Archaeology in Downtown Minneapolis

This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of “The SHA Newsletter”. To view the full issue, click here.

The 106 Group Ltd. is conducting archaeological studies for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB)’s Water Works project—a park along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. The unique park design incorporates a complex historical landscape consisting of the ruins of 19th-century sawmills and flour mills.

This project balances new urban use and park development with historic preservation. Working as part of a multidisciplinary team of architects, engineers, and historic preservation specialists, the 106 Group is providing cultural resources services, including the conducting of historical research, assessment of the conditions of existing archaeological and architectural resources, facilitation of compliance with regulatory requirements, preparation of archaeological treatment plans, and the conducting of Phase II and III archaeological studies.

The project area is located within the St. Anthony Falls Historic District. St. Anthony Falls is the only major natural waterfall on the upper Mississippi River. The falls were—and remain—a place of importance to Native peoples, including the Dakota, Ojibwe, and Ho Chunk. St. Anthony Falls also facilitated the birth and development of Minneapolis’s first industry, milling, which began at the falls in the 1820s. Originally, sawmilling was predominant along the waterfront. However, economic and technological changes, such as the rise of steam power, led the timber industry to relocate its sawmills away from St. Anthony Falls in the late 19th century.

St. Anthony Falls is the only major natural waterfall on the upper Mississippi River. The falls were—and remain—a place of importance to Native peoples, including the Dakota, Ojibwe, and Ho Chunk.

As a result, many of the Minneapolis sawmills were converted to, or replaced by, flour and grist mills. From the 1880s to the 1930s, Minneapolis was considered by many to be the flour-milling capital of the world. By the mid-20th century, however, milling had declined and the majority of mills along the Minneapolis riverfront had been abandoned. The Water Works Park’s design includes the construction of a park pavilion and landscaped open space within the ruins of three mills: Bassett’s Second Sawmill, the Columbia Flour Mill, and the Occidental Feed Mill. Bassett’s Second Sawmill was constructed in 1870 by Joel Bean Bassett. It had a thick limestone foundation and a two-story wood-framed upper structure and was powered by a turbine wheel fed by water from the Mississippi River. Bassett’s Second Sawmill burned down in 1897, although its engine house and boiler room survived the conflagration and continued to power neighboring mills.

The Columbia Flour Mill was built in 1882 at the beginning of Minneapolis’s flour boom. This mill was a six-story structure with a basement, 4- to 6-feet-thick limestone foundation walls set onto bedrock, and brick upper stories. The Columbia Mill had a reputation for producing some of the best flour to come out of Minneapolis. By the 1930s, the Columbia Mill had been converted to a grain elevator known as the Harbor Elevator. The upper floors of the Columbia Mill collapsed in January of 1941, and a spectacular arson fire destroyed the mill four months later.

In 1883, McAlister, Chase and Company constructed the Occidental Feed Mill, a two-story brick building with limestone foundations. The Occidental burned down in 1919. Portions of the limestone basement and subbasement walls of the Columbia and Occidental mills survived after the fires. Changes in land use between the 1930s and the present day have significantly affected the Water Works site. In the 1950s, the lower surviving stories of the destroyed mills were backfilled with a variety of materials ranging from used tires to demolition waste. The surfaces created by that backfilling have been used as parking lots through the present day.

106 Group archaeologists document the walls of the Columbia Mill.

In the late 1960s, Reiko Weston constructed the Fuji Ya restaurant, the first Japanese restaurant in Minnesota, on top of and around the ruins of the Bassett and Columbia mills. Fuji Ya was one of the first new buildings to be erected in what was then an abandoned industrial area of Minneapolis. This event heralded the beginning of a riverfront redevelopment period that has continued into the present. Fuji Ya closed in 1990, and the building sat vacant for the next 27 years. Archaeological studies at the Water Works site are ongoing. Fieldwork conducted in 2017 included the excavation of shallow backhoe trenches to locate the tops of the buried walls of the Columbia and Occidental Mills. Deeper test pits, reaching up to 15 feet below the current surface, were excavated to investigate the conditions of the walls at greater depths and to inform project design.

Seventeen archaeological features were recorded, all corresponding with walls and other architectural elements of the lower stories of the Columbia and Occidental mills. In 2017–2018, MPRB began the “deconstruction” of the Fuji Ya restaurant building. This involved carefully separating the ca. 1960s–1970s FujiYa restaurant components from the underlying historic mill ruins and temporarily securing and protecting the mill structures in preparation for the construction of the Water Works project. The 106 Group conducted archaeological monitoring of the deconstruction and responded to unanticipated discoveries.

Through this process we identified and recorded 18 archaeological features in the basements and subbasements of the Bassett’s Second Sawmill engine house and boiler room structure. In the fall of 2018, controlled excavation was conducted in a portion of the project area. A backhoe was used to remove fill soils in approximately 1-foot levels across the site. Archaeologists exposed subsurface features using shovels and trowels. As a result, three archaeological features were identified. Two features were limestone-block wall segments, likely part of the foundation wall of Bassett’s Second Sawmill. The third feature consisted of two brick walls joined at an angle.

Engine mount within the subbasement of the Bassett’s Second Sawmill engine house.

Based on historical documentation, these walls are likely associated with one of the wheelhouses that would have enclosed the water turbines that powered the Bassett, Columbia, and Occidental mills. In 1976, city public works crews working 20 feet belowground encountered two large intersecting bevel gears composed of cast-iron wheels and wooden-plank teeth. This complex of features was located directly beneath the brick walls documented this year. The gears likely would have connected a vertical shaft attached to a water turbine below to the horizontal line shaft that powered the machinery of the Columbia Mill. Water brought in through a headrace from the Mississippi River would have flowed over the turbine, turning it and its associated shafts and gears before discharging into the vast network of tailrace tunnels that still exist beneath this part of Minneapolis.

City tunnel maps indicate that the tailrace tunnels in this location are about 60 feet below the current surface level. Future stages of archaeological work will include the excavation and treatment of a previously identified subsurface railcar scale pit located adjacent to the Columbia Flour Mill. Based on previous documentation, this 55 x 15 x 9 feet brick- and cement-lined pit is known to contain in situ machinery, including a scale, ceramic light fixtures, an electric motor, and a blower. The scale pit and in situ machinery will be exposed and documented. The specific treatment measures for this feature will be determined based on the final project design. Interim reports are being prepared following each stage of fieldwork. At the end of the archaeological investigations, a final comprehensive report will be prepared that compiles the methods and results of all stages of Water Works archaeology into a single document.

Madeleine Bray, RPA

Madeleine is a cultural resources specialist and Registered Professional Archaeologist with 19 years of survey, excavation, and project management experience in the United States, Greece, and Israel. Madeleine will share her experience on the Water Works project at the Council for Minnesota Archaeology’s annual meeting.