance will notice a heron rookery, and then begin to understand the place in a new way. And as the site continues to engage with modern agriculture in relation to people today, having the river nearby can help them tell the story of the relationship between farms and environments.
In Little Falls and Grand Rapids, new trails give people more points of access and highlight the river’s current use as balm and inspiration for people who seek to connect with the natural world. Or, if they’d rather, they can look across the smooth waters and contemplate the legacy and future of a golf course and a paper mill—both hallmarks of twentieth-century life that are struggling to know their place today.
And while James J. Hill would have looked out of his bedroom window to see the epicenter of his sprawling empire—acres and acres of railroad tracks going in and out of the city, with engines belching soot across the river valley—today’s guest in that room sees a very different landscape. The most noticeable pollution point at this time is noise, from the freeway that swooshes by at the base of the property. The old St. Paul levees are now home to a museum, parks, housing developments, and people on the river for recreation.
And what of Bdote? The rivers have always been present there, and central to the narrative at Historic Fort Snelling even when it was limited to a narrow military story of the early nineteenth century. The Sibley Historic Site, as mentioned previously, has been physically removed from the rivers. The compromised landscapes of both sites add to the difficulties in reaching their full potential to engage in diverse, meaningful stories with broader audiences.
As people more fully appreciate the power and grace of Bdote in the Dakota homeland, how will that shape their understanding of our world? As people explore the confluence in canoes, how does this refresh and restore their daily lives? As people continue to celebrate achievements and mourn tragedies at this place, how can the rivers help each emotion live in relation to the other?
At their best, all of these historic places will continue to be part of the conversation, continue to ground people in the realities of the past and help them shape the future. And after all, this fits with the paradox built into rivers—they are at once constant and ever-changing. These historic sites share that trait. They appear at first glance to be anchors to an unchanged past. But as we change and our understanding of the past changes, our relationships with places change accordingly. So the conversations with each other and with our collective pasts continue, and enrich our understanding of our world.
Crippen, John. 2018. “Past Flowing to Present and Future Along the Upper Mississippi.” Open Rivers: Rethinking Water, Place & Community, no. 12. https://editions.lib.umn.edu/openrivers/article/past-flowing-to-present-and-future/.
Download PDF of Past Flowing to Present and Future Along the Upper Mississippi by John Crippen.