University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

“Water Ways” Program Sets New Path for Water Education

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.

TBT: Turning Marshes into Lakes

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.

Rivers and Human Systems: Grasping Water

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!

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.


Coming to Terms with Mark Twain

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.

TBT: City and River on the Cusp of Change

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.


You Should Read This: “Edgy Stuff” from the Edge Effects digital magazine

Graduate students from the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Culture, History, and the Environment produce a digital magazine called Edge Effects.  The most recent issue features recommendations by editorial staff members and provides a good point of entry to a resource that offers much of value.  You really should read this.

None of us can really concentrate on one “subject” any more and hope to speak to important issues outside a limited specialty.  Edge Effects makes a virtue of this necessity, offering a variety of essay forms addressing a wealth of particular topics.  There’s something here for the subject that you know you’re interested in, as well as something that will spark a previously-unimagined connection.

The writing is accessible to nonspecialists, and arises from learning and reflection rather than always responding to the latest “issue of the day.”  For me, work such as Edge Effects offers the highest promise of the land grant university: writing that addresses the interested and reflective public and that offers new perspectives, ideas, and connections among seemingly-disconnected subjects.

TBT: The Mississippi River Gorge as “natural”

There is a growing buzz about making the Mississippi River Gorge in Minneapolis more “natural.”  It’s certainly a fine idea to talk about and plan for restoration of some features and dynamics that the river had at this place in the past.  But we should not rely on a static concept of “nature,” in large part because “nature” simply isn’t static.  So “restoration” of any dynamic system like a river requires close attention to the complex question: Restoration to what condition?

With these ideas in mind, here are some images from the gorge, each of which shows it before the installation of the Ford dam.

Lake St. Bridge looking upstream c 1888

The Lake Street bridge is in the foreground of this image, which is oriented to look upstream.  The metadata for the image lists it as being taken around 1888, although the inscription on the right above the bridge says “1883-4.” The very shallow water conditions, illustrated by expansive mud flats, indicate the time of year is probably autumn.

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

old Franklin Ave br and Meeker Is. 1900

If the metadata/caption for this 1900 photograph is correct, the orientation of the shot is downstream, with the Franklin Avenue Bridge in the foreground and Meeker Island in the middle distance.  The rapids around the island, however, appear to indicate the water is flowing toward the camera.  Any historically-minded river rats out there have a good read on this image and which way the river is flowing?

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

parkway postcard 1910

The part of this postcard image that strikes me the most is the caption: “A view of the Mississippi River between the Twin Cities Minn.”  At the time this card was made, around 1910, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul had not yet physically grown into one contiguous urban space.  The Mississippi River gorge served as a semi-wild “natural” space between the two urban industrial centers, each then at the height of its regional importance as milling and shipping centers.

Image source Minnesota Historical Society.

“Building Inclusive and Sustainable Relationships with the Mississippi River”

A persistent challenge to our River Life program have been the questions: what exactly do you folks DO?  What questions do you ask? What impact do you have?

To some extent, the persistence of these questions is a good thing.  At universities, we get to explore complex matters, and go where the shifts in conversations take us.  By contrast, our partners off campus are limited by their organization’s mission, or by funding, or by expectations of the public.  They can move around a little bit, but the Minnesota Historical Society ought to keep dealing with Minnesota’s past, and the National Park Service really needs to be focused on qualities that make this stretch of the river unique, and bringing those qualities to the public nationally as well as here at home.

Our job, on the other hand, is to think differently than our partners.  Not having responsibility for public programs, or for stewardship of public lands, we can tend to our main businesses, which are educating the public, particularly young people, and developing new knowledge.  In both of these areas–education and research–River Life takes very seriously our charge to conduct our work in collaboration with partners from off campus, as well as forging interdisciplinary relationships on campus.

So what is our area of study?  We look at how we–the university, our partners, our communities–can build more inclusive and sustainable relationships with the Mississippi River.  Our focus is necessarily somewhat parochial; our partners, after all, are responsible for lands and waters here, in the Twin Cities metro area.  Furthermore, the Twin Cities region is a great “laboratory” to understand the development and function of complex urban water systems.

But our focus necessarily has to widen out to include the watershed of our “home river,” and a consideration of the river and its communities as they live downstream, absorbing what we have done to the river here. Moreover, we learn a lot about conditions and circumstances and possibilities here by understanding conditions, circumstances, and possibilities elsewhere, across the country and around the world.

Sounds simple: building sustainable and inclusive relationships with the Mississippi River.  But I have a feeling this work will keep us busy for a while.

Fort Snelling and Hidden Falls Park from Two Rivers Overlook.

Fort Snelling and Hidden Falls Park from Two Rivers Overlook.

#TBT: Summer Reading about Rivers

Well, “Throwback Thursday” doesn’t mean we have to go very far back, right?  In the spirit of (hoped for) summer reading time, I offer the Introduction to Issue 2 of Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi, which went live last month:

We commonly think of rivers as, for the most part, staying where they belong, in the river bed, occasionally coming out into the floodplain under fairly predictable conditions conducive to high water that we call “floods.”

The writing in this issue of Open Rivers belies this notion of predictability, to a large degree. In disparate ways our authors write as if rivers should be understood as fundamentally restless, existing under conditions that are dramatically changing. The terms we use to describe these changes matter a great deal; is a flood a “disturbance” or part of the river’s inherent dynamic? Christopher Morris asks us to reflect on this distinction. More pointedly, Richard M. Mizelle Jr. reminds us that periods of high water are commonly understood to be shaped by a combination of “natural” and “intentional” factors; what is consistent is that the people suffering the worst impacts are communities of color and the poor.

Much of the work in this issue of Open Rivers is derived from the spring 2015 symposium, “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change,” which was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through a John E. Sawyer Seminar grant. The essays by Patrick Hamilton and Lark Weller, plus Phyllis Mauch Messenger’s interview with meteorologist Paul Huttner all speak directly to the impacts a changing climate may have on rivers. If rivers have an inherent (and cultural) instability, and are manifestly affected by a changing climate, then how can we “know” the rivers in our landscape?

Other writers represented here have answers, to one degree or another. Kirk MacKinnon Morrow offers us a pathway to learn about the Mississippi by listening to the Dakota, the people who have lived in this place for the longest time. Kate Brauman suggests that “big data” can help us understand worldwide water issues, but only to a degree. Simi Kang recommends learning from one of the preeminent historical geographers in the country. And Len Kne reminds us that mapping is always a valuable way to understand what’s around us.

If you have noted a great deal of equivocation in this introduction, that is because equivocation may be an apt rhetorical stance for addressing a changeable subject such as rivers. Our knowledge must, to a large degree, be understood as contingent rather than definitive. Toward that end, we expect that the writing and images offered here will be the first word in provocative discourses, rather than the last word that settles things “once and for all.”

Happy reading!

and Happy Summer!


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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.