University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

#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

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

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.


#TBT: Headwaters Dams on the Mississippi River

In the dead of winter, the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities appears sluggish, barely moving under a thin sheet of ice or snow.  Water continues to course over St. Anthony Falls, certainly, and the patterns of ice and falling water provide beautiful studies for those hardy enough to go outside and study them closely.

Over a century ago, the river would often hardly flow at all in winter, with precipitation falling as snow that stayed put where it fell rather than running off into the river.  Low flows were a problem for millers at St. Anthony, of course, since the mills operated on a combination of hydropower and electricity generated through other means.  Beginning in the early 1880s, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed dams on several of the headwaters lakes on the Mississippi River, holding back water and releasing it during autumn and early winter to allow a steady supply of water at the Falls.

MNopedia, the online encyclopedia of Minnesota history developed by the Minnesota Historical Society, has an informative article on the headwaters dams.  The article mentions, but does not emphasize, the fact that the dams flooded villages and rice beds that had been inhabited and used by Ojibwe people, and that disputes over compensation and eventual relocation added to the whole long sordid history of treaty dealings between the United States and Indian nations.

The point of bringing these matters up is that we often have to understand developments far afield, and well in the past, to fully grasp what is going on immediately in front of us.  The water flowing over the concrete apron at St. Anthony today is the result of dozens, if not hundreds, of contingent, specific decisions made at remote times and places.  It’s a truism to historians, but a revelation to many others that “things didn’t have to turn out the way they did.”  By the same token, our future courses are not inevitable either.

#TBT: Chicago, 1908, Water

November 3, 2016Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Chicago, 1908, Water

Some of us have heard a lot about Chicago and 1908 over the past few weeks, that year being, until last night, the most recent time the Cubs won the World Series.

Here, in honor of last night’s win, is a view of the city from that year.  Notice parkland along the lake, and also the contrast between the armature of parks laid out for the 1892 World’s Fair, all in rectilinear patterns, and the fact that rivers are not included in the park system.  The north branch of the Chicago River, to the right, appears more or less to go through the city on it’s “natural” course.  By contrast, the south branch already shows signs of being re-engineered to carry waste away from Lake Michigan and down the Illinois River to the Mississippi.

Of course, there’s a LOT more that could be said about that little bit of folly!


Photo from

#TBT: The Harahan Bridge in Memphis: A Century of Crossings

October 27, 2016Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: The Harahan Bridge in Memphis: A Century of Crossings

It’s cheating, I suppose, to post a Throwback Thursday blog where someone else did all the work, but I’m in Memphis today with the annual meeting of the Mississippi River Network.  So when I saw that the local paper, the Commercial Appeal, had put together a slide show of the Harahan Bridge over the years, the opportunity was too good to miss.

The Harahan Bridge was opened in 1916 to increase the rail capacity crossing the Mississippi at Memphis.  Over the years it carried cars and trucks as well, until the roadways closed in 1949.  The northern side roadway is being reconstructed as a bike-pedestrian facility that is expected to open, literally, any day now and to be part of a 10 mile system that will connect the downtowns of Memphis and West Memphis, AR.

When I worked as the Executive Director of Mississippi River Trail, Inc, connecting bike trail projects up and down the Mississippi River, a bike facility on the Harahan Bridge was considered a pipe dream, a fantasy in the “if only someday” category.  Looks like “someday” has arrived!

#TBT: What Does a 1930s ‘Redlining’ Map Show about Minneapolis?

October 20, 2016Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: What Does a 1930s ‘Redlining’ Map Show about Minneapolis?

The short answer is “lots.”  The newest project from American Panorama, “Mapping Inequality,” digitizes maps created for the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) between 1935-1940.  Of course, color-coded credit-worthiness and risk is not a neutral analysis; HOLC maps and their biases have been evidence for countless studies examining 20th century patterns of housing discrimination, uneven urban investment, and other spatial developments in America’s largest cities.

The Introduction to the American Panorama site contains a more thorough treatment of the HOLC maps and their significance.

For us, committed as we are to understanding the “water landscape” of the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis map is a gold mine of spatial information.  Sure enough, much of the Minneapolis riverfront is cross-hatched showing “business and industrial” land use.  Radiating outward, though, are broad swaths of red “hazardous” and yellow “definitely declining” blocks.  Only a small part of the Mississippi River-adjacent city shows as green “best” or blue “still desirable.”

Creeks feed into rivers, though, and all surface waters are connected, so it’s important to look at the areas around Minnehaha Creek and the Chain of Lakes south and west of downtown.  These areas show most of the city’s “green zones,” which is no surprise to historians of the city’s park system: building infrastructure for attractive neighborhoods by protecting water bodies was a big part of what the Minneapolis Park Board intended during its earliest decades.

There is much more that can, and I hope will, be said about these maps.  As always, comments are welcome, and if a comment/analysis proves extensive enough, we can post it as another blog entry.

#TBT: Student project on Possible River Futures

October 13, 2016Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Student project on Possible River Futures

Okay, I’m just having fun here, playing the concepts of “throwback Thursday” and “river futures” against each other.  The “throwback” part is that, six years ago, we worked with an extraordinary team of design students on a project called “Imagine the Mississippi.”  The “futures” question is that the students proposed 30 ideas that would allow people to get closer to, even touch, the water in the Central Minneapolis Riverfront area.

Lest you think the work of students is all fantasy and pie-in-the-sky, take a good look at what’s contained here.  Remember, this was done in 2010, before “River First” had even been thought of, much less developed and adopted as policy.  Nevertheless, Idea #1, “Hall Island Swimming Hole,” is now on the Minneapolis Park Board’s list of capital projects as a signature piece of the long term River First agenda.

Lovers of irony will appreciate Idea #6 “Upper Lock Pool,” which states “Because the Upper St. Anthony Lock is facing a possible closure in the next few decades…”  Wrong: the Upper Lock closed in 2015, but no one thought it would be that quick.  Who says students are living in “their own little world?”

Take a look at the ideas in “Imagine the Mississippi”: what will a Throwback Thursday in 2026 be looking at and saying “how did they know that would happen?”  I’m hoping for Idea #5 “St. Anthony Falls Restoration.”

#TBT: What can Old Photos Tell Us About Water Quality?

October 6, 2016Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: What can Old Photos Tell Us About Water Quality?

Per Tuesday’s post about the State of the River Report, the Minneapolis Star Tribune river series and other “water in the news” these days, it seemed opportune to try to see if certain kinds of historical data/records convey information similar to what we are now hearing about in these accounts.  Can photographs from the past show us river conditions?

The answer is, yes, but only in limited ways.  Obviously, all we have is what people decided to photograph and what (other) people decided to put in archives.  So we have images from particular events like floods more than pictures of more everyday scenes.  The whole question is worth a closer, more systematic look (Honors thesis, anyone?) but here are two brief examples:


This image from the Mississippi River flood of 1943 in Minneapolis shows water encroaching on a residential area.  It’s reasonable to surmise the sorts of loose materials, garbage, and other detritus that the floodwaters will carry from place to place.  Whatever is in the drum in the foreground may be leaking.  Further research would be necessary to determine if this particular location had stormwater and sanitary sewer connections or if human and animal waste just went straight to the river.  Regional sewage treatment had begun by this point, and further research would be able to determine what the particular treatment entailed.


Another flood image, this time of a Minneapolis lumberyard.  Loose material is evident in the picture’s center and the ground plane is undoubtedly a mix of sawdust, mud, and other materials.  Accounts from the 19th century indicate that at times the river was so full of sawdust that steamboats grounded where the sawdust and scraps had piled up on the river bed; this 1938 photograph was made after the federal 9 foot channel project had been implemented so it’s unlikely that there was THAT much lumberyard trash in the river!

Seventy years from now, in 2085 or so, what will images from today show about the modern Mississippi River, and how will those images support arguments about water quality that are contained in news accounts and “State of the River’ reports?

Contact Us!
Send us a note at to make suggestions for other places we should look, media to track, and stories to tell!
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.