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The Forgotten Islands Beneath the Falls

Article by Michael Rainville, Jr.

Before Minneapolis turned into the Mill City and tamed the riverfront, there was a clump of three islands located downstream of St. Anthony Falls. Cataract, Spirit, and Upton Islands were limestone outcroppings left behind from the receding waterfall. While these islands were not large, like Hennepin and Nicollet Islands, that did not stop early settlers and entrepreneurs from attempting to start up businesses on these river islands.

Light pole powered by the first hydroelectric plant in the US.The first of these islands, Upton, was located immediately downriver of the falls, roughly where the northern portion of the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam lies today. The island’s claim to fame is that it was home to the first hydroelectric power station in the United States. In 1881, a group of men, which included Joel Bassett and C. M. Loring, started the Minnesota Brush Electric Company. Once the company bought land on Upton Island, they built a small central power station with five generators that used power lines to connect to businesses along Washington Avenue. The island was completely removed by the Army Corps of Engineers when they built the upper lock and dam.

About 1,000 feet to the East and between Spirit and Hennepin Islands was Cataract Island. In 1855, the Lovejoy Brothers constructed a shingle factory, with a small wooden bridge that connected the island to Hennepin Island. This was done so their employees could have easier access to Cataract Island. Unfortunately, since the island was very small and in the middle of turbulent water, the sandstone located underneath the island eroded rapidly, and Cataract Island collapsed into the river in 1860.

Spirit Island, 1899

The most well-known of the three islands, Spirit Island, held high importance to the Dakota who called this part of Minnesota home well before pioneers settled the area. The mist of the falls would float over the majestic spruce trees that sprouted from the rocky surface, and to top it all off, bald eagles frequently nested on the island. However, once more and more people started moving to the area, the beauty of the island started to decrease. While the island never had any structures built upon it, Minneapolitans, or rather mill owners, valued the island even more than the previous two. For a few decades, the island turned into a Platteville Limestone quarry that provided building materials for many of the mills along the river. In 1882, the St. Anthony Water Power Company purchased the island, and they owned it up until 1957, when they ceded it to the federal government. This was necessary as Spirit Island was right where the lower entrance for the upper lock would eventually be constructed.

Both nature and humans have leveled the islands that once occupied the river at the base of St. Anthony Falls, but let us not forget the practical and spiritual role they once played for the many people that have called the Minneapolis riverfront their home.

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About Michael Rainville, Jr.

A 6th generation Minneapolitan, Michael Rainville Jr. received his B.A. in History from the University of St. Thomas, and is currently enrolled in their M.A. in Art History and Certificate in Museum Studies programs.

Michael is also a lead guide at Mobile Entertainment LLC, giving Segway tours of the Minneapolis riverfront for 5+ years.

He can be reached at

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