Lesson 9 – A Brief History of St. Anthony

Lesson 9 – A Brief History of St. Anthony

On July 15, 1838, news arrived at Fort Snelling that the 1837 treaty with the Dakota had been ratified.  With this news, settlement was opented to areas on the east bank of the Mississippi River and beyond the boundaries of the fort.  The first to lay claim at the Falls of St. Anthony was a businessman, entrepreneur, and fort sutler named Franklin Steele.  At the same time, several other settlers laid claim alongside Steele’s claim which laid the foundation for the town of St. Anthony.

St. Anthony Falls
Lithograph of St. Anthony Falls by Hermann J. Meyer

Steele recognized the value of the falls as a natural resource and the river as an important means of travel and for distributing goods.  But, Steele would have to wait to establish his venture.  It was not until 1848 that Franklin Steele officially acquired claim to the land on the east bank of the Falls of St. Anthony.  Steele then built a sawmill and dam on the east channel between Hennepin and Nicollet Islands.  He began cutting timber in 1848 and platted the town site of St. Anthony in 1849.   By 1855, St. Anthony had a population of more than 3,000 and was incorporated as a city.

The city of Minneapolis rose up on the west bank of the Mississippi River around the Falls of St. Anthony.  Settlement was not open along the west bank until 1852, after the Treaty of the Traverse des Sioux had been ratified.  Minneapolis grew quickly and was incorporated in 1867.  The town of St. Anthony was absorbed by Minneapolis in 1872.

Writing in his journal, traveler Frank Blackwell Mayer left a description of the Falls of St. Anthony in 1851:

“The falls of St. Anthony extend, in a nearly strait line, across the Mississippi, being divided by an island which extends about a mile and a half up the stream.  The beauty of one portion of the falls has been almost entirely destroyed by the saw mill which has been built immediately above, and the other portion has lost much of its wildness and beauty by the lodgement of numbers of logs which have come over the falls during freshnets, having escaped from the dam where they are collected to supply the Saw mills.

The height of the falls is not over twenty feet and the entire width of the river about half a mile.

The waters pour over in a flood of amber color graduating into a snowy whiteness as it approaches the rocks beneath.  The islands in the vicinity are covered with pine and other foliage, and below the falls their rocky sides present a picturesque appearance.  The western side of the river has few trees and the county is prairie.  To the East is the village of St. Anthony with an elevated country at the back of it.  It is destined to become a great manufacturing point, the water power being one of the finest in the world.  This will be applied, however, at the expense of the beauty of the scenery of the Falls which, when first viewed by whites, must have presented a beautiful appearance.  The presence of saw mills, dams, races, and logs, will soon destroy its beauty entirely, I fear.  The falls are over ledges of sand stone, the channel is level and of solid rock.  The falls seem to have been gradually receding from the junction of the Minnesota to their present position.”

Excerpt from Ceding Contempt:

After climbing the long, ascending hill alongside the fort we arrived at the front of the sutler’s store which was operated by Mr. Steele.  Above the door was a large wooden sign which read, The Best Stocked Store in the West.

“That is not just a saying,” declared Mr. Steele.  “It really is the best stocked store in the West.”

“Remarkable,” I said in an effort to be polite.

Anna scoffed.

“I have made quite a name for myself here in Minnesota,” bragged Mr. Steele with his head held high.

“I don’t understand,” I said quizzically as I began to wonder how a fort sutler could become so successful.  “You must have other ventures beyond your role as sutler.”

“Oh, indeed,” exclaimed Mr. Steele.  “I began as the fort sutler, but my profits have come through lumbering.  After moving here in 1838, I quickly realized the potential of the lumber industry in this region.  As soon as I could I opened a few sawmills and the profits soon followed.  Today I am a partner in the Mississippi Boom Company and the Rum River Boom Company, the two largest lumber firms on the frontier.  Not only that, but a few years back I purchased Nicollet and Boom Islands and platted the town of St. Anthony.  I have built a sawmill at the falls of St. Anthony and business is good.  Just wait,” he said excitedly, “in a few years the town of St. Anthony will be bursting with people and industry just like St. Paul is today.  They will be two great sister cities.”

“I see now how you have come to stock your store so well,” I admitted.

“It has required much foresight and shrewd dealing, but yes, the lumber industry has been good to me,” declared Mr. Steele with a satisfied smile.

Read more about the history of St. Anthony

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Bertha L. Heilbron, Ed., With Pen and Pencil on the Frontier in 1851:  The Diary and Sketches of Frank Blackwell Mayer, (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society, 1986).

John O. Anfinson, River of History:  A Historic Resource Study of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, (St. Paul:  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2003).

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