4801 S Minnehaha Drive
Minneapolis, MN 55417
6 am-midnight in developed areas
6 am-10 pm in undeveloped areas
Wading pools are closed for the season.
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Restaurant: Sea Salt Eatery
Trails lead to Fort Snelling State Park (South)
See what's currently in the works for this park. Some projects may be under the name of the regional park or service area it lives within. View Current Projects
Godfrey Parkway is now closed to all thru traffic for a Hennepin County project that will replace the 46th Street bridge (sometimes referred to as the Godfrey Bridge) over the parkway. The closure will continue through fall 2017.
Bike and pedestrian trail traffic will be accommodated under the bridge during most of construction. The detour for motorized traffic on Godfrey Parkway uses Minnehaha Avenue, 44th Street and West River Parkway. See Hennepin County project page for more information.
Minnehaha Park is home to several sculptures.
Hiawatha and Minnehaha is a life-size bronze sculpture by Jakob Fjelde (also of Ole Bull and Minerva fame) that depicts the characters from the poem “Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It bears the inscription: Over wide and rushing rivers In his arms he bore the maiden.
On exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the sculpture was purchased with pennies donated by school children in Minnesota – an effort organized by Mrs. L.P. Hunt of Mankato – and dedicated in 1912. The sculpture, which rests on a small island in the creek, can be viewed from the water’s edge a short way above the falls.
The Chief Little Crow Mask by Ed Archie Noisecat is located near Minnehaha Falls. Viewers can see the sky through the eyes of Taoyeteduta or Little Crow. The chief was killed in the year following the 1862 Dakota conflict. The area is considered sacred to Native Americans.
The Gunnar Wennerberg statue (1915) by artist Carl Johan Eldh, located at 50th Street and Hiawatha Avenue, depicts Gunnar Wennerberg (1817-1901), a Swedish poet, scholar, composer and politician. The statue portrays him in late nineteenth attire of knee-length coat, buckle shoes and cravat.
Annual Patron Parking Permit: Enjoy parking privileges in specially designated spaces at some of our most popular regional parks. View parking permit details.
Bandstand Reservations: Call 612-230-6400
Parkway Use: You must obtain a permit for special use of the parkway including closures, and dumpsters, trucks, limousines or carriages on the parkway. View parkway permit details. Permit Application [PDF]
Name: The park was officially named Minnehaha State Park when it was purchased by Minneapolis for the state of Minnesota in 1889. In 1906 it was officially designated as a part of Mississippi Park, which included the parkways on both sides of the river and Riverside Park. The name Minnehaha comes from words in the Dakota language that mean waterfall. The popular translation of “laughing waters” comes from a felicitous, but too literal Anglophone translation of “ha ha”.
Acquisition and Development
Minnehaha Falls and the land surrounding it became one of the first state parks in the United States when it was purchased by the state of Minnesota in 1889. Only New York had created a state park at that time. But the state of Minnesota only paid for the park indirectly and never had a hand in maintaining it. The city of Minneapolis put up the money to buy it and managed it from the beginning.
The earliest plans of Minneapolis’s Board of Park Commissioners didn’t address the falls because it was located far outside city limits at the time. Horace Cleveland in his blueprint for the city’s parks in 1883 did not address specifically the development of the land around the falls, although he called it “exceedingly desirable.” The first park board focused instead on developing four neighborhood parks, as well as parks and parkways around the lakes in southwest Minneapolis and the Mississippi River gorge below St. Anthony Falls.
In 1885 the Minnesota legislature passed a bill that authorized the creation of a park at Minnehaha Falls. The legislation was sponsored not by the park board, but by the Minneapolis Board of Trade, the same organization that had drafted the legislation to create the park board in 1883. The governor subsequently appointed a five-member commission to select and appraise the land to be purchased for the park. The commission was headed by the president of the Minneapolis park board, Charles Loring, and also included George Brackett, who was one of the first park commissioners in Minneapolis. The commission selected 123 acres around the falls and along Minnehaha Creek to the Mississippi River. The land was appraised at about $92,000. Property owners whose land was to be taken for the park, however, appealed the appraisals in court and the appeals were not determined in favor of the park commission in time for the 1887 biennial session of the state legislature to purchase the land.
When the legislature met again in 1889, it determined that the money to buy the land was not available and was about to abandon the acquisition until George Brackett took decisive action. With little time to act, Brackett drew up a promissory note for $100,000 and signed it himself. He then collected other signatures on the note from wealthy park supporters in Minneapolis. When he took the note to Henry Brown asking for his signature as well, Brown did better than sign the note. (Brown was a partner in real estate investments with Charles Loring, who was out of the city at the time on his annual winter vacation in Riverside, California.) Brown took $50,000 out of his own bank account, borrowed another $50,000 from his bank and handed Brackett a check for $100,000.
The next day the check was delivered to the governor and deposited in the state treasury. The legislature then approved the purchase of the land for the park, with the understanding that the park would be operated and maintained by the Minneapolis park board. The city of Minneapolis later issued bonds to repay Henry Brown. Seven years later, during a serious economic depression, which must have had a serious impact on Brown’s wealth, he asked the park board to reimburse him for several hundred dollars he had paid in interest on the money he put up before he was reimbursed. Brown acknowledged that he had no legal claim to be reimbursed, but believed that he had a moral claim. The park board rejected his claim, in part because it came so many years after the transaction.
The hidden hand in Brackett’s bold action was likely Horace Cleveland’s. The landscape architect, who had campaigned for many years for the city to protect its natural resources, and had created the first plan for the city’s parks and parkways at the request of the first park board in 1883, delivered a speech in 1888 to the Fine Arts Society of Minneapolis in which he implored the city’s elite to take action to preserve the banks of the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Falls. Cleveland’s eloquent and passionate plea to preserve those “jewels”—his speech was printed and distributed as a small leather-bound pamphlet—likely made it easier for Brackett to persuade wealthy citizens to sign his promissory note.
Cleveland was very familiar with the lay of the land around the falls. In 1888 he had laid out the grounds of the Soldiers Home built on land donated by the city of Minneapolis on the bluff overlooking the confluence of Minnehaha Creek and the Mississippi River. The idea for the Soldier’s Home, intended to care for the many maimed victims of the Civil War, has been attributed to Albert Ames, the mayor of Minneapolis at the time the park board was created in 1883. (Ames opposed the creation of the park board.)
The park board officially accepted title to the land from the state of Minnesota on June 15, 1889 and assessed the cost of acquiring the park—$92,283—on property owners in the vicinity of the falls. In the fall of that year the park board had the new park surveyed so that Horace Cleveland could work over the winter on plans for the layout of the park. (Cleveland submitted “letters” to the park board in 1891 and 1892 on improvements to the park, but there is no record that he ever submitted formal plans for the layout of the park.)
The next summer, 1890, the park board had tables and settees placed north of the falls. In addition the park board had “swings and hammocks suspended wherever practicable and lavatories constructed.” Anticipating the popularity of the new park, the park board asked the street railway company to limit street-car fares to the falls to five cents, a request that was complied with.
In 1892 the park board built its first pavilion—“more properly a shelter,” said the 1892 annual report—in the park near the falls and also installed electric lights in the park. One reason for dressing up the park that year was that the Republican Party National Convention was held in Minneapolis, the first major party convention held in the “west” and a matter of great pride in the city.
The increasing popularity of the park was evident in the small additions to the park. In 1893 the park board gave permission for a man to offer Shetland pony rides in the park and the park board began accepting gifts of animals for a zoo in the lower glen. Later that summer the park board denied a request to spend $50 a week to provide concerts at the Minnehaha pavilion because of the “inability of the street railway to accommodate traffic already going there on Sundays.” The park board did, however, approve the construction of two pedestrian bridges “of a rustic nature” over the creek, one above the falls and the other below.
Improvements continued in 1894 with the construction of a parapet wall north of the falls to protect spectators and the “clearing of rubbish,” including an old dam, from the glen below the falls.
Requests to illuminate the falls and to grant photograph privileges at the falls were denied by the park board. The issue of constructing a photograph stand next to the falls had drawn the ire of Horace Cleveland who had always taken the position that the falls and creek below it should be altered as little as possible from their natural state.
Cleveland wrote in a letter to park commissioner William Folwell, “I learn that the park commission are seriously thinking of a building at Minnehaha for the express purpose of taking photographs—on the site heretofore profaned by a shanty for that purpose. I cannot remain silent in view of this proposed vandalism which I am sure you cannot sanction—and which I am equally sure will forever be a stigma upon Minneapolis and elicit the anathema of every man of sense and taste who visits the place. If erected it will simply be pandering to the tastes of the army of boobies who think to boost themselves into notoriety by connecting their own stupid features with the representation of one of the most beautiful of God’s works.”
Meanwhile the informal zoo in the park continued to grow. An alligator tank was added in 1897 and a bear pit in 1899. In winter the non-native animals were housed in the park board warehouse at Lyndale Farmstead, except the alligator, which had its winter home in a local greenhouse. By 1901 park board president William Folwell commented that as many people were going to Minnehaha Park to see the animals as the famous falls.
To accommodate those crowds and provide “refreshments of a clean and wholesome nature at a reasonable cost,” a refectory was built near the falls in 1903 to a design by park commissioner and architect Harry W. Jones, who also designed two of the pavilions at Lake Harriet. Unfortunately the refectory burned down the following year, but it was replaced in 1905.
In the 1905 annual report board president Fred Smith wrote that the new pavilion, as well as changes in policing and the support of the city administration, have “done much to redeem Minnehaha from its unsavory reputation and make it a place where women and children can visit and enjoy their picnics without fear of molestation or insult.” The park board had also addressed “unsavory” influences at the park by purchasing in 1904 two blocks of land west of the park to Hiawatha Avenue for $6,800. The expansion removed many saloons and restaurants that had existed to serve visitors to the park.
The park began to undergo important changes in 1906 with the arrival of a new park superintendent, Theodore Wirth. One of Wirth’s first actions was to improve the entrance to the park at Minnehaha Avenue, making it more “dignified,” in his words, including the relocation of the pony rides. Wirth also convinced the park board to get rid of most of the animals kept in the park zoo. In 1907 most of the animals were given to Robert “Fish” Jones, who established a private zoo, Longfellow Gardens, adjacent to the park on its western edge. Jones later donated his property to the park board. The park board, however, kept elk and deer pens in the lower glen, in part because those animals could survive year-round in their enclosures. Those animals remained in the park until 1923, when the park board removed them to expand the picnic grounds in the lower glen.
Wirth was also an active promoter of playgrounds in parks. In addition to establishing the park board’s first playgrounds at Logan Park and Riverside Park in 1906, the board installed some playground equipment near the refectory at Minnehaha Park, including a “Hartford” merry-go-round, the kind kids push.
One of Wirth’s other proposals for the park was not adopted by the board: Wirth expressed in the annual report of 1906 his belief that no additional parkways should be built in the near future by the park board, except for a half-mile drive down Minnehaha Glen to the Mississippi River. Although Wirth repeated the proposal on a couple occasions over the years—his 1919 annual report includes a map of where he would have placed the road—the park board never did build a parkway down what remains today one of the park system’s wildest, most charming escapes from the city. The charm of that wild stretch of creek was diminished a bit in 1908 when a bridge was built over the gorge to the Soldier’s Home. The design and construction of the bridge were approved by the park board.
The first “monument” was added to the park in 1896 when the home of John Stevens, the first permanent settlers’ home built in the city of Minneapolis in 1849, was hauled by 10,000 school children pulling on enormous ropes from downtown to the park. In 1912, the park got its first statue when Jacob Fjelde’s depiction of Hiawatha carrying Minnehaha across the creek was placed on an island above the falls. Three years later a statue of Gunnar Wennerberg, a Swedish poet, composer and scholar, was added to the park. Two additional monuments have since been added: a statue of John Stevens was moved to the park in 1935 when its original location at Stevens Circle downtown was taken over for traffic purposes; and, a mask of Chief Little Crow, the leader of the Dakota in the mid-1800s, was added to the park near the falls. In addition a fountain was installed in 1996 in the former parking lot and overlook east of the falls, which is encircled by verses cut in stone from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.
Two additional historic structures also are now located in the park. The quaint Princess Depot, built in 1875 before the park was a park, was given by the Milwaukee Road railroad to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1964. In 2001, the depot was renovated with the help of the Minnesota Transportation Museum and is now operated as free museum.
The Longfellow House, once the home of Robert Jones at his Longfellow Gardens attraction across Hiawatha Avenue from the park, was acquired by the park board along with the land of the former zoo in 1937. Jones had donated his land to the park board in an agreement in 1924 that enabled him or his heirs to remain on the property for ten years. Legal appeals by Jones’ heirs delayed park board control of the property until 1937. In 1938 the house was leased to the library board as a branch library, which operated until 1968. In 1994, with the construction of the “tuck and cover” tunnel for the Hiawatha Avenue highway, the house was moved a few hundred feet to its present location. It was renovated and now serves as an information center for the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway and as offices for park board staff. The house was built in 1906 as a replica of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A major change to the park occurred in 1921 when the park board established an auto tourist camp on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River near the Soldier’s Home in what is now the Wabun picnic area. The camp was intended to appeal to the many tourists who were travelling the country in their new automobiles. Rental cabins were built at the camp a few years after it opened. The cabins were initially built and operated by a private contractor but later were purchased by the park board. The camp continued in operation until 1956. (Other auto tourist camps were proposed for Columbia Park and The Parade, near downtown, but were never approved.) Access to the tourist camp was enhanced and park use was increased in 1926 when the Ford Bridge was opened connecting south Minneapolis with St. Paul.
The same year the park board designated the park to be a center for winter sports activities and authorized the construction of a ski jump on the hill where the deer and elk pens had once been. The board also authorized the purchase of toboggans for rental on the hill.
Major improvements were made in the park from 1932 to 1940 by federal work relief crews. With the aid of federal money, stairs were built into the lower glen, as well as retaining walls along the banks of the creek and new bridges over it.
With the closing of the auto tourist camp the park board created a new picnic area in 1957 in the Wabun section of the park. The new picnic spot included a pavilion which featured metered electricity. Picnickers could deposit coins to get power. It was an innovation first introduced at a picnic shelter built in Columbia Park. Remodeling of the 1905 refectory was also begun in 1957.
The park was expanded for the first time in decades in 1958 when the park board acquired 26 acres of land from the federal government that had been a part of Fort Snelling to the south of the park. The park board had lobbied Congress to donate most of Fort Snelling to the park board since the turn of the century. Early park boards had coveted the largely unused land of the fort to continue West River Parkway through Minnehaha Park all the way to the Minnesota River.
Four years later the park board acquired additional land on the bluff adjacent to the Wabun picnic area in a trade with the Minnesota highway department. The land was acquired in exchange for land the highway department needed at The Parade as it planned the construction of the first freeways in the city.
At that time the park board was more accommodating to relinquishing land for freeways. As the demand for park land for highways increased, however, the park board eventually fought those actions with bitter determination. The conflict between highways and parks came to a head over highway plans for Hiawatha Avenue (Highway 55) in the mid-1960s. The highway department planned a freeway from down town to the airport via that route. The plan was to build an elevated freeway between Minnehaha Park and Longfellow Gardens over Minnehaha Creek. The park board hired its own consultants who proposed a plan that would divert the freeway around the western edge of Longfellow Garden. That plan would have maintained the integrity of the parks better, but would have required the dislocation of more homes and businesses, which the state and the neighborhood fought strenuously.
The park board challenged the highway plan all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before the case could be heard by that court, however, it ruled in a similar case from Nashville, Tennessee in favor of the preservation of park land. That decision set a precedent that doomed the highway department’s plan. Before a compromise could be reached federal money for building the highway was no longer available. The highway was eventually built in the late-1990s to a plan that put the highway through a tunnel over Minnehaha Creek covered by a “land bridge” between Minnehaha Park and Longfellow Garden. A new garden, named Longfellow Garden, was created on top of the land bridge.
With the plans for the highway moving forward, the park board also developed a master plan to renovate the park. In 1995, a new garden, the Pergola Garden, featuring native wildflowers and grasses, was created overlooking the falls from the south.
Over the next two years, the parking lot that once overlooked the falls from the east was removed to the edge of the park and traffic was no longer permitted up to the falls. The parking lot was replaced by a garden and the fountain with Longfellow’s words inscribed. The durable old refectory was given a veranda and a band shell was built east of the refectory.
In 2007 a new river overlook was built in the Wabun picnic area and a children’s playground was added to the picnic area. Restoration of the creek in the lower glen began in 2008: the creek banks were stabilized and retaining walls and footings installed by WPA crews during the Great Depression were replaced. Work in the lower glen was completed in 2010 with the restoration of native vegetation.
On May 15, 2012, a memorial in honor of Officer Mark Bedard was dedicated. Officer Bedard died in the line of duty on November 9, 2007.
Park board masons completed reconstruction of crumbling stone walls and steps descending to the lower gorge at Minnehaha Falls in 2012, and a year later a Nice Ride bicycle rental kiosk was installed near the falls.
President Barack Obama hosted a town hall meeting at Minnehaha Falls on June 26, 2014, nearly 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson visited the falls. A month later, on July 31, the Wabun Universal Access Play Area opened at Minnehaha Park. It was the first universally accessible play area built in Minneapolis.
In 2015 a number of improvements to the refectory and area surrounding it were completed, including a new roof, restroom updates, new lighting in pavilion, improved outdoor seating for Sea Salt, additional bike parking and a new walking path from parking lot to the falls.
History through 2008 written by David C. Smith, with updates from 2009 to present written by MPRB.