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TBT: A Closer Look at St. Paul as Head of Navigation on the Mississippi River

June 16, 2016Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on TBT: A Closer Look at St. Paul as Head of Navigation on the Mississippi River

It’s become rather commonplace to note that St. Paul MN exists as a city because of its location at the head of navigation on the Mississippi River.  This concept owes a great deal to historical and geographical accident: when the U. S. Army established Fort Snelling in 1820, the land reserved for the fort extended several miles downstream from the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, encompassing marshy lands on both sides of the river.  Above the fort and confluence, the river passed through a narrow, rocky gorge, at the head of which was the falls of St. Anthony. Between the river itself and the military land ownership, the bluff which became St. Paul was as far as steamboats could go in ordinary years.

This is not to say that the steamboat landing at St. Paul remained a “natural” asset for long, as the following series of images makes clear.

steamboats at St. Paul levee c. 1880

The metadata for this image locates it as being taken around 1880.  Such a date would make it about midrange in the “banner years” for steamboat navigation this far north.  As the head of navigation, St. Paul never saw as extensive river use, or for as long, as downstream ports like St. Louis.

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

St. Paul from Dayton's Bluff 1861

This image, from Dayton’s Bluff and made in the early 1860s, shows the St. Paul Lower Landing area about a generation earlier than the previous photo.  The levee area is in the center of the picture; notice how closely the bluff on the left comes to the water’s edge.  Downstream, to the right, the river’s edge is less distinct as it reaches the points where Trout Brook and Phalen Creek enter the main channel.

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

from Daytons Bluff 1926

By the time this photo was taken in 1926 railroads had almost completely supplanted river shipping as a mode of transportation.  The water’s edge has been hardened, and the ground has been filled in to expand the railroad yard (presently the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary).  Notice how different the curve of the water/land alignment is here by comparison with the 1861 image.

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

Lamberts Landing 1936

This image clearly shows ways in which land and water surfaces are being altered at the lower landing, now known as Lambert’s Landing.  The 1936 image shows a hardened, reinforced river edge above what appears to be “made land” for a working space in the foreground.  Steam appears to rise from the railyard in the background and the white cliffs in the right background show the bluff line for Dayton’s Bluff.

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

river terminal 1967

St Paul’s place as the head of navigation on the Mississippi called for land/water surface alteration beyond the immediate vicinity of Lambert’s Landing.  This photo looks downstream from Dayton’s Bluff and was made in 1967, at a point in time when the new interstate highway system was beginning to surpass railroads as the dominant transportation network in the country.  The four lane highway 61 appears on the left, and empty barges are parked to the right, tied up on the river’s west bank, near the site of the relatively new St. Paul airport.  The century of river use between the earliest image in this series and this shot show that the Mississippi River at St. Paul has been intentionally altered in many respects.  An industrial riverfront indeed!

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.


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