Book excerpt: A tale of two waterfronts

Commerce, industry and the environmental transformation of the Twin Cities

From the Minnesota Historical Society collection.

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the book, “Nature’s Crossroads: The Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota,” which you can find here. To read the entire chapter, go here

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Twin Cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis grew from tiny, remote outposts on the margins of a rapidly expanding country into large, thriving cities with regional, national and international significance. The two cities, whose downtown business districts are separated by just fourteen meandering miles of the Mississippi River, shared an important location, standing at the crossroads between the land and natural resources of the areas now known as Minnesota, the Dakotas and Canadian Manitoba on one hand and the markets of a growing United States on the other. Although both cities rose to prominence in the same half-century of rapid growth by absorbing a flood of new settlers and capitalizing on the surrounding region’s natural wealth, the economies of each city connected Minnesota’s ecosystems to expanding national markets in different ways.

As a result, the Twin Cities of Minnesota developed as distinct and independent river cities, each with its own local and regional environmental relationships that can be seen in the evolving ways that residents shaped and interacted with their downtown waterfronts.

Saint Paul, located at the head of navigation on the Mississippi River just below its confluence with the Minnesota River, built and rebuilt its waterfront around trade during its period of rapid growth, focusing on developing the transportation networks — first steamboats and then railroads — that tied the surrounding region to the city’s merchants and delivered the region’s natural resources and farm produce to distant markets. 

Minneapolis, on the other hand, grew to prominence by straddling Saint Anthony Falls, the only major waterfall on the Mississippi River. By constantly tinkering with how they managed the waterfall and harnessed its power, the city’s millers turned the waterfront into a center for processing the region’s two most valuable natural resources — timber and grain — for regional, national, and international markets. 

The environmental history of Saint Paul and Minneapolis during their rise to prominence is thus the tale of two waterfronts, one commercial and the other industrial, each built around a different strategy of cashing in on the region’s natural abundance during the period when American settlers seized control of the region’s land and natural resources….

From the Minnesota Historical Society collection.

In 1850 both Saint Paul and Minneapolis were tiny new river towns on the western edge of a rapidly expanding United States, each focusing on a distinctive set of waterfront activities and just beginning to nurture dreams of an urban future. A half-century later both had grown into important, prosperous cities. Neither city existed until the United States took control of Dakota and Ojibwe land, but both exploded when settlers flooded into Minnesota to claim the land as their own, with each city using its river location in a different way to connect the region’s natural resources to eastern markets. Saint Paul’s waterfront reflected the burgeoning city’s role as a commercial center, built first around express company routes and steamboat landings and later remade around railroads. As the railroad network grew larger and more connected, first to the well-developed East and then to the developing transcontinental West, Saint Paul’s waterfront became progressively less important to the city’s civic identity. 

Minneapolis’ urban waterfront also propelled the city’s rise, first as a sawmilling center built around a natural waterfall and a river full of logs, and later as a sophisticated flour milling empire built around a highly engineered waterfall with extensive rail links to a vast hinterland of western wheat farms. 

By 1900, when Saint Paul’s population reached 163,065 and Minneapolis’s burgeoned to 202,718, both were well-established cities in the middle of a wealthy region, with maturing economies and sizable populations, and both had grown beyond a singular focus on the waterfront activities that had fueled their rise.

James J. Hill helps encapsulate the nature and degree of these changes. By 1900 Hill was in his early sixties and was just beginning to achieve the peak of his power and influence. In 1893 he finished the transformation of the Manitoba into a fully realized transcontinental line, the Great Northern Railway, and in 1900 finally gained control over the Northern Pacific Railroad as well. His pastimes included long, late-night conversations with his friend and neighbor, Frederick K. Weyerhaeuser, a lumber baron who had built his empire from the forests of Wisconsin and Minnesota and whose mansion was just up from Hill’s on Summit Avenue. As Hill’s interests moved westward, his conversations with Weyerhaeuser began to include frequent, impassioned soliloquies about the forests of Washington State, which Weyerhaeuser regarded as too removed from existing markets to be of serious interest. 

By 1900, as Hill’s influence over the Northern Pacific grew stronger, he proposed a deal that Weyerhaeuser could not refuse: nine hundred thousand acres of prime timberland in Washington for just $6 per acre. This was an expensive proposition, but also an incredible deal — accountants ultimately concluded that it worked out to just ten cents per thousand board feet of lumber. 

Weyerhaeuser said yes, and in doing so set in motion the American timber industry’s shift from the Upper Midwest to the Pacific Northwest. 

To secure the deal, Hill offered preferential rates on hauling timber from Washington to the Twin Cities, ensuring Weyerhaeuser a competitive way to market his lumber and filling the Northern Pacific’s eastward-bound cars with steady, rate-paying traffic that it would not otherwise have had. 

In the twentieth century even Saint Paul–based enterprises like Hill’s railroads and Weyerhaeuser’s timber operations — both of which had been fundamental to the rise of the Twin Cities and the development of Minnesota — now focused much of their attention outside the region. 

During a half-century of rapid growth, settlers built the Twin Cities by transforming Dakota and Ojibwe land into the 32nd state and taking advantage of two very different waterfront sites to link the region’s abundant natural wealth to national markets. With that, the first era in the history of the Twin Cities drew to a close.

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Christopher W. Wells
Christopher W. Wells

Christopher W. Wells is a professor of environmental studies and chair of environmental history at Macalester College. He is the author of "Car Country: An Environmental History," which focuses on the proliferation of car-dependent landscapes in the United States before 1956.

George Vrtis
George Vrtis

George Vrtis is a professor of environmental studies and history at Carleton College. His recent publications include "Nature’s Crossroads: The Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota," co-edited with Christopher Wells; and "Mining North America: An Environmental History since 1522," co-edited with John McNeill.