University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

About Patrick Nunnally

As the coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s River Life program, Pat Nunnally works to establish lasting relationships among the University of Minnesota and groups working on river sustainability. In the past two decades, Nunnally has developed a unique practice as a consulting historian, communications manager and interpretive planner, with a focus on rivers, trails and scenic byways. He has organized events and conferences with a Mississippi River connection, and has presented his work at numerous academic and professional meetings. He’s also worked with public agencies and private firms on many planning projects for culturally sensitive sites. Nunnally’s writings have appeared in a variety of forms, including the ongoing blog River Talk. His latest published piece is a short reflection on the importance of diverse stories in shaping an inclusive future for the Mississippi River. The City, the River, the Bridge, an edited collection of essays examining the consequences and aftermath of the I-35W bridge collapse, will appear in January 2011. Since 1999, Nunnally has served on the U of M faculty, teaching classes in landscape planning and urban studies. He holds graduate degrees in English, American studies and landscape architecture from Vanderbilt University, the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota.

Innovations in Practice, Teaching, and Learning

Given what we do–that is, explore innovative ways to manage, understand, and teach about the Mississippi River, we find ourselves learning about innovations of all sorts.  If you, also, are in the “innovation business” (or, with a nod to our NPS partners, in the “forever business” but looking for new ways of working), then the newest online seminar offering from the University’s Center for Educational Innovation may be for you.  The focus on intercultural inclusive teaching and learning makes this work strongly align with our emerging focus in this area.  Here’s the blurb for the course and links for more information:

The UMinnesota Center for Educational Innovation is offering an open, online seminar focusing on Intercultural Inclusive Learning and Teaching in higher education. The seminar involves participants in active discussion of the basics of universal design for learning as a foundation for discussing key contemporary issues in promoting social justice in the classroom.  From these discussions, participants build their own teaching and learning materials for current and/or future courses.  Past participants found seminar discussions deeply thought-provoking, shared materials diverse and useful, and badge-earning activities to practically assist them in developing better courses:

One thing that is bubbling up for me is the idea that discussion (in varying formats) coupled with some form of reflection (also in varying formats), offers tremendous potential to harness the power of difference….Sharing thoughts and ideas with a community so genuinely and deeply committed to this work has left me with much more than a set of ideas I can put into practice.  I am committed to helping build “a curriculum that deeply includes everybody.” – 2015 seminar participant

The seminar is designed for graduate- and professional-level learning, and we welcome multiple modes of participation in the seminar:

  • Participating in the forum discussions during some or all of the five modules to reflect on specific, personal or professional interests.
  • Using the module discussion forums as a springboard for participation in the badge-earning activities, which include peer and facilitator responding to teaching/learning artifacts or documents participants create.
  • Inviting a small group of peers to form a learning community, making use of the seminar materials for their own local conversations.
  • Drawing on the seminar modules as the base for a credit-bearing or professional development endeavor at their own institution.

To learn more visit To register as a participant complete the Google Registration form at To discuss earning graduate course credit at the University of Minnesota contact Ilene Dawn Alexander, the U’s instructor of record for this seminar.

#TBT: St. Paul Gets Serious about Riverfront Revitalization


This view of St. Paul’s Upper Landing area dates from the very early 2000s.  The Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM) and parking ramp are new features of the riverfront.  The old head house and sack house from the Farmers Union Elevator  (left foreground) have not been renovated yet.  There is no development of residences or small businesses or parks yet on the Upper Landing.

All of this would change within a decade, but the commitment shown by the Board of the Science Museum was the catalyst that led to the ensuing hundreds of millions of dollars of public and private investment.  In the late 1990s, it was becoming apparent that the SMM was outgrowing its space in downtown St. Paul.  Much of the programming at the museum involved school groups from southern and western suburbs, and there was considerable internal debate about abandoning St. Paul for a more suburban location.

Instead, the SMM committed to the St. Paul riverfront, putting around $100 million into the development of the new facility.  The museum has become a major visitor destination, and, together with the new (at least at the time) River Centre, Xcel Energy Center (home of the Minnesota Wild hockey team plus arena concerts) and a refurbished Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, has made this part of St. Paul’s downtown an extremely vibrant locale.

In 2003 the National Park Service opened a Visitor Center in the SMM, a contact station for NPS visibility that reaches tens of thousands of people every year.  The renovated Mississippi River Visitor Center will re-open next week, to recognize the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service.

For St Paul, revitalization started with a commitment to the river.

36 Hours with the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities

A friend of mine pointed me last week to the New York Times’ most recent “36 Hours” travel feature, on Minneapolis.  It’s a nice story, and of course I appreciate that it leads with a Mississippi River mention.  Others have commented on concepts such as the absence of St. Paul, etc.  These columns  typically address people who have a lot more money than I do and are focused on eating, drinking, and shopping.

We could do a lot of alternative itineraries for 36 hours in the Twin Cities; I’ll offer one that is river-centered and somewhat aspirational.  In other words, I’ll list things to do on this itinerary as if they could all be scheduled exactly to fit.   I’m listing programs that are currently available, and utilizing some creative license and assumptions about hours of access etc. to make this all fit together.

Note: Web links are correct as of mid-August 2016.  Some adjustments may need to be made if you are accessing these venues and events after that point.


3:00       Fresh off the plane, start at Fort Snelling State Park, which has important materials about the Dakota history of  this place in the visitor center and out in the park itself.  The Twin Cities is original Dakota homeland, and that                  perspective should be your starting point.  Dakota voices and perspectives can be found on the Bdote Memory Map (“Bdote” is a Dakota term for places where waters join, which have special significance in Dakota culture).

5:00       Walk the Minneapolis Central Riverfront Mill District and have dinner at any of several restaurants that have emerged in this center of historic preservation and interpretation.  Be sure to walk across the Stone Arch Bridge for views up and down the river and of St. Anthony Falls, the only waterfall along the Mississippi’s 2,500 miles.

9:00       Go to the Guthrie Theater’s “Endless Bridge” for dusk/evening view and a drink at one of the bars in the building.


9:00       Embark on a canoe paddle in the Mississippi River Gorge with Wilderness Inquiry, leaving from East River Flats, just below the campus of the University of Minnesota.

11:00     Join Friends of the Mississippi River  and its Gorge Stewards group for a habitat restoration event.

1:00       Take a Nice Ride bike to Sea Salt restaurant in Minnehaha Park.  While the restaurant is not technically right on the Mississippi, a short after lunch hike down Minnehaha Creek takes you to the river.

4:00       You are probably tired by now!  Take a narrated tour with Padelford Riverboats from Harriet Island in St. Paul.

7:00       The Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities has been designated as the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service.  Check out NPS Mississippi River Visitor Center in the Science Museum of Minnesota  to plan for the next day.

8:00       Downtown St. Paul has undergone a substantial revitalization in the past two decades, owing largely to the city’s embracing its relation to the Mississippi.  Any number of restaurant guides can direct you to something that fits your taste and is close to the river.


9:00       One of the hottest redeveloped neighborhoods in St. Paul is Lowertown, the warehouse district at the historic head of navigation on the Mississippi.  The Lowertown Farmers Market is a good place for breakfast, as is the historic Latino community across the river on the West Side, now known as District del Sol.

11:00     You can’t really call your visit to the Twin Cities Mississippi River complete without taking at least one Park Service tour.  We recommend Bike with a Ranger.

So, what did I miss?  What essential experience needs to be added (and what would you take out)?  It’s harder than it would seem to be, putting this plan together! I would love to hear your comments, additions, revisions, either about this particular proposal or a whole other direction for a river-centered tour.  What about the lakes, which after all, are connected to the river? A water tour?


#TBT: Mississippi/Minneapolis-before the Park

west side SAF 1980

This photograph from the Minnesota Historical Society’s collections is dated August 1980, which means it shows some of the most heavily-visited sections of the Minneapolis riverfront as they appeared 36 years ago.  Industrial-scale milling had largely disappeared from the area, but much of the historic built form remained, particularly the intact Washburn-Crosby A Mill (now Mill City Museum) in the center of the picture.  At left, grain elevators stand approximately where the Guthrie Theater currently is.  The pale shapes seen just above the Stone Arch Bridge and the lock wall in the center of the picture are probably gravel piles; the central riverfront location now known as Mill Ruins Park was formerly a gravel storage site.

It took a bold imagination in 1980 to envision this area’s future as a tourism and recreation destination that would anchor a National Park.  Yet before the 1980s were over, important steps had been made to secure precisely that future.  In 1988, state legislation established the St Anthony Falls Heritage Board, an assemblage of several local units of government, together with state legislative involvement, that would help shape the future of this area.  Also in 1988, the federal government established the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area as a unit of the National Park Service.

August 2016 marks the Centennial of the National Park Service.  Today’s #Throwback Thursday and the next two, to be posted August 18 and 25, commemorate that milestone by examining particular components of what has become the only National Park Service unit dedicated to protecting and interpreting the Mississippi River.

Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Open Rivers Issue 3: Water, Art, and Ecology

We are very pleased to announce that Issue 3 of our online journal Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi is now available.  Read it online and/or download PDFs (either of the entire issue or of particular parts).

This issue is largely oriented around a theme of “Water, Art, and Ecology.”  A year ago, as she was finishing her term as postdoctoral fellow with our Mellon-funded grant “Making the Mississippi,” Nenette Luarca-Shoaf suggested that maybe an issue could be devoted to recent artistic expressions of water.  She was in the middle of organizing a session of the 2015 Southeastern College Art Conference on “Fluid Currents: Water, Art, and Ecology,” and she thought some of the talks might lend themselves to this format.

Indeed they do.  Articles such as Jayne Wilkinson’s “Liquid Economies: Networks of the Anthropocene” both broaden and deepen out reach.  Wilkinson’s work considers waters from across the world and places images of these waters in popular and social discourses of environmental change, concerns about catastrophic climate alteration, and urgencies for action.  People whose daily work focuses on the future(s) of the Mississippi River would do well to gain insights from thoughtful, provocative treatments of other waters and issues that are connected to ours here, even though they appear far afield.

We’d like to think of this issue of Open Rivers as defining a particular, rich spot on a spectrum of publications on water.  Many of the features are grounded in humanist intellectual and scholarly conversations, though they address much broader issues.  They are all accessible to educated, informed, laypeople, although some of the necessarily specific language can be a reach for people not working in these particular fields.  But all of these pieces inform our broad project of understanding our relationships with water much more deeply and, from those understandings, formulating more sustainable and inclusive programs, policies, and research/teaching agendas.

Happy reading!  We would love to hear comments, either through the Comments feature here or to me directly at pdn@edu.  If you have suggestions for future issues or articles, we always welcome those as well.

#TBT: the Memphis Riverfront when “Cotton Was King”

LOC Memphis

This image, from the collections of the Library of Congress, dates from 1942.  The long sweep of the wharf was the platform for loading and unloading cotton, the dominant crop from the Mid South’s agricultural economy for more than a century.

Both of my parents are from Memphis, and I visited regularly as a child in the mid 20th century.  By then, the riverfront had become “no man’s land,” the shipping function having been supplanted first by railroads and, later, by the interstate highway system.  Our family story, though, was that my maternal grandfather, a civil engineer by training, got involved with conservation work “because I got tired of standing on the levee and seeing the soil of Iowa and Illinois go by.”  He and I never talked about the river; he passed years before I became involved in river work.

My mother, born in 1935, would have been six years old when the picture was made.  In 1942, the family was stationed on the west coast with my grandfather serving in the Navy, Pacific theater.  Even if they had been in town, the closest my mother would have gotten to the riverfront would probably have been the Peabody Hotel, seen here in the right side of the image.  When I was growing up, a popular saying was “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel.” The lobby was the place where planters and politicians gathered to do business and cut deals.  The lobby is still there, although I seem to think the hotel is in a different location, but everything else in this picture is utterly changed.

Photo source, Library of Congress

A Mississippi River National Historic Trail?

This article on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail raises the question of what a Mississippi River National Historic Trail might encompass:

  • route(s) associated with explorer/colonizers?
  • route(s) associated with the movements of ideas and culture, such as jazz and the blues?
  • route(s) associated with movements of “natural” resources such as fish or bird migrations, particular habitats, etc.?

The Twin Cities, of course, is home to the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, but that is only a 72-mile stretch of the Mississippi’s 2500 mile +/- length.  Other regional efforts are achieving notable successes, but many people and organizations still have a dream of “One Big River Collaboration.” The Chesapeake model is water-based, and has a strong thematic and historical grounding, both excellent starting points for Mississippi River work.

That dream may simply be too big for the whole river, except as a virtual connector through some sort of expanded, linked mapping effort.  The Chesapeake folks, though, could be a good model or starting point for broader, integrated thinking.  There seem to be two elements of that program, in particular, that are salutary for Mississippi River work: The Chesapeake program is broadly based in partnerships, even to the point where the web presence breaks out of the NPS web template.  Secondly, and more important, the presence of indigenous people both historically and continuing into the present, is an inescapable part of the overall vision and mission of the site.  Indeed, the Chesapeake Trail has been the site of inaugural planning and designation of “indigenous cultural landscapes,” sites that “evoke the natural and cultural resources that support American Indian lifeways and settlement patterns” throughout the Bay.

The National Park Service is justly proud of its record over the first century of its existence.  Here’s something to start on for the second century.

#TBT: Evolution of the Iconic Landscape at the Mississippi Headwaters.

Vacations are in full swing across the country now, and Itasca State Park in Minnesota remains a destination for hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.  Undoubtedly, the most-visited part of the park is the Headwaters of the Mississippi River.  There is even a webcam!

If the webcam gives a sense of this place in 2016, then historic photographs illustrate the changes that have been made to this landscape over the years.

The “headwaters area” assumed its present form as part of efforts to celebrate the centennial of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s “discovery” of the source of the Mississippi in 1832.  As the 1932 centennial approached, the Depression-bound country was trying to find ways to jump-start travel and tourism.  Park leaders altered the land surfaces around where the river flowed out of Lake Itasca, making a “beach” and wading area more suitable for visitors.  Here is a 1940  photograph of the public at the headwaters.  Stepping-stones allow visitors to “walk across the Mississippi River,” while others gather on the beach.Itasca 1940

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

This image, from a different angle and also dated 1940, shows the beach and stones, and clearly illustrates how the beach is raised above the water level.

headwaters c. 1940

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

Earlier views, such as this one from 1925 showing the “first bridge across the Mississippi,” illustrate that the headwaters had formerly been a thicket of wetland vegetation, hardly conducive to visitors.  The bridge approach is built up above the wetland, and there does not appear to be an evident passage on the far side of the bridge.  perhaps it was just created to give the (relatively few, at this time) visitors a better view of the infant river.

headwaters bridge c 1925

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

Itasca State Park was established in 1891, when logging companies still dominated economic activity in the immediate vicinity.  This image, dated 1900, shows largely second-growth pine across the lake.  The fellow bending over to drink from the Mississippi at its source had to “rough it” to get to the headwaters; 40 years later, as we have seen, the path would be far easier.

headwaters c 1900

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

Itasca State Park remains one of the most-visited parks in Minnesota’s state park system.  Learn more, and plan a trip, by visiting the park’s web site managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.


“Healing Hikes”: Now, more than ever, vital for Communities of Color

Last week’s post on offers a central, foundational, connection between the distressing news in our headlines and the work of connecting rivers and open space to communities.  The article’s commitment to #HealingHikes highlights the values that are too often taken for granted in the environmental community, values such as the rejuvenating effect of being in natural surroundings, and connects those values to vital concerns with self-care, health, and endurance.

The article is not long: read it.  Consider well what it says. Read it again. Its eloquence is moving.

I also want to re-post something that appeared in this space 18 months ago, which seems more relevant today than ever.  I don’t think it is coincidence that River Life has recently committed to exploration of how public spaces, particularly those spaces that connect us to rivers and to water, can and must become spaces of more inclusive civic engagement.  Stronger relationships are necessary between Black Lives and the “Green Movement” as well as other place-based commitments to enhancing equity and inclusion in our cities.  The time to start building those relationships and connections is now.

#TBT: The Most Important Place You’ve Never Been to on the Twin Cities Stretch of the Mississippi

That claim might go to other places, like the drinking water plant for Minneapolis, but what I have in mind is Pigs Eye, where the regional sewage treatment plant was built in the late 1930s.


In 1923, when this first photo was taken, the boundary between land and water appeared to be permeable, with channels and oxbow lakes arrayed throughout the wide floodplain just downstream from downtown St. Paul.

Image source Borchert Map Library, University of Minnesota.


This 1940 aerial, taken from a considerably higher altitude, provides a broader context for the land-water interface in the floodplain.  The closing of Lock and Dam #2, at Hastings, in the early 1930s, has undoubtedly affected the river’s hydrology here. Notice the lake’s complexity, though, and the finely grained channels where the lake feeds into the Mississippi, near the bottom center of the image.

Image source Borchert Map Library, University of Minnesota.

Pigs Eye-Google Earth-2016

Zooming out still farther, and updating the image to 2016, we see the Pigs Eye Treatment plant in the upper left of the image and a barge fleeting facility in the center.  Immediately to the left of the barge fleeting facility is a heron rookery, testimony to the complexity that this part of the river retains, despite almost a century of land-water manipulation.

Image source Google Earth.

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A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.