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How Cities and Towns Have Shaped the State

St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Minnesota's Urban Origins

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New township and railroad map of the state of Minnesota

New township and railroad map of the state of Minnesota, [1890]. Author: St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad Company. The St. Paul and Sioux City was one of many railroad lines that carried people and goods, planted towns, and speculated on land.

Only outsiders and strangers—and those who name baseball teams—would call St. Paul and Minneapolis "twins." The rest of us call them "The Cities," recognizing that though they sit right next to each other and on the same river, they pull in decidedly different directions.

St. Paul: older, tighter, neighborly; Catholic, Irish, Hmong; Alexander Ramsey, Henry Sibley, and James J. Hill; the state capitol; the more conservative of the two. Minneapolis: younger, sprawling, hip; Lutheran, Scandinavian, Somali; C.C. Washburn, Charles A. Pillsbury, and T.B. Walker; the University of Minnesota; the more liberal of the two.

The competition between St. Paul and Minneapolis, which their mayors play up, is sometimes funny and other times crazy-making. (Wouldn't every citizen's life be improved if, for example, the cities adopted the same snow emergency rules?) Together, however, St. Paul and Minneapolis did and do centrally shape Minnesota's economy, personality, and identity. Together, they pump the blood and oxygen that make Minnesota the region's heart, and their tall buildings pierce the "flyover" fabric that outsiders throw over the Midwest.

Before 'The Cities,' Villages and a Fort

St. Paul and Minneapolis were never Minnesota's only cities; not even its first. "Minnesota"—before it was Minnesota—was full of villages. Dakota people have long gathered around Lake Mille Lacs. The state was founded on the homelands of Indigenous people, notably the Dakota and Ojibwe, who transferred millions upon millions of acres of their land to the United States as a result of colonization. When Father Louis Hennepin found himself in the land that now, four hundred years later, we call "Minnesota," his party met up with Indigenous people in seasonal villages, several populated by upwards of 200 families.

The first European settler-colonists who came and stayed—the fur traders—heavily depended on Indigenous people who provided hunters, furs, and family connections, but the trade also was intensely dependent on distant cities—Detroit, Quebec, Paris, and London—for credit, markets, business organizations, and manufactured trade goods. Hunters and traders rendezvoused at Prairie du Chien and at Grand Portage, which every summer became the largest "city" in the Upper Midwest.

Fort Snelling, built at Bdote (the meeting of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers) in 1819, grew into a thriving settlement of soldiers, officials, and interpreters; laundresses and cooks; servants and a few enslaved people. It attracted blacksmiths, teachers, doctors, bootleggers, missionaries, sex workers, and hangers-on of all sorts. When Henry Sibley arrived in 1834 as an agent of the American Fur Company, he settled in a "suburb" at Mendota. When the Army pushed Pierre (Pig's Eye) Parrant out of the fort's orbit, his tavern and Father Lucien Galtier's St. Paul's Chapel nearby became the nucleus of another "suburb"—later called St. Paul.

Steamboats in St. Paul

In every season from 1823 on, steamboats performed the miracle of traveling upstream to Fort Snelling. In their earliest days, these boats delivered trade goods, soldiers and their families, missionaries, and the mail; they took away pelts. A series of federal government treaties between the 1820s and the 1850s claimed title to Dakota, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk land and, especially after 1837, opened the way for settler-colonists. Yankee entrepreneurs and speculators made their way up the St. Croix River to Marine Mills (now Marine on St. Croix) by 1839, when a sawmill was established there, and to Stillwater by 1848; they traveled up the St. Peter's (now Minnesota) River to St. Peter by 1853. Some also settled in Taylors Falls, a way station on a government road being built between Fort Snelling and Duluth. These people needed—and bought from merchants in the new St. Paul—everything from nails and cloth, to pianos and doorknobs. St. Paul became the entry point, the commercial center, and in 1849 the State Capitol.

St. Paul's European population increased 1,000 percent between 1849 and 1860. An even larger number of people simply passed through St. Paul, pausing only long enough to outfit themselves, and then, as if shot from cannons, peppered the region's newly acquired lands. Many of these new arrivals settled on farms, but groups of like-minded dreamers founded colonies in New Ulm, Northfield, and Hutchinson. Speculators and town builders including lawyers, doctors, storekeepers, and brewers landed in St. Cloud, Albert Lea, St. Anthony, and dozens of other new towns.

Minneapolis: A Milling Empire

The Mississippi River that runs wide and flat through St. Paul thunders over its only significant waterfall, St. Anthony Falls, a bit further upriver. Soldiers had long traveled to St. Anthony Falls to mill grist and lumber. In the 1840s, higher stakes gamblers founded the town of St. Anthony on the east side of the falls and bet their futures on that roiling water. Then, some jumped to the west side of the falls and built mills, houses, churches, and businesses at the place that by 1854 was officially known as Minneapolis.

The towns of St. Anthony and Minneapolis, which joined to become the city of Minneapolis in 1872, stood as the milling centers of the region and the flour-milling capital of the world from the 1850s to the 1920s. Sawmills grew up first, followed by flour mills—the Minneapolis, Washburn, Pillsbury, and Washburn-Crosby, in particular. The mills employed thousands of people, mostly men. They kept lumberjacks and small and big farmers busy for decades. They spawned the production of everything from shingles and barrels, to flour sacks and pallets, and they fueled dramatic population growth: Minneapolis exploded from 13,000 people in 1870 to 165,000 people in 1890.

Business Brings Wealth and Growth

Activity around St. Anthony Falls also fostered and sustained an infrastructure of commercial banks, national and international law firms, the Minneapolis Grain Exchange (1881), the Minneapolis Lumber Exchange (1885), the 9th District Federal Reserve Bank (1914), roads and railroads, and eventually, interstate highways and an international airport. In short, since the 1870s, Minneapolis and St. Paul have served as the industrial, commercial, financial, legal, and trading centers of the Upper Midwest, with a powerful presence and effect nationally and internationally. Twenty Fortune 500 companies are now headquartered in and around The Cities, including United Health, Target, Best Buy, Supervalu, and 3M, all of which are in the top 100.

These businesses and others have generated enormous wealth that's concentrated in Minneapolis and St. Paul and their surrounding suburbs. The Cities' wealth has, in turn, created a rich set of what economists call positive externalities: restaurants, art galleries, libraries, parks, museums, the American Craft Council, the Guthrie Theater, the Mall of America, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Ordway and Orpheum theaters, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Minnesota Wild.

Today, about 59 percent of the state's population lives in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the eighteen other cities that make up the metropolitan area. That urban population continues to swell from a combination of migrants from inside and outside the state. The Cities have long been magnets for farm and small town people, young people, LGBTQIA people, and artists—anyone looking for economic opportunity, anonymity, novelty, or more diversity.

'Going to The Cities'

Since the 1850s, rural Minnesotans have visited Minneapolis and St. Paul to sell cattle, stock up on supplies, visit the State Fair, see relatives and friends, or catch a sporting event. Elements of what urban life has to offer are available via satellite or television and online (think Zappos and Netflix), but cities still offer something less tangible that attracts—or repels—outsiders. The Winona Republican (1895) worried about the "feverish excitement" of city life and the Minneapolis Morning Tribune (1883) decried the dangers of the city's "perpetual and abnormal excitement." One rural Minnesota man became ten again when remembering his first solo trip from the farm to St. Paul. His memories of the Foshay Tower, the street car bell, and the ice cream at Bridgeman's still thrill him, even sixty years later. Likewise, a much younger man recalls with excitement his visits to show lambs at the State Fair. And another rural woman remembers how she relished the smell of the city that she brought home on her clothes. This excitement—the sweet or threatening promise that anything can happen—is also part of how cities and towns shape the state.

They Call It 'Out State'

Minnesotans sometimes stumble when talking about the part of the state that is not "The Cities." Is it "Out State"? Or "Greater Minnesota"? Neither captures the importance of the hundreds of smaller cities and towns that make up Minnesota beyond Minneapolis and St. Paul, nor the essence of the engaged, interesting people who live there.

Minnesota's third- and fourth-largest cities—Rochester with its Mayo Clinic and Duluth with its aerial lift bridge and international port—contribute mightily to Minnesotans' sense of the state's specialness. The cities of St. Cloud, Albert Lea, Hibbing, Fergus Falls, and Moorhead serve as regional hubs, providing shopping, medical care, social services, golf courses, and colleges, not to mention jobs. If Sioux Falls, South Dakota, were twenty-five miles east, it would be Minnesota's third-largest city. Even now, it offers the most convenient shopping, entertainment, hospitals, and airport for southwestern Minnesotans.

National chains dot the streets of these cities, as do longtime family-owned businesses: Brandl Motors in Little Falls, for example, and Bernick's Beverages in St. Cloud. "Out-state" cities boast national and international companies, arts activities, and special attractions, as well: Marshall has its Schwan Food Company and Austin its Hormel Foods; Rochester has IBM; Hibbing has its Greyhound Bus Museum and mining tours, and Red Wing has antiques.

In addition to "The Cities" and Minnesota's other cities, the state has a blanket of very small towns—about 850 of them under 1,000 people, according to the Minnesota Council of Cities—that are threatened by urbanization and depopulation but are central to "out-state" life. Many of these began as railroad towns, where farm people traditionally sold and shipped goods, bought what they couldn't raise, and socialized.

Two such towns—Raymond (population 765) and Clara City (population 1292)—have grown out to meet Minnesota Highway 23 and today offer a wider variety of services than some might suspect: haircut, manicure, truck wash, weekly paper, post office, city offices, police and fire, library branches, churches, nursing and funeral homes, schools, cafés, banks, and a few groceries. Raymond even boasts a Harley-Davidson dealer, and Clara City has Wholly Grounds, which offers a great cappuccino and its own Internet service provider. The Prinsburg Farmers Co-op, with branches in both Raymond and Clara City, supplies seed, fertilizer, and such, buys grain, dries and stores corn, and provides a cell phone tower on the elevator. Many of the people who live in these towns are retired farmers. Most know each others' names.

Four Types of Towns

Minnesota's towns fall into four major categories: river, railroad (now highway), lake, and mining. Each has a different layout, character, and function.

Like Minneapolis and St. Paul, Red Wing, Wabasha, Winona, and other river towns in Minnesota grew up hugging their spot on the river, the main street running parallel with the water, bending where the river bends. They are set amid a landscape of bluffs and valleys, and operate mostly as commercial and trade centers.

Railroad towns, by contrast, sit on the flattest land nineteenth century railroad engineers could find; they are market towns anchored by a grain elevator and train depot on a main street that is straight and concentrated along one side of the tracks. Now, they're reorienting their face toward the highways.

Lake towns face the water and grow around its shores. They are not all tourist towns but their businesses anticipate seasonal cycles and look beyond their year-round residents for survival. And Mining towns have a character all their own—more industrial, of course, and more subject to economic boom and bust cycles. Their wealth doesn't stay in town, and the wealthy live away.

Minnesotans: Tied to Everywhere

St. Paul has pushed the state's development in one way, Minneapolis in another. The state's network of smaller cities and towns has pushed it in yet another. Together, however, they serve as reminders of Minnesota's urban origins and the continuing centrality of cities and towns to the state identity.

Minnesota was founded on the homelands of Indigenous people, notably the Dakota and Ojibwe, who continue to influence the growth and future of the state. Communities across the state grew because of the hard work of laborers and visionaries, railroad workers and seamstresses, draymen and steamboat captains. Being in the Midwestern US, some would argue Minnesota is in the middle of nowhere, but our cities and towns tie us to everywhere.

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© Annette Atkins
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Atkins, Annette. Creating Minnesota: History from the Inside Out. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.

Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1991.

Francaviglia, Richard V. "Some Comments on the Historic and Geographic Importance of Railroads in Minnesota." Minnesota History 43, no. 2 (Summer 1972): 58–62.

Green, William D. A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Early Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.

Hart, John Fraser, and Susy Svatek Ziegler. Landscapes of Minnesota: A Geography. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2008.

The IPUMS-USA website, from the Minnesota Population Center, University of Minnesota.

Kane, Lucile M. The Waterfall That Built a City: The Falls of St. Anthony in Minneapolis.,/em> St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1966.

The Library of Congress website. Chronicling America.

Nathanson, Iric. Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010.

Spector, Janet D. What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1993.

Wingerd, Mary Lethert. Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of the Place in St. Paul. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

The Winona Newspaper Project website.

City directories (for example, Davison's Minneapolis Directory, 1910): Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Rochester, Stillwater, St. Cloud.

Newspapers: The Appeal, Minneapolis Journal, Princeton Union, St. Paul Daily Globe, The Tomahawk, Winona Republican.

Oral interviews: Anna Jonas, Katie McCarney, Rene McGraw, Kendall Peterson, Mark Shimota, Coleman Silbernagel. Notes in author's possession.

Related Images

New township and railroad map of the state of Minnesota
New township and railroad map of the state of Minnesota
Ojibwe moccasin game drum
Ojibwe moccasin game drum
Bird’s eye view of Minneapolis, Minn., 1891
Bird’s eye view of Minneapolis, Minn., 1891
Elevator row, Clara City
Elevator row, Clara City
Paul Bunyan playground at Bemidji
Paul Bunyan playground at Bemidji
Black and white photograph of the expanded downtown store complex, c.1938. The  original store is in the darker shade.
Black and white photograph of the expanded downtown store complex, c.1938. The  original store is in the darker shade.


Minneapolis and St. Paul centrally shape Minnesota's economy, personality, and identity.

Indigenous people lived in villages in the Great Lakes region. The fur trade depended on concentrations of Indigenous people locally and urban places nationally and internationally.

Steamboats made St. Paul a turnstile for people, goods, and news from 1840 onwards.

Early rural colonists depended on the supplies and services of St. Paul.

The milling industries that grew up, especially but not exclusively in St. Anthony and Minneapolis, employed thousands of workers and created a market for timber and flour.

The growth and prosperity of St. Paul and Minneapolis fostered, in addition, a commercial, legal, financial, and transportation infrastructure for the Midwest. Minnesota is now home to twenty Fortune 500 companies.

Prosperity has created secondary benefits in the state's arts, culture, and non-profit sectors.

Minnesota's smaller cities provide essential services for local and regional populations.

The state is home to hundreds of small towns, and "going to town" is part of Minnesota culture.

Minnesota towns can be divided into four types: river, railroad (highway), lake, and mining.



Dakota people are living in villages, many around rivers and lakes; Mille Lacs is a Dakota gathering place.


European colonists enter through the Great Lakes and along the Mississippi River.


The US Army begins building Fort Snelling at the meeting of the Mississippi and St. Peter's (now Minnesota) rivers. This is also Bdote, a sacred site for local Indigenous people.


St. Paul is growing rapidly as commercial center.


St. Anthony and Minneapolis begin saw milling and then flour milling.


Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota cede to the United States most of the land of central and southern Minnesota. Rapid townsite development follows.


Telegraph lines reach St. Paul; its population has increased 1,000 percent since 1849.


St. Anthony and Minneapolis join together as Minneapolis.


Rapid railroad expansion and town-building occurs throughout Minnesota.


The US Census declares the United States predominantly urban.


Minnesota's population is predominantly urban.