Contemporary view of St. Anthny Falls

Deconstructing the Past and Future of St. Anthony Falls Lock

In these perilous times, dreaming of the future comes less easily. That is precisely what I found myself doing, however, after hearing the news earlier this year that the planning process for the future development of the three-acre St. Anthony Falls Lock property would start fresh from the beginning — this time, with Indigenous peoples at the table to provide leadership and vision.

This process, which the City of Minneapolis initiated for the purpose of facilitating a transfer in ownership of the property from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the city, is a partnership among Friends of the Falls, Twin Cities Native American communities and the University of Minnesota.

View today of Upton Island and the abandoned St. Anthony Falls Lock                  Image: Google Earth

The lock is a water-based elevator that moves river barges and other boats above or below a dam. In this case it is St. Anthony Falls, a natural waterfall that was covered with a wooden and then concrete cover (or apron) for protection of the limestone and sandstone escarpment, that forms the falls. The lock was closed in 2015 because of low barge traffic and the need to protect northern lakes from harmful invasive carp that are slowly making their way up the Mississippi River.

Today, the area around the falls appears to be a largely “manmade” place. It is as if the whole river runs through our human fingers. Understanding the longer history, where the people here regarded the natural waterfall as something greater than that of human hands, will be essential to realizing its future potential. It is not my place, as a white person, to share the stories and history of the Dakota or Ojibwe, or even to take the privilege of saying the names they had bestowed upon this natural wonder. When planning is complete, this history along with Indigenous people’s current contributions, will invest this place with its ultimate expressed form and meaning. To these discussions, I will respectfully sit and listen.

I believe that we all can share, however, in discussions of the future of the lock itself. That issue is historic preservation. Under the previous planning effort, the lock would have been left largely intact.   

What price ‘liquid power’?

Every example of historic preservation is an expression of the personal, institutional and community values of its time. The area around the falls has a long and multi-layered history. If we are to fully reveal that history, and realize the potential of its future, we cannot just freeze everything in time. It is important that we understand and weigh the value of each part in relation to that history to determine what should remain, what can evolve and change, and what should be restored.

So, what place does the lock have? The history of Minneapolis’ St. Anthony Falls is that of a holy place, natural wonder and pioneering hydro-industrial complex. The falls are the city’s raison d’etre, its reason for being. The lock stands out because it has little relation to any of this history. I would argue that we should understand the lock in the different terms used for the word folly. The first of these is the word’s definition as something done that is a mistake.

Minneapolis’ efforts, starting around 1920, to extend the navigable Mississippi River three miles past the falls was done with good intentions. But was 50 years of what turned out to be occasional gravel, coal and scrap metal shipments worth the disruption? Lucile M. Kane’s 1966 book, The Waterfall that Built a City, notes the push-back the proposed project received. The hopes to have Canadian wheat and Northern Minnesota iron ore shipped downriver from the new port were thought to be a pipedream given that the railroads had long since superseded the river as a primary transportation mode.

The falls and its long tail of rapids is what established St. Paul as the most northerly port on the Mississippi River. To this history the lock and barge channel are, perhaps, a minor folly. As to what the lock did to the falls themselves, this is the real folly. The place where the lock passes by the falls was once known as Upton Island. I’m certain the Dakota and Ojibwe also had a name for this place on the west bank of the main channel of the river. Before U.S. settlement, I imagine the trail here that traversed both the high ground, where the river fell away, and the lower ground at the foot of the falls — where eyes were drawn upward toward the showering display of liquid power.

That place was covered over in the 19th century when lumber and then flour mills crowded the river’s banks. But by the 1940s and ’50s, after the decline of milling, something of this beautiful place was coming back. Amongst the ruins of mills was an open field with unobstructed views of the great sheet of falling water. With the 1883 Stone Arch Bridge completing the space like an embracing arm, you might have thought this was destined to be one of our city’s greatest public spaces — a true place, a “there, there.”

1945 aerial view of Upton Island; St. Anthony Falls is in the lower left       Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

Unfortunately, what we got instead in the 1960s was the lock, a massive concrete structure with precipitous five-story walls. Ever since, we have been blocked from our place beside the falls. The lock is not unlike some segments of freeway that, in the same decade as the lock was built, split communities in two. At 49 feet in lift, this is the highest lock on the river. That may be special, but the truth is the lock did not make a significant contribution to the economic or cultural development of the falls or the city. Although there is a story to be told about the Mississippi River’s vital lock and dam navigation system, this abandoned lock does not need to be frozen in time, with all its parts and pieces preserved, to tell that story.

Looking anew at the lock

Instead of making this large structure a focus of history like a relic, I believe we should allow significant modification and new uses. Let the lock be a foundation for telling the broader story of this historic place. And, with the guidance of this land’s Indigenous peoples, perhaps provide a healing of what is also a sacred place.

When considering modifications, clearly, all critical infrastructure — including the highwater overflow channel, the upstream gates and surrounding portions of the lock that are at the upstream end of the lock — will need to be preserved. The 1869 cut-off wall that runs beneath the river, and which is critical to maintaining our city’s water supply, is located more than 100 feet upstream from the lock. Any potential effects on the cut-off wall by work on the lock should be thoroughly studied.  

The other consideration is the massive concrete walls of the lock, which run from 8 to 20 feet thick. Along with current notions of what qualifies as historic, it is perhaps the lock’s apparent indestructability, and thus perceived permanence, that leads some to contend we have to live with it as is. The lock is a stone mountain, perhaps. But mountains can be changed and, yes, moved.

In my own dream the other meaning of the word folly comes into play. As a landscape term, it refers to built structures in a garden that are intended to appear as ruins. The riverfront is a place of many actual ruins. I see the upper walls of the lock being quarried down 35 feet, so the inner court –- that place located within the surrounding stone arch arcade — opens again to the grand view of the falls. I see the tall fortress walls of the lock brought down to become a human-scaled platform upon which the community can approach the river and, once again, look up to the falls.

Stone cutting in the past decades has been revolutionized by the use of diamond-wire cutting technology. Instead of hammers and wedges or saws, diamond-studded cable is run through drilled holes and attached to a machine. Together it rips through stone as well as concrete and steel. It wouldn’t be cheap, and yes, noise remediation would be required, but it may also not be prohibitively expensive.

And those giant concrete blocks that are cut from the lock? I see them going to good use re-building the river embankment adjacent to the lock, and perhaps rebuilding the island located just downriver, the last remnants of which were removed to make way for the barge channel that led to the lock.

Concept plan drawing of modified St. Anthony Falls Lock
Current river-side elevation of lock and Stone Arch Bridge
River-side concept elevation of lock and Stone Arch Bridge shown with the lock walls dropped down 35 feet

The rudimentary beginnings of a plan I share here may not be infeasible, or it may be deemed inappropriate or simply undesirable. Let’s take time to make these assessments — both for this dream and the different dreams of others. The point is: At the beginning of a planning and design process as important as this one, we shouldn’t let preconceptions hold us back from either reassessing history or dreaming of new possibilities. It will take extra work and possibly extra expense, but for this truly special place, we will be glad we went the distance.

John Van Heel

About John Van Heel

John Van Heel is a life-long resident of the Twin Cities, calling Loring Park home for more than thirty years. He works as a designer at a Minneapolis architectural firm and has long been active in the community and civic life of the city.