In the winter of 1883, a small, but influential group of determined Minneapolis citizens met to consider how to promote the interests of the rapidly growing city. They decided the city needed parks—an objective long sought, but never achieved.

Bypassing a city council that had never liked the idea—and throughout history has often opposed the park board—they went straight to the state legislature for the authority to create an independent Board of Park Commissioners for the city.

Minneapolis voters approved the Park Act on April 3, 1883, establishing what would become an important contributor to the quality of life in all parts of the city.

Minneapolis parks encompass the city’s defining lakes and the river banks at the core of the city’s development. Acquired by purchase and donation, the parks include features of astonishing beauty, historical significance and ecological wonder, all within a thriving urban setting. More than this, the parks are imbued with personal meaning—the playgrounds that live in the memories of generations of people, are the soul of our communities.

Today, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) is an independently elected, semi-autonomous body responsible for governing, maintaining and developing the Minneapolis Park System. The 6,790-acre system consists of local and regional parks, playgrounds, golf courses, gardens, biking and walking paths, nature sanctuaries, lakes and a 55-mile parkway system.

Take a step back in time to discover how our world-renowned park system got its start.

Historical Timeline

The city of Minneapolis is incorporated in 1856. Citizen Edward Murphy donates land for a park, now known as Murphy Square. An act of the Minnesota Legislature enables the city to hold an election to determine if an independent Park Board would be established. 

Citizens vote and the Board of Park Commissioners (BPC) is established. The 12 commissioners appointed by the Legislature elect Charles Loring, a miller, as the BPC’s first president. Horace Cleveland, noted landscape architect, recommends a system of parks and parkways that focus on natural features. The BPC acquires 80 acres of parkland. James J. Hill completes construction of the Stone Arch Bridge.

The BPC hires Captain William Morse Berry as Superintendent of Parks in 1885. During his 20 years of service major acquisitions include the Chain of Lakes, Minnehaha Falls, Saratoga Springs-Glenwood, Powderhorn, Minnehaha Parkway, Columbia, East River Bank, and The Parade.

Theodore Wirth is appointed Superintendent of Parks in 1906. Portions of Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles are dredged, parkways and paths constructed, park buildings, golf courses and concession stands opened, and recreation programs provided. The Wild Botanic Garden opens in 1907. The creation of the Chain of Lakes is celebrated in 1911.

The Great Depression results in numerous federally funded park projects. Through the WPA and at Wirth’s direction, lagoons are dug, bridges built, creeks rerouted, roads constructed, sidewalks poured, playgrounds installed, gardens planted and art and music programs provided. Christian Bossen becomes Superintendent of Parks in 1935. He fights to preserve jobs and provide quality services to the public during this economically disastrous time. In 1941, the Aqua Follies begin at Wirth Lake.

World War II results in the temporary loss of many employees and numerous park projects are put on hold. Following the war, the GI Bill allowed for massive rehiring and hiring of veterans. Charles Doell is appointed Superintendent of Parks in 1945. The post-war period brings a demand for more playgrounds, open space, athletic fields and year-round recreation programs.

Loring Cascade is demolished and the Auto Tourist Camp at Minnehaha Falls closed. A pipeline is constructed from Bassett’s Creek to Brownie Lake to add water to the Chain of Lakes. Charles Moore is appointed Superintendent of Parks in 1959. The Gateway Park buildings in downtown Minneapolis are demolished.

The Salk polio vaccine is made available to the public and creates conditions where people can gather in groups to socialize and recreate together once again, without the fear of health problems. Robert Ruhe is appointed Superintendent of Parks in 1966. The BPC adopts a “no net loss” land policy. Gateway Park becomes part of a downtown Minneapolis urban renewal project and the Phelps Fountain is moved to Lyndale Park. In 1969, as a result of one of the recommendations of the Brightbill Study, the BPC changes its name to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

Almost all existing recreation building structures are demolished and rebuilt. Standardized design elements identify and unify the Grand Rounds parkway system. A rare prairie remnant along West River Parkway is protected. Dutch elm disease decimates the city’s trees. Invasive species begin their incursion. Women join the maintenance and horticulture divisions. City demographics begin to shift away from a homogenous population. Charlie Spears is appointed Superintendent of Parks in 1978.

David Fisher is appointed Superintendent of Parks in 1981. The Mississippi river front is transformed from an industrial area to residential, commercial and entertainment area. Acquisition and development of parks, open space and related amenities along the river becomes a priority for the Park Board. Major projects include Boom Island, the Sculpture Garden and a new bandstand at Lake Harriet. The 1930s Operations Center is demolished and rebuilt. Elmer the Elm Tree is kidnapped. Reconstruction of the Rock Garden begins. J.D. Rivers’ Children’s Garden opens. The first woman arborist is hired and women are promoted to supervisors for the first time in the maintenance and park police departments. Two major youth initiatives begin: Teen Teamworks and Rec Plus. In 1989, the Park Board receives National Recreation and Park Association’s Gold Medal Award for Excellence.

The Clean Water Partnership is formed and includes the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, City of Minneapolis, City of St. Louis Park, Minnehaha Creek Watershed District and Minnesota Environmental Protection Agency. The Clean Water Partnership works to improve surface water quality and the Chain of Lakes watershed through coordinated efforts such as the construction of wetlands, grit chambers, street sweeping, public education and other best management practices. Youthline and Phat Summer programs begin. Park Police use bikes and horses for patrol. The negative impact of unchecked invasive species is fully realized, and efforts begin to remove them. Eurasian milfoil harvesting begins. Major projects are the Cedar Lake Trail, Bassett’s Creek Trail, Phase II of the Sculpture Garden, Minnehaha Park, the Stone Arch Bridge, Loring Park and wetlands at Lake Calhoun. David Fisher retires in 1999. Mary Merrill Anderson is appointed Superintendent of Parks.

The Kroening Interpretive Center, Mill Ruins Park, the Neiman Sports Complex, Edward C. Solomon Park, Longfellow Gardens and a first-time-ever Headquarters building are dedicated. Mary Merrill Anderson retires. Jon Gurban is appointed Superintendent of Parks in 2004. MPRB celebrates its 125 Anniversary in 2008. The Foundation for Minneapolis Parks publishes the book, City of Parks, which tells stories of how Minneapolis acquired its revered parks and how the park system became an important contributor to the quality of life in all parts of the city.

Jayne Miller is appointed Superintendent of Parks in November 2010. MPRB is named the number one park system in America by the Trust for Public Land in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.