University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

#TBT: 1997 “Someone Should Do Something With the Mississippi River”

May 4, 2017Patrick NunnallyFeatured, Throwback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: 1997 “Someone Should Do Something With the Mississippi River”

I hope you will forgive a slightly self-indulgent post this time: the trajectory of project and program work that has become River Life began 20 years ago this month, in May, 1997.

In the late 1990s, I was working at a number of jobs, including a stint as historic preservation staff with the St. Paul District office of the Corps of Engineers (where my boss was John Anfinson, now superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area unit of the National Park System).  I taught English part time at the University of St. Thomas, located in St. Paul, MN, with part of its campus facing the river.  My good friend Rob Foy in the English Department and I were talking with the coordinator for UST’s then-new Environmental Studies Program, Steve Hoffman, when someone suggested “we should do something with the Mississippi River, since it’s just right there, next to campus.”

The campus of the University of St. Thomas lies just to the right of this image of the Mississippi River Gorge. The ravine coming into the river near the center of the image is the former route of the creek that fed Shadow Falls in the 19th century.

Foy and Hoffman both had full time faculty jobs, so I took the opportunity to take the lead in figuring out what that “something” should be and how we would go about it.  In the next 18 months, between May 1997 and October 1998, the University of St. Thomas Environmental Studies Program led or collaborated on the following:

  • a nature writing contest which attracted a couple of dozen entries. The winners were published in a small chapbook. This was “before the internet” so I don’t think there’s a copy of this collection online;
  • a afternoon “Visit with Gary Snyder” program where the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (Turtle Island, 1975) met and talked with UST students for an afternoon;
  • a Mississippi River cleanup during Earth Day 1998, a tradition which, I was glad to see last month, is continuing;
  • a symposium “River of Dreams: the Humanities and the Upper Mississippi River,” which was held in fall 1998.

This monument to World War I soldiers marks the end of Summit Avenue at the Mississippi River in St. Paul. The campus of the University of St. Thomas is adjacent to this section of park.

By that point, I had moved most of my work to the University of Minnesota, but I think it’s fair to say that the main programmatic and scholarly questions that still animate River Life were initiated during this series of events.  The 1998 symposium, in particular, set a model for our subsequent work, with each session featuring humanities scholars and writers in dialogue with scientists and people whose knowledge of the river came from their community or agency work.

Twenty years is a long time.  I hope the work continues at least another two decades, although it’s unlikely that I will be the one carrying it forward in 2037.  Anyone out there up for an interesting and enjoyable challenge?

#TBT: Hidden Falls Park: Maybe Less Hidden in New Plan

April 13, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Hidden Falls Park: Maybe Less Hidden in New Plan

A week or so ago, I was pleased to see an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that stormwater management at the old Ford plant site could boost water flow over Hidden Falls, an intermittent stream that leaves the vacant industrial property through a steep ravine on its way to the Mississippi River. The Ford plant site, nearly 150 acres of industrial property on a bluff above the Mississippi in St. Paul, is perhaps the premier redevelopment site in the Upper Midwest.  Whatever happens here will have a substantial impact for generations; it’s appropriate that stormwater management is getting a lot of attention.  I have had students develop options for the Ford site and for Hidden Falls Park over the years; it’s an interesting intersection of river and city.

On a whim, I went to the Minnesota Historical Society web site to see what it had for historical photos of the park.  I found two that were pertinent.

Nikon D2X capture of original.

This image, dated to 1938, shows the wall and stairway made by WPA crews in the park.  Only ruins of this structure remain; it’s interesting to see what was there before.  Beautiful work.

As is so often the case when doing historical research, you sometimes find more than you were looking for.  The metadata for this image says that it was made in July 1939 and shows police, WPA officials, and striking workers.  A strike?! What was that about?  In all of my years working on Mississippi River history, the history of labor on and along the river is one subject that I have found very little material about.  Whole new possibilities open up.

But then, it’s the Mississippi River, so I should expect that, right?

#TBT: Megalops in the Blufflands Region c. 1900

March 30, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Megalops in the Blufflands Region c. 1900

Today’s image is from the collections at the University of Minnesota Archives.

The collection in question concerns the Megalops, a research vessel built in 1899 that allowed scientists from the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Normal School, Mankato (now Minnesota State University, Mankato) to study the aquatic life of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.  Metadata for this image, #37 in the collection, indicates it was made around 1900, but no location is listed.  Do any of you have an idea specifically where this might be?

The bluff on the picture’s right places the scene in the blufflands region, reaching from the vicinity of Red Wing down past Dubuque Iowa, almost to the Quad Cities.  The water surface has changed tremendously of course; this shot was made well before the locks and dams built in the 1930s flooded the floodplain forest to ensure a nine foot deep navigation channel for commercial navigation.  The railroad crossing is probably gone also, although it’s possible that sources such as Corps of Engineer charts or photographs documenting the locks and dams may show it.

The village in the foreground might offer a clue, if the right county plat maps or USGS topographic maps could be identified to narrow the spatial focus.  There were several communities such as these along the river at this time, although the railroad was making the river less and less viable as a transportation system. The railroad line appears to hug the shore, while the primitive wagon road snakes through the upland section of the village, dodging what appear to be mudholes before disappearing around the bluff.

If you look at the image on the web page, and click “view full size image” you can zoom in a great deal.  With enough zoom, another community appears on the floodplain past the bluff, in the image’s center-right section.  This is a much more substantial town, with a smoking industrial site of some sort near the water’s edge and what appears to be a very large church set well back from the waterfront.  Unlike the small village in the foreground, this town is likely to still be present in the landscape, perhaps offering a better clue as to precisely where this photo was taken.

Historic photographs: the biggest time-waster on my desk!  Hope you enjoy this one also.

#TBT: Fifty-five Years Ago, Minnesota Had Few Tools to Respond to River Pollution

March 23, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Fifty-five Years Ago, Minnesota Had Few Tools to Respond to River Pollution

There has been a lot written recently about impending changes at the Environmental Protection Agency under the new Presidential administration.  A quick look into the entries at the Minnesota Historical Society’s MNopedia shows that pollution of the Mississippi River was a substantial public concern in 1962-63, nearly a decade before the 1970 establishment of the EPA through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The MNopedia article “Mississippi River Oil Spill, 1962-1963,” by Joseph Manulik (who was a U of MN Honors student when he wrote the piece) details how two spills, both on the Minnesota River, wreaked havoc downstream.  Manulik makes the clear point that the State of Minnesota had poor policy tools to deal with environmental crises.  The spilled oil fouled waterbird habitat as far down the Mississippi as Lake Pepin, killing thousands of ducks and wrecking the aquatic ecology of the river for nearly 100 miles.  But the only state remedy could not be put into action until a health hazard to humans was declared.  At this point in history, very few people ventured near the river, so the state was left with makeshift remedies, including a short-lived involvement of the National Guard. There was no recourse in state or federal law to hold the industrial sites responsible for the oil spills responsible for the accidents.

There is, of course, a lot of posturing and exaggeration about policy directions at the EPA.  But it does seem clear that there is little appetite to return to a pre-EPA world, where rivers burned, waterfowl suffocated, and polluters were held unaccountable.


#TBT: River History Found in all Sorts of Places

March 16, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: River History Found in all Sorts of Places

It probably shouldn’t be surprising, but it is, how many places the Mississippi River’s history shows up.  The fantastic, and fun, Open Parks Network site contains over 200,000 images of items relating to the nation’s over 400 national park units.  OF COURSE they would have great Mississippi River materials on the site!

Actually, not so much, at least coming from a simple “Mississippi River” keyword search.  Of course, there are many other ways to search for river-related items, but I just thought I would share one thing I did find.  Here’s an image that is part of the collections of the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site

The power dam and lock at Keokuk Iowa was a nationally-significant power development when it went online right before World War 1.  It’s hardly surprising that Sandburg would have had this image in his files. What stories about the river and its people does this image elicit? What questions can we ask of it that inform how we think about the river now, a century later?

#TBT: Minnesota Digital Library

March 2, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Minnesota Digital Library

Maybe it goes against the “rules” of Throwback Thursday as a trope (meme?) to write about places that have historical materials rather than places or things that are historic.  Nevertheless, I just have to highlight the materials in the Minnesota Digital Library.

If you’re inclined to go to this site, be forewarned: it’s a time warp.  A couple of weeks ago, I was looking around on the site, having typed “Mississippi River” into the search window.  I honestly didn’t think two hours had passed that fast; at least that’s what I tried to explain when I showed up late for a meeting.

Maps, historic photographs, images of historical documents; you name it, it can be found on this site.  One of the great advantages of the site as a platform is that it encompasses the collections of many libraries and archives across the state.  The range of sources and the rich metadata combine to make this an invaluable stop for “river students” of all sorts.

If any of you end up searching these collections and are interested in writing about what you find, let me know.  The Open Rivers journal is always looking for good articles!


#TBT: Mississippi River is Central in Early Statehood Racial Controversy

February 23, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Mississippi River is Central in Early Statehood Racial Controversy

In 1860, two years after Minnesota became a state and a year before the Civil War would close the Mississippi as an avenue of regional transportation, the Eliza Winston case rocked the village of St. Anthony (now part of Minneapolis). Eliza Winston, an African-American slave, was brought north by her “owners,” a Mississippi family who had come north to escape the heat and humidity of the Southern summer.  As detailed in this article in the invaluable online encyclopedia MNopedia, Eliza Winston connected with influential white and African American community members and sued for her freedom, since slavery was illegal in Minnesota.  Although her suit was successful, she faced mob violence from members of the community who felt that interference with another person’s “property” was a violation of social order.  Under the threat of pro-slavery violence, Eliza Winston was spirited away from where she had been staying with abolitionist sympathizers.

Although this is not a story of water management or the direct impact of the Mississippi River on the city’s material landscape, it nevertheless reiterates the many ways in which the river runs through our history, our stories, and our politics.

#TBT: The Mississippi River in African American Experience

February 2, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: The Mississippi River in African American Experience

The impact of the Mississippi River on the culture, history, and experience of African Americans is, like the river itself, long, deep, complex, and unlikely ever to be fully explored.  Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that it’s relatively easy to form a superficial opinion, for example about “Old Man River” as a song or the Mississippi as part of the Underground Railroad, that then interferes with greater understanding.

Today’s image comes from the Earl S. Miers River Photograph Collection of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.  The metadata places the image as having been made around 1900, at a point when the Mississippi Delta region was home to thousands, if not millions of African American farm workers.

The Miers Collection, in turn, was accessed through the search tools available at the Umbra Search  African American History web site.  Umbra Search is developed by the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota Libraries, with Penumbra Theater.  The name honors the Umbra Society, a group of writers in the 1960s who helped create the Black Arts Movement.  To date, the Umbra Search platform has over 500,000 digital items, gathered from over 1,000 holdings.

Projects like Umbra Search bring the history and experiences of African Americans to research on the contested meanings of water in the United States.  I found the image shown below by typing “Mississippi River” into the Umbra Search search bar and paging quickly through the nearly 1,000 results that popped up.  Given the breadth and scope of collections like those contained in Umbra Search, scholars and others who are serious about the ways water has been a part of American life have no excuses to tell monochromatic water stories any more.

Photo “Mississippi River People” from the Earl S. Miers River Photograph Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

#TBT: “River Therapy”

We’ve maybe all heard of “retail therapy,” where a good shopping trip helps take your mind off your troubles.  As Tuesday’s post described, our current times are full of uncertainty, with lots of things that were formerly thought of as settled, now a bit up in the air.  As an antidote, I offer you this cyanotype image of the Upper Mississippi, made by Henry Bosse roughly 130 years ago:

The image shows wingdams jutting into the river, early efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers to manage the river’s depth and facilitate commercial navigation.  The location, near the short-lived town of Nininger, MN, is in Dakota County, between St. Paul and Hastings, MN.

A restful image, indeed.


#TBT: 2016, when we could no longer see water problems as “just” science or engineering

January 19, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: 2016, when we could no longer see water problems as “just” science or engineering

It is arguable that water issues have never been “just” a matter for science and engineering, but 2016 certainly marks a turning point: the biggest water stories in the past year cannot be fully understood without broad understanding of the political, social, economic, indeed, cultural, dimensions that they raise.

Writing in Circle of Blue, Keith Schneider’s year-end summary illustrates a number of points that clarify how water issues have grown to encompass important new perspectives.  The two biggest water stories in the United States, the crises at Flint MI and Standing Rock ND, both illustrate failures of the old ways in which water has been managed as well as the emergence of new voices, coalitions, and social movements to seek broad-based structural change.  Related to these headline stories, Schneider sees patterns of changing investment in multi-billion dollar water infrastructure projects, “stranded assets” as global energy sources shift, and emerging civic opposition to mismanaged water projects as trends taking place across the globe.  Furthermore, he notes how drought has ravaged countries and economies on nearly every continent.  In the U.S., we tend to hear only about California’s drought; similar conditions in Zimbabwe, along the Mekong, and in India are equally dire.

Closer to home, Brett Walton writes that water affordability has become a “new Civil Rights movement in the United States.”  Again, Flint and Standing Rock have grabbed the headlines, but across much of the country water rates have risen much faster than other segments of the economy, putting stress on low income families particularly in the Midwest and New England.  With water infrastructure repair bills estimated in the trillions coming up in the next decade or so, the stage is set for ongoing debate.

Both of these stories really deserve to be read carefully, and the myriad links and references followed thoroughly.  Together, they set a stage for innovative research, education and policy development that is much more inclusive than we have previously seen.  Citizen involvement in water governance will have to grow and evolve, perhaps through traditional means such as public meetings and community activism, perhaps through forms not yet imagined.  Water is life, and if we are going to understand how and by whom it is managed, there is a sea change of awareness and action needed.


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River Life in Video
Come Along for a Water Walk with Kare11 and River Life, and see Gifts at Work: The Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota Foundation
Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
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.