The fifty-three-foot-high Minnehaha Falls was purchased by Minneapolis in 1889. It was the centerpiece of a new state park. The falls remain one of the state's most popular attractions for both residents and visitors. Their name is derived from the Dakota words mni for "water" and gaga for "falling" or "curling"—literally "water fall."
American Indians considered the falls an important place where all could gather in peace. It did not have the spiritual significance of other nearby sites, such as the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers or the Falls of St. Anthony.
Army Lieutenant Zebulon Pike bought the land for the U.S. government from the local Dakota in 1805. The confluence of the two rivers (where Fort Snelling was established in 1820) and the Falls of St. Anthony were most important to him. Pike didn't care enough about Minnehaha Creek, the little tributary with the falls, to discover its source: Lake Minnetonka, twenty-two miles west.
Early settlers referred to Minnehaha Falls as "Little Falls" to distinguish it from the much more impressive and important cascade on the Mississippi River. It was also known as "Brown's Falls," likely for Major General Jacob J. Brown. He was commanding general of the U.S. Army in the 1820s.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem "The Song of Hiawatha" transformed the falls into an icon. The poem, published in 1855, became known around the world. It made the falls famous, even though Longfellow himself never visited.
In the 1850s, a gristmill was built below the falls on Minnehaha Creek. However the creek's unreliable water flow made it unattractive for industrial purposes.
As early as 1868, St. Paul and Minneapolis considered creating a park at the falls together but decided it was too far from either city. That view prevailed until 1885, when Minneapolis sponsored legislation to acquire the falls and surrounding land as a state park. The state legislature passed the bill. Governor Lucius F. Hubbard appointed Minneapolis park board president Charles Loring to lead the commission selecting land for the park.
By 1889, 173 acres of land for a park and a home for indigent soldiers had been chosen and appraised. However the legislature did not appropriate money to purchase the land. A group of Minneapolis citizens, led by Minneapolis park commissioner George Brackett and real estate investor Henry Brown, raised the money to loan to the city to give to the state to buy the park land. The legislature gave Minneapolis title to the land, and Minneapolis property owners were taxed to cover the cost of acquiring the park.
Landscape architect Horace W. S. Cleveland proposed leaving the falls and the creek below it in their natural state. Despite later suggestions to build a parkway down the glen to the river, the glen has not been developed, except for stairs, hiking paths, and bridges. The park board did build a pavilion in 1892 on land beside the falls. They also constructed a parapet wall near the rim of the falls and bridges over the creek the following year. Later buildings included a refectory and a bandstand.
Over the years, the Minneapolis park board introduced various attractions in other parts of Minnehaha Park. For example, from 1892 until 1907, it operated a zoo there. In 1896, the first permanent settler's home in Minneapolis, built in 1849 by John Stevens, was moved to the park. A statue of him was placed nearby in 1935.
The most famous landmark in the park other than the falls is Jacob Fjelde's bronze statue Hiawatha and Minnehaha. Swedish musician and poet Gustav Wennerburg was also honored with a statue in the park, created in 1915. A mask of Dakota leader Taoyateduta (Little Crow IV) was placed overlooking the falls in 1992.
In 2011, Minnehaha Park drew more visitors than any other park in the Twin Cities area, except for Como Park, which has year-round indoor attractions.
Anfinson, John O. The River of History: A Historic Resources Study of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. St. Paul: National Park Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2003.
Blegen, Theodore C. Minnesota: A History of the State. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975.
Boardman, A. J. "Parks, Streets and Parkways." In History of the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, vol. 1, edited by Isaac Atwater, 387–423. New York: Munsell and Company, 1893.
Cleveland, Horace William Shaler. The Aesthetic Development of the United Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Minneapolis: A. J. Bausman, .
Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 4. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1930.
General Laws of Minnesota for 1885. Chapter 129.
General Laws of Minnesota for 1889. Chapter 71 (H. F. No. 1069) and Chapter 273 (S.F. No. 844)
Hallberg, Jane King. Minnehaha Creek: Living Waters. Minneapolis: Cityscape Publishing, 1995.
Meyer, Roy Willard. Everyone's Country Estate: A History of Minnesota's State Parks. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991.
Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners. Annual Reports, 1883, 1889, 1890, 1893, 1898, 1899, and 1940.
Nadenicek, Daniel Joseph. "Commemoration in the Landscape of Minnehaha: 'A Halo of Poetic Association.'" In Places of Commemoration: The Search for Identity and Landscape Design, 55–80. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2001.
Smith, David C. City of Parks: The Story of Minneapolis Parks. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Parks Foundation, 2008.
In 1889, Minneapolis gives Minnesota $100,000 to purchase 173 acres of land around Minnehaha Falls as a state park.
Zebulon Pike purchases land from the Dakota for the U.S. government that extends from the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers to the Falls of St. Anthony, including Minnehaha Falls.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow publishes The Song of Hiawatha, which makes the falls world famous.
The Minnesota state legislature approves the purchase of Minnehaha Falls as the focal point of a state park.
Minneapolis pays $100,000 to purchase land designated for a park at Minnehaha Falls; the state legislature turns over the deed for the land to the Minneapolis park board.
The park board builds the first pavilion in the park.
The park board creates an auto-tourist camp with twenty-five sleeping cabins in the park. The camp closes in 1957.
Robert (Fish) Jones donates his land and home, a replica of Longfellow's house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the park board and it becomes part of the park.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board develops a renovation plan for Minnehaha Park. Changes are implemented over the following four years.