River Life http://riverlife.umn.edu University of Minnesota Thu, 14 Jul 2016 13:15:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 #TBT: Evolution of the Iconic Landscape at the Mississippi Headwaters. http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/07/tbt-evolution-of-the-iconic-landscape-at-the-mississippi-headwaters/ http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/07/tbt-evolution-of-the-iconic-landscape-at-the-mississippi-headwaters/#respond Thu, 14 Jul 2016 13:15:12 +0000 http://riverlife.umn.edu/?p=7557 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.


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“Healing Hikes”: Now, more than ever, vital for Communities of Color http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/07/healing-hikes-now-more-than-ever-vital-for-communities-of-color/ http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/07/healing-hikes-now-more-than-ever-vital-for-communities-of-color/#respond Tue, 12 Jul 2016 13:21:48 +0000 http://riverlife.umn.edu/?p=7555 Last week’s post on OutdoorAfro.com 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.

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#TBT: The Most Important Place You’ve Never Been to on the Twin Cities Stretch of the Mississippi http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/07/tbt-the-most-important-place-youve-never-been-to-on-the-twin-cities-stretch-of-the-mississippi/ http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/07/tbt-the-most-important-place-youve-never-been-to-on-the-twin-cities-stretch-of-the-mississippi/#respond Thu, 07 Jul 2016 12:05:30 +0000 http://riverlife.umn.edu/?p=7548 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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TBT: Fourth of July at Harriet Island, St. Paul http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/tbt-fourth-of-july-at-harriet-island-st-paul/ http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/tbt-fourth-of-july-at-harriet-island-st-paul/#respond Thu, 30 Jun 2016 13:58:35 +0000 http://riverlife.umn.edu/?p=7544 Harriet Island in St. Paul represents in one place many of the common patterns for river places in this part of the Upper Mississippi:

  • It is named after a pioneering white person, after the first arriving settlers misunderstood native names for the place and their relationship to it.
  • It has been variously bought and sold, put to public use that has varied over time as the community’s relationship to the river has varied.
  • It has been engineered so thoroughly that its fundamental landform has changed; “Harriet Island” is no longer an island.

Okay, so aside from the fact that there’s really nothing “true” or “accurate” about “Harriet Island,” we can still celebrate a point in its past when it was a popular destination point for St. Paul citizens.  The photo below, taken in 1904, shows the crowd that gathered on Harriet Island to celebrate the Fourth of July.  Quite a crowd!

For a more conventional take on Harriet Island, see this brief note from the National Park Service.

Harriet Island Fourth of July 1904

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

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“Water Ways” Program Sets New Path for Water Education http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/water-ways-program-sets-new-path-for-water-education/ http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/water-ways-program-sets-new-path-for-water-education/#respond Tue, 28 Jun 2016 13:41:31 +0000 http://riverlife.umn.edu/?p=7542 Saturday June 25 marked the official opening of the “Water Ways” program, which will travel to six sites across Minnesota over the next 18 months or so.  The Minnesota Humanities Center is the lead partner on this multi-faceted, path-breaking project; the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in Kandiyohi County is the local partner for the first series of programs.  More information, background, resources for educators and links to related programs such as story maps are available here.

There are a lot of things to like about the Water Ways project:

  • It begins with understandings from indigenous people about the local relationships to water and sense of “here.”  Once we know “where” we are, we can begin to connect with other systems and relationships that make up “who” we are.
  • The grounding in local experience and place makes the effort to “make water visible and understandable” much more accessible.  Many of us have had the basic lessons on the water cycle, but seeing how that works in your town or neighborhood makes the lesson much more memorable.
  • The projects depend on the participation of a wide range of community partners.  It’s not every day that humanities programmers team up with environmental learning centers!  During the first installation of the program alone, there is a children’s concert, two additional music festivals, two paddling events, three community celebrations and a presentation by the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Lower Sioux Community.  The Prairie Woods calendar of events is here.

The federal, state, and media partners and sponsors for Water Ways is a “who’s who” of water and natural resource agencies and groups associated with public programming and community engagement.  Truly a wide-ranging and remarkable set of relationships, all of which focus on directing community attention to water.

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TBT: Turning Marshes into Lakes http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/tbt-turning-marshes-into-lakes/ http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/tbt-turning-marshes-into-lakes/#respond Thu, 23 Jun 2016 13:30:07 +0000 http://riverlife.umn.edu/?p=7534 Last week’s Throwback Thursday featured a relatively detailed look at how land and water surfaces have been altered over time to make St. Paul’s riverfront a transportation hub.  Today I want to suggest that similar processes have taken place for water landscapes that have local, as opposed to regional and national, importance.  As the city of Minneapolis grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Minneapolis Park Board acquired land around many of the region’s lakes and creeks for the purposes of building a system of picturesque parks.  Park historian David Smith discusses the processes by which parkland was created around Lake Amelia (now Lake Nokomis) in a series of posts on the “Minneapolis Park History” blog.

Smith describes the extensive dredging and filling that created shorelines around the lake where before there had been reedy expanses of wetlands.


This 1939 aerial photo, made some 20 years after the shoreline work had begun, shows that the shoreland has been established for the most part, but that some parts in the distance still appear to be wetlands.

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.


With the passage of another 20 years, shore and beach formation appears to have progressed, and a tree canopy has begun to take shape.  Note also how the spread of residential development has approached the park.  From the 1880s beginnings of the Minneapolis Park Board, parks have always been seen as tools to spur development.

More to our point, the brief sketch here of Lake Nokomis’ formation illustrates how much “water landscapes” of the cities have been intentionally shaped through manipulation of both land and water surfaces.

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Rivers and Human Systems: Grasping Water http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/rivers-and-human-systems-grasping-water/ http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/rivers-and-human-systems-grasping-water/#comments Tue, 21 Jun 2016 12:30:04 +0000 http://riverlife.umn.edu/?p=7539 It’s not entirely clear precisely what the organizers of last week’s international workshop “Grasping Water” had in mind with the name of the project.  It could be the case that they meant to allude to the nearly impossible task of actually physically grabbing a handful of water, that task then being seen as a metaphor for the difficulty of mentally “grasping’ the full dimensions of water.  Or perhaps they meant to direct participants’ attention to the water itself in rivers, adding knowledge gained from scientific investigations to the conceptual infrastructure from the humanities disciplines that are their “home  turf.”  Maybe, and we’ve all been there, they just needed a title with the grant proposal deadline looming.

Whatever the case, last week saw the first Summer Institute in Chinese Studies in Global Humanities put on at the University of Minnesota.  Major funding was provided by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, along with nine collaborating units from the University of Minnesota.  The 40 participants came from 13 home countries and, for the most part, study rivers in China, Africa, and North America through humanistic scholarly perspectives.

I won’t work through all of the talks, exchanges and interesting insights from the whole week; those ideas will likely pop up on the blog in various ways throughout the next weeks and months.  But I do think it’s instructive to review quickly the broad questions and topics that the group settled on in the institute’s “summing up” session on Friday:

  • Where does knowledge about rivers come from?  How (or does) the knowledge developed by official sources like government agencies intersect with the perspective of scholars, or advocacy organizations?  Who/what groups are not commonly heard; most particularly how are the perspectives of people indigenous to river regions heard or excluded?
  • What are the scales, both temporal and spatial, at which analyses and investigations are best pursued? Some impacts take decades to emerge while others may be visible right away.  Similarly, some issues can only be understood at a regional or national scale; zeroing in too closely to the actual site of concern may leave the investigator “unable to see the forest for the trees.”
  • How can we get a handle on the “unintended consequences” that almost always accompany a large scale intervention in a river system, such as building a dam?
  • Where does “agency” lie in manipulation of river systems and the associated human systems?  What happens if the group charged with imposing an intervention on a river doesn’t have responsibility or authority to address the chains of consequences for nearby people, for instance?
  • It seems that a broad field interdisciplinary collaboration is required for a rich nuanced investigation of rivers under change.  But the sorts of collaborations required, between scientists, humanists, and scholars from other knowledge bases, are difficult, and require a great deal of time, consideration, and relationship-building.
  • Major interventions in river systems such as dams are almost always justified in terms of making a country or region more modern, or bringing assets such as a steady supply of electricity to an area.  But these claims need to be investigated closely and unpacked for the various unspoken claims that are present as well.

These are big issues, a lot to think about.  I think two conclusions are in order at this point.  The first is that people interested in the Mississippi can learn a lot from studies of far-flung rivers such as the Yellow, the Volta, and the Zambezi.  The second is that, as complex as these issues are, coming to a definitive understanding may be as hard as grasping a handful of water!

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TBT: A Closer Look at St. Paul as Head of Navigation on the Mississippi River http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/tbt-a-closer-look-at-st-paul-as-head-of-navigation-on-the-mississippi-river/ http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/tbt-a-closer-look-at-st-paul-as-head-of-navigation-on-the-mississippi-river/#respond Thu, 16 Jun 2016 12:51:17 +0000 http://riverlife.umn.edu/?p=7527 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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Coming to Terms with Mark Twain http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/coming-to-terms-with-mark-twain/ http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/coming-to-terms-with-mark-twain/#comments Tue, 14 Jun 2016 14:21:22 +0000 http://riverlife.umn.edu/?p=7525 For a long time now I’ve had an uneasy relationship with the work of Mark Twain.  Sure, the books are great, and for many people they form an introduction to the stories and history of the Mississippi River.  For too many people and organizations, though, their knowledge starts and stops with Twain.  Images of steamboats and freckled barefoot boys convey some important elements of the Mississippi, and appear all over in marketing and promotional literature, but have severe limitations as well.  Still, it has always seemed churlish to push “beyond Mark Twain” always, or to find ways to minimize his impact so people can go on to broader, richer, more inclusive stories.

I’ve been reading work recently that in many respects redeems Twain in two important ways.  T.S. McMillin’s The Meaning of Rivers points out very clearly that Sam Clemens could not have become Mark Twain without the detailed and immersive education he got as a cub pilot.  Only after Clemens really learned to see the river, to look closely and understand its every mood rather than ride skimming along over it, did he have the knowledge he needed to make the Mississippi River central to his work.

The music historian Dennis McNally picks up one of the vital and easily-overlooked threads of Twain’s work when he reminds us of the importance of the river to our understanding of race and music in American history and culture.  There’s a lot to quarrel with in McNally’s On Highway 61, and Richard Mizelle’s Backwater Blues is a necessary complement to McNally’s version of events.  Taken together, though, we are reminded that we can’t really understand the importance of the Mississippi River without understanding its importance to black life in America.

Even though the Twin Cities is far upstream of the river as depicted in Twain, Mizelle and McNally, the essential truth remains: until we go beyond the easy anecdotes and images, and really learn to see the river and the myriad people for whom it is and has been central to their stories, we won’t really know the Mississippi.

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TBT: City and River on the Cusp of Change http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/tbt-city-and-river-on-the-cusp-of-change/ http://riverlife.umn.edu/2016/06/tbt-city-and-river-on-the-cusp-of-change/#respond Thu, 09 Jun 2016 12:43:34 +0000 http://riverlife.umn.edu/?p=7522 The image below is listed in its metadata as being of Minneapolis in 1983.  It’s not that I don’t actually believe the date is accurate; I just like to maintain a healthy skepticism in the (very likely) event that someone who knows more can correct a date and offer further insights.

The early 1980s was a period of transition in the relationship between Minneapolis and the Mississippi River.  The City had published a riverfront redevelopment plan, Mississippi/Minneapolis, in the early 1970s, shortly after General Mills had moved its headquarters to Golden Valley.  The Stone Arch Bridge had closed to rail traffic in 1978, further eroding the historical reliance on heavy industry and transportation to define the city-river nexus.  But the transition did not yet have a full sense of direction; it would be five years after this photo, in 1988, before the river corridor in the Twin Cities would achieve national park status and the state legislature would create the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board.  The creation of the Heritage Board marked a significant commitment on the part of the state of Minnesota and local units of government to balance future redevelopment of the Central Riverfront with preservation of the historic fabric of the area.

The changing fabric of the city is also evident toward the bottom of the image.  The Southeast Minneapolis Industrial Area is still in full operation as a rail yard and concentration of grain elevators and storage.  Memorial Stadium still dominates the U of M East Bank campus and University Avenue has not yet begun the resurgence that would be capped, 30 years later, by the completion of the Green Line light rail corridor.  Washington Avenue, crossing the Mississippi in the center of the picture, more closely resembles its past as a major car and truck arterial, than its future as a transit, bus, and bicycle hub.

What other major/interesting changes do you see in this image?

Mlps aerial 1983

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.


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