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Changing Views, Changing Values: Riverfronts in Winnipeg and Minneapolis

by Thora Cartlidge

The Forks and the Battle of Seven Oaks in Manitoba History
Edited by Robert Coutts and Richard Stuart
Manitoba Historical Society, 1994. ISBN 0-921950-12-8


The way we view landscape reflects the values we hold and has impact on the decisions we make (Meinig, 1979; Uzzell, 1991). The prevailing utilitarian view of the Forks as a place to reclaim from industrial use and open up for new investment is not surprising, given the absence of any visible trace of the site’s long history before the railway period. However, the significance of the Forks as a centuries-old meeting place and symbol of the transformation of the Canadian West should not be overlooked. The view of this place as history, a cumulative record imprinted in the archeological sites, survey lines and land parcels that mark the landscape, is what gives the place its identity and what should be integrated into the long-ranged development plans.


St. Anthony Falls Heritage Zone, at the Falls of St. Anthony on the Mississippi River, framed by the Minneapolis skyline, 1989.
Source: Minnesota Department of Transportation

People have been coming to the forks of the Red and the Assiniboine for about 6,000 years. Cree and Ojibwa long considered the Forks a place to camp and a spiritual place. More recently, missionaries, fur traders and explorers recorded their experience of this river setting in paintings and journals. And now, because of its power of attraction, people are coming back to the Forks. The current debate about history and development at the Forks focuses on whether different approaches, the developer’s and the educator’s, are compatible. This paper describes the different viewpoints, as recorded in public comments on the Forks project (The Forks Renewal Corporation, 1987),and suggests how the two approaches can be complementary. An urban history project at St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis is used as an example.

Those presentations to the Forks Renewal Corporation in 1987 that called for “recreation and parkland”, “continuing archaeological activity”, “a spot of solitude”, “a place to meet”, “to touch our historical past”, “an emphasis on the quiet native lifestyle”, and “primary historical and public use, not commercial”, reflect the educator’s view of landscape as a system of systems, an educational laboratory worth preserving for the Developing the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail is a key recommendation of opportunity to explore and learn about the natural and cultural aspects of the place. At the other end of the spectrum, the future-oriented view of the developer was represented by those who perceive the Forks as a form of capital with market value, to be invested. They would have the area “developed intensively to meet the self-sufficiency objective”, “with high-rise condos or apartments near the river”, or “a conference centre”. Another related view of this landscape, as artifact, suggests that the Forks is a sort of stage set for “historical animation activities”, “a rail museum”, “specialty restaurants” and “riverfront attractions”. These different viewpoints, each of which has distinct implications for the character of development at the Forks, are worth exploring for commonalities.

Perspective on St. Anthony Falls

The urban history project in Minneapolis involves a similar ongoing philosophical debate. While the histories of these two regional centres are similar, both Winnipeg and Minneapolis having developed in the late 19th century as undisputed gateways to the northern Great Plains, public policy directing development reflects the influence of different interpretations of the significance of these places. The history project on the Mississippi River reflects the influence of a strong preservation lobby which resulted in State legislation in 1988 to create the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board. The Board’s mandate is to coordinate the planning and implementation of an interpretive system at St. Anthony Falls to complement the commercial and recreational goals for the central riverfront.


Tail race from the west-side flour mills emptying in to the Mississippi River, circa 1887.
Source: Minnesota Historical Society

The St. Anthony Falls Interpretive Plan, produced by the Heritage Board in 1990, not only reflects previously completed plans but sets out a strategy for implementation of the history project through public/private partnerships. Unlike the forks Renewal Corporation, the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board functions more as a facilitator than a land developer.

At the heart of the proposed interpretative system is the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail. When completed, the Trail will cover a two-mile circuit in the river gorge surrounding the Falls. An orientation centre, indoor and outdoor exhibits and a public history program will help visitors make connections between what they see today and what was there before.

While public agencies and private corporations may seem unlikely partners in the interpretation of history, in Minneapolis it is anticipated that long-term support for the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail will derive from all levels of government, citizens’ groups, businesses and industry whose history is still along the banks of the Mississippi. There are several important reasons why the Minneapolis project promises to be successful:

1. The Minnesota Historical Society provides a strong State level preservation lobby.

2. State enabling legislation sets the mandate to preserve and interpret the historic resources in the Heritage Zone and authorizes grantsin-aid for partners willing to develop resources in support of the interpretive plan.

3. Board representation cuts across business, recreational and preservation interests, jurisdictional and administrative authorities, to accomplish a balance of “good history, good recreation and good business” (St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board, 1990). The City’s stated expectation of the interpretive system is to “integrate all the diversity inherent in an inherently urbanized setting” (City of Minneapolis, 1987), develop civic pride and regional identity, plus accommodate and complement the recreational goals and economic development set for the central riverfront.

4. While there are no industry representatives presently on the board, industry has remained a constant on the river through all the changes in land use. Northern States Power still serves the downtown district with hydroelectricity generated from the falls. The Pillsbury Company continues to produce flour in the east bank mill complex, partly dependent on waterpower from the falls to drive the mill. For these and other corporate citizens such as General Mills and the University of Minnesota, whose history is tied to the river, the project is an opportunity to participate in a distinctive civic venture that may increase public awareness of their role in shaping the city’s present image.

5. There is an abundance of extant historic resources concentrated at this point on the Mississippi, including the mammoth flour mills and hydroelectric plants dating from the 1870s, the bridges and dams spanning the river, turn-of-the century residential neighbourhoods and commercial architecture. This was the birthplace of Minneapolis, the place where the story of how the Falls built the City can be told.

6. The historic area will figure in the resource management plans for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the 72-mile river corridor designated in 1988 by federal legislation.

7. Construction of the West River Parkway through the historic district will connect this area with the chain of lakes and 50+ miles of linked parks and parkways that make up the Minneapolis Grand Round system.

8. The interpretive system envisioned for the St. Anthony Falls area is actually a subset of other sets of plans generated over the last 110 years for the central riverfront. These plans have resulted in the transformation of the Falls area from a place of natural scenic beauty to an industrial precinct and now a designated setting for recreation, commercial, housing and historic preservation.

Making Sense of Different Views

The combination of a visible history, an identifiable steward and enabling legislation, are key factors to protecting and enhancing the stories and historic resources in the face of conflicting goals for areas like the Falls and the Forks. An open public consultation process is also critical in moving ahead on goals. In Minneapolis, these factors interact to create a dynamic partnership between public and private interests that should carry the project through many evolutions, based on a shared recognition that the area’s historic resources are worth preserving and interpreting. And public consultation has revealed strong support from citizens who desire better access to the Mississippi, have a curiosity about the area’s history and are determined to reclaim historic landmarks, such as James J. Hill’s Stone Arch Railroad Bridge, for public enjoyment. The need to take lessons from failed riverfront initiatives is also acknowledged. It is hoped that the St. Anthony Main Street commercial revitalization that thrived in the 1970s only to struggle through the 1980s will benefit from the increased pedestrian traffic the Heritage Trail will bring to the area.


The Pillsbury “A” Mill, which still carries the “Pillsbury’s Best Flour” sign aloft, stands as a reminder that Minneapolis revolutionized the North American flour industry, 1989.
Source: Thora Cartlidge

Commitment to a long-range encompassing vision is more difficult to discern at the Forks, perhaps because commercial developments are presently more visible than educational or recreational amenities or perhaps due to the lack of a clear educational mandate for the Forks Corporation. In fact, creating public awareness of the historical significance of the Forks may be more of a challenge here than at the Falls in Minneapolis, as evidence of the history that pre-dates the railway era is not visible except in excavated archaeological sites.


Commercial art for “Pillsbury’s Best” flour, circa 1889.
Source: Minnesota Historical Society

Making sense of different viewpoints on the scale of project in either area means recognizing that the common point of interest may be history. The character of these public places should reflect the cultural values of their respective cities. In Winnipeg, the Forks should be connected both visually and physically to the network of parks, boulevards, historic commercial nodes and cultural landmarks that define the city, north along the Red River to Kildonan Park, south on the Red to the University of Manitoba, west along Broadway Avenue and the Assiniboine River to Assiniboine Park and into the heart of the city past Portage and Main to Market Square. The siting and design of The Forks National Historic Site and the existing and proposed riverbank enhancements that will link river corridor sites are important contributions to the recreational and interpretive system envisioned by the 1978 Canada-Manitoba Agreement for Recreation and Conservation (ARC) of the Red River Corridor.

In Winnipeg, the challenge remains to bring the educator’s view and the developer’s view together in a comprehensive vision for historic preservation and interpretation that will guide development capital at the Forks. That is the strength of the St. Anthony Falls project in Minneapolis. The individual who reminded the Forks Corporation in 1987 that lithe history of Western Canada is our most important asset” spoke on behalf of all those who seek the celebrate the significance of the Forks by heightening awareness of its history and the sense of place that is distinctly Winnipeg.


City of Minneapolis Advisory Committee. Report to the City of Minneapolis on Cultural and Recreational Amenities in the Central Riverfront. Minneapolis: City of Minneapolis, 1987.

Meinig. D. W. The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene. In D. W. Meinig (ed.), The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays (pp. 33-48). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board. St. Anthony Falls Interpretive Plan. Minneapolis: St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board,1990.

The Forks Renewal Corporation. The Forks: Phase 1, Concept and Financial Plan. Winnipeg: The Forks Renewal Corporation, 1987.

Uzzell, D. L. Environmental Psychological Perspectives on Landscapes. Landscapes Research, 16(1),3-10, 1991.


1. The author was Project Coordinator for the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board in Minneapolis when this paper was presented to the Forks Symposium. Ms. Cartlidge is originally from Manitoba and, while still in Winnipeg, she consulted to the Manitoba ARC Authority, Inc. on several ARC Red River projects. She is currently a landscape architect with the University of Minnesota, Office of Master Planning and Real Estate.

2. Since the Symposium was held, structural rehabilitation of the Stone Arch Bridge has been initiated and is scheduled to open to the public in 1994 as part of the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail. An interpretive walking tour program is in place and plans are in progress for an orientation center and milling interpretive exhibit in the west-bank mill ruins.


An aerial view of the Forks in 1930. Until the development of a retail complex at the Forks, the relative physical isolation of the site from the centre of the city due to the presence of the railyards contributed to a public perception of the Forks as an inaccessible and unfriendly place for people.
Source: National Archives of Canada

Page revised: 18 December 2011

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