July 2019 – The River

RCHS Facebook Posts from July 2019 – Saint Paul and the River

Explore history with these snippets from past Facebook posts from the RCHS page.

Posts, event announcements, etc. have been edited for clarity and relevance.

We’ll be exploring some of the history of Saint Paul and the Mississippi River—how the river shaped the city, and how, in turn, the city has changed the river. The river has always determined the growth of Saint Paul – river traffic, railroads, eventually roadways, and even the downtown airport all follow the river. First the French, then British and American traders, fur trappers and then farmers all followed the river and streams that formed the watershed of the Mississippi River. Follow along with us for an in-depth look into its long, winding history.

Featured image: Hydrographical basin of the upper Mississippi River. Source: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g4042m.ct001419/.

Our Mississippi River today would be nearly unrecognizable to early settlers, 19th century railroad barons, or the Indigenous people who first inhabited the area.. Before white settlement, the river was much wider and shallower with many rocks and clearer water. The bottom lands were a mix of marsh, swamps, forest, snags, sandbars and open water, crisscrossed by innumerable creeks and streams. Navigable waterways would change with every spring flood, or would vanish altogether during a drought. Mark Twain was one of many river boat pilots that had to memorize every hazard and possible open channel on the river. Learn more now @ http://bit.ly/2ZSIOju.

In late July and early August of 1903, St. Paul held its only Summer Carnival. One of the principal events in this nearly two-week-long festival was the election of a Queen by popular vote. Men and women could pay 10¢ a vote and they could cast as many ballots as they wanted because the money raised went to pay for the operation of the Free Public Baths on Harriet Island in the Mississippi River opposite downtown. The Baths were the creation of Dr. Justus Ohage, a reformer who had purchased land on the island and built the bathhouses at his own expense in 1901. Helen A. Marks, a dressmaker whose candidacy was heavily supported by organized labor, won over eight other candidates, and although her reign was brief, the Baths remained until the 1930s. There’s more to learn about Helen the Queen @ http://bit.ly/2X5kRng.
Image: Men’s bathhouse on Harriet Island, about 1905.

The river provided more than just transportation. Breweries such as the Yoerg Brewing Company and Stallmann’s Cave Brewery utilized the water from natural springs, and cooled the beer in caves in the river bluffs. Stallman’s excavated the natural caves further, eventually reaching three levels of caves that extended a mile in width. In some of the caves cheese was aged, mushroom farming was developed and even night clubs were created. The caves were irresistible to explorers, children and sometimes even served as residences for homeless.

In the mid-1850s, the swampy land of St. Paul was crisscrossed by many streams and creeks, all feeding into the watershed of the Mississippi River. Cascade Creek ran down through a ravine and over the bluffs to the Mississippi, creating what seems to have been a series of waterfalls and cascades. The creek may have originated near what is now Cretin High School, running down Ayd Mill Road, and eventually joining the Mississippi River near the foot of Western Avenue. It seems to have been the waterway that powered the old Ayd Mill built by John Ayd in 1860, and at some point the creek was dammed to create a trout pond. The ravine itself was a famous archeological site, with many artifacts being reported. Discover how after the 1920s it was eventually diverted and joined the many waterways that now run through deep subterranean tunnels under St. Paul in the article here.
Image: Cascade Creek drawing from about 1860.

Minnesota’s capital city was given a lofty identity when young Catholic priest Lucien Gaultier built a modest log chapel in a wilderness clearing and named it for his patron saint. In the mid-19th century, St. Paul’s strategic location at the head of navigation on the Mississippi River was naturally suited as a way station for goods and a hub for settlers pouring into the Upper Midwest.
Image: Postcard from the RCHS Collection.

In the early 1840-1850s, the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers were gateways to the Minnesota territory and points west. Immigration agents armed with posters advertising the benefits of the new territory actively recruited new settlers that flocked into the area, traveling up the river. Prior to this recruitment strategy, the early settlers of French voyagers and farmers from Winnipeg left their first shelter near Fort Snelling and built two villages along the Mississippi. One village was at the base of Jackson Street in what is now Lowertown, the other at the end of Chestnut Street, once called Upper Town. A nearly impassable marshy swamp between them essentially made two separate villages. Steamboat traffic in the area was uncertain at best until about 1847, when Galena Packet Company established a fleet of boats that made regular trips to Saint Paul from Galena, IL. This regular traffic was instrumental in growing Saint Paul into the gateway of the Northwest, creating Saint Paul’s image of itself as a river town.

In the 1860s, railroads quickly eclipsed steamboats as the main mode of transportation. The river was shallow, marshy and full of snags, making river traffic difficult except for the most experienced pilots. Railroads would more quickly and easily take goods out and bring immigrants in. The railroads themselves continued to follow the river, changing its very nature by paving over and draining streams and marshes, cutting back bluffs, and narrowing the channel by 300 ft. By the end of the century, a huge number of railroads linked Saint Paul to Chicago and points East. The first Mississippi River bridge in Saint Paul was the St. Paul Bridge, later the Wabasha Street Bridge. Built in 1858, it was the result of campaigning by newspaper editors who wanted to link the Upper and Lower Landings with the West Side.

The Mississipi was an economic engine driving the growth of Saint Paul in the 1860s. Carts from the Red River were hauling furs, pemmican, buffalo robes, grain and other goods to Saint Paul to be shipped via the river back East and to Europe (goods worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money!) Steamboats took troops, horses and supplies to battlefields during the Civil War, and freed African-Americans worked on the river. But then the railroads arrived, and the last ox carts rumbled down Saint Paul streets in 1869.
Image: Red River Ox Cart from RCHS collection (198011363) with caption “Minnesota’s famous Red River oxcart pictured here starts on its journey from Pebina, North Dakota, to St. Paul, July 10. Delmar Hagen of Gatzke is the driver. Sponsored by the Marshall County Centennial Committee, the trek will wind up August 23 at the Minnesota State Fair.”

Christine Podas-Larson tells the story of the Floating Bethel and the work and life of her great-grandmother Eliza Newport. Her article here tells the story of Eliza, a well-educated, well-connected community leader and St. Paul resident that helped develop places where the poor and transient of the city could meet, get food, basic needs and have a safe place to stay. Her work culminated in the “Floating Bethel,” a residence built right on the water that served river and railroad workers and their families, who were sometimes referred to as the “floating class”.

Living along the Mississippi River was also exciting for the children of Saint Paul. Every summer from 1925-1940, the 200-passenger steam paddlewheeler “Capitol Steamer” would arrive at the Upper Levee, having journeyed up from New Orleans under the command of its owner, Roy Streckfus. The boat would host live Dixieland jazz music, there would be trips up and down the river, dancing and dining, and the Steckfus daughters would invite their schoolmates from Visitation Convent High School to the boat to enjoy the festivities. But, during the Depression there were droughts and the boat had to dock at the Upper Levee until it rained and wait until the river rose. The docked boat was open to the local children, who enjoyed it until it could move on. More here.
Image: Postcard of a river steamer, captioned “Looking up the Mississippi River toward St. Paul from Indian Mounds Park, St. Paul, Minn.” Part of the RCHS Collection.

The 1930s dredging of the river and the construction of 26 locks and dams turned the river from free-flowing to a series of slow-moving pools. It took a crew of over 415 men in 1932, working 9 feet deep and 35 feet long between St. Paul & Hastings. A few years later, a rip rap project employed 700 workers that boosted barge traffic to even higher levels, with more environmental cost. The river was declared a health hazard due to sewage and pollution, closing all recreation and bathing. Fishing was also discouraged and the St. Paul’s pearl button industry died out. In the 1960s efforts begin to cleanup the river, re-establish it as an area for recreation and reclaim some of its natural areas. Following these efforts, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area was established in 1988 and became part of the National Park system. For more see the article.
Postcard of the Mississippi River, from the RCHS Collection (1901480)

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