Below is a commentary by Minnesota Historical Society Director and State Historic Preservation Officer Nina Archabal which the Star Tribune chose not to print.
April 28, 2004
CROWN HYDRO PROJECT — Editorial
Archaeology is a magical subject – full of surprises. Archaeologists make magic –
whether they are uncovering the remains of a previously unknown ancient village in Central America or of an abandoned flour mill in Minneapolis, archaeological discoveries make the news. In recent years, Minneapolis has experienced the magic of archeological discovery in the creation of Mill Ruins Park on the west side of Minneapolis’ Mississippi riverfront.
Thanks to the imagination of the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, Minneapolis has an archaeological park along its riverfront. Comprised of the remains of long-abandoned ruins, this park tells the story of the industry that made Minneapolis the milling capitol of the world for 50 years from 1880 to 1930. For decades, the mill ruins lay buried under piles of sand and gravel and only recently archaeologists have begun to excavate the area to create Mill Ruins Park. Where most people saw only piles of sand and gravel along the banks of the Mississippi, the Park Board saw the remnants of Minneapolis’ milling past. No one really knew what would be found when the layers of dirt were stripped away. Even so, the Park Board went forward with a commitment that whatever the archaeologists found could play a central role in the recreational and educational experience available to the public in a revitalized Minneapolis riverfront. The people love it.
Just about any day you will see folks stopping on the Stone Arch Bridge to examine the now exposed lower floors of the Empire, Minneapolis, and Pillsbury “B” Mills. The ruins remind us of the story of the industry that made Minneapolis the world’s leading flour producer for half a century. These ruined chambers have taken their place among the most photographed locations in the city.
Now, the Park Board has the opportunity to continue the discovery process at the remains of the Cataract Mill. Built in 1859 and located adjacent to Portland Avenue between West River Parkway and the downtown side of the Stone Arch Bridge, the Cataract Mill is the oldest commercial mill on the west side milling district. Just like the adjacent ruins, which were exposed to create Mill Ruins Park, the remains of the Cataract are buried under layers of sand and gravel. Applying the wisdom of its earlier process, the Park Board would reasonably excavate the Cataract and its neighbors to expose the building foundations and water channels that once served the oldest of the mills.
Unfortunately, the proposal by Crown Hydro to build a commercial hydroelectric plant at the Cataract Mill site is threatening to obscure the Park Board’s vision. During earlier investigations of the area, archaeologists sampled sections and showed that the waterpower system and substantive parts of the mill’s lower levels remained intact.
What remains of the Cataract Mill? The answer is that no one will know until the archaeologists take a look. The same kind of systematic and careful excavation the Park Board undertook to uncover the mill ruins we can see today is needed at the Cataract Mill site. Not until this is done can the Park Board make a wise decision about any development at this location. Until this is done, the Minnesota Historical Society, which has clear responsibility under law to comment on the impact of the proposed project on historic resources, will be troubled. The Park Board owes it to the public to know what remains of the Cataract Mill and to protect the historic resource from damage or destruction. As owners of the Cataract, the Park Board holds this historic resource in trust for all of us and is responsible for protecting it. This is the least we should expect. Better yet, the Park Board could continue the success of Mill Ruins Park and make archaeological magic again – uncovering and preserving the remains of the Cataract Mill on the Minneapolis riverfront.
Nina Archabal, Director
and State Historic Preservation Officer
Minnesota Historical Society