Prior to settlement by Europeans, the area surrounding St. Anthony Falls was inhabited by many Dakota, Ojibwa, and other native Americans and was considered sacred ground for its natural beauty and resources. The River itself served as an important mechanism for travel and transporting goods. Nicollet Island was also used by the Dakota as a camping location for fishing and tapping sugar maple trees.
In 1680, Father Louis Hennepin, a French Catholic friar, became the first European to report seeing the Falls; he named them after Saint Anthony of Padua. Although the rights to the lands on either side of the Mississippi River were claimed at various times by England, France, Spain and the United States, the area remained mostly inhabited by the Mdewakanton Dakota until 1838, when land east of the Mississippi was opened to private ownership by white settlers by a series of treaties. One of the first settlers to claim land was Franklin Steele, a former store keeper at Fort Snelling, who eventually built one of the first sawmills in St. Anthony.
The neighborhood was first platted in 1849 as part of the town of St. Anthony and joined the City of Minneapolis in 1872 when St. Anthony and Minneapolis merged.
Many industrialists from New York and New England arrived in the 1850s to take advantage of the power of the Falls and build saw and flour mills on both the East and West banks. The 50- foot drop in elevation at the Falls provided the energy needed to power the saw and flour mills, which brought numerous people to the area seeking work. Sawmilling peaked in 1899 and for six years, Minneapolis boasted the most productive sawmilling location in the country. By 1910, however, many of the forests had been depleted and almost all of the sawmills had closed.
The prominence of flour milling in Minneapolis spanned a much longer time. By 1880, Minneapolis had become the flour milling capital of the U.S., a title it held for approximately 50 years. By 1930, new technologies, shipping costs, and tariffs led many of the milling companies to move their operations out of Minneapolis. The last flour mill at the Falls closed in 1995.
For a century or more, Minneapolis – the City of Lakes – turned its back on the River in general, and the area around the Falls and on Nicollet Island in particular. As industry and population left, the area fell into decay and abandonment. By the early 1970’s, the outlook for the area was bleak.
The effort to revive the riverfront surrounding the Falls began in the 1970s with the designation of the area as a historic district. In 1972, the City of Minneapolis published the Mississippi/ Minneapolis Plan, which cast a vision for the area and specifically addressed the East Bank and Nicollet Island. Although the Mississippi/Minneapolis Plan itself no longer influences development activities, it sparked significant reinvestment, including the removal of unused rail tracks and the cleanup of polluted sites for much of the new construction that exists in the neighborhood today. Many of the historic homes on Nicollet Island were also renovated during this time. More recent waves of development, including housing, shopping, restaurants and bars, have made the Nicollet Island-East Bank neighborhood one of the most exciting and vibrant locations in the City of Minneapolis.
The Nicollet Island-East Bank neighborhood is near the geographic center of the cultural, economic and social history of Minneapolis; and many efforts have been made to preserve these roots. Several iconic buildings remain, including Our Lady of Lourdes Church (the oldest continually used place of worship in Minneapolis). The efforts taken to preserve the area’s history can be discerned by strolling along East Hennepin Avenue.