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The Necessity for Ruins
Industrial vestiges recapture Minneapolis's milling past.
By Frank Edgerton Martin

Photo Courtesy Tim Blankenship, URS
Photo Courtesy Tim Blankenship, URS

Between 1880 and 1930, Minneapolis led the world in flour production. A growing complex of flour mills—Pillsbury and Washburn—Crosby (later General Mills)-embraced the entire St. Anthony Falls area with an interconnected system of canals, pipes, train tracks, and immense masonry mills. It is unlike any other industrial district in the world. By the 1950s, as Minneapolis strove to be a modern, service-oriented city, its leaders began to demolish many surviving retail and commercial buildings near the Mississippi riverbanks. They saw shipping as a new industry to update the faded milling past. In the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers undertook additional demolition of 13 neighboring mills. Eventually, the entire complex was almost completely covered with rubble. Today, few Twin Cities residents have any idea of this extraordinary landscape's history as a world-class industrial marvel.

Like the industrial vestiges of Germany's Ruhr Area (see "Reconstructing the Ruhrgebiet," Landscape Architecture, April 2001), Minneapolis's riverfront represents a technological triumph of the past that slipped into near-total obscurity. "The milling area was very complex and dense," says Rachel Ramadhyani, ASLA, who serves as the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's project manager for the Mill Ruins. "Not only was there the hydraulic system—the tailraces and the canals—there was also an internal train network. Raw materials would arrive on one side of the mills and the finished flour would leave from the other."

Mill Ruins Park—the latest chapter in the city's effort to bring parks and urban life to the river—reveals a small piece of the Mill District's footings. But when schematic planning began for Mill Ruins Park in the early 1980s, the idea of excavating this defunct industrial landscape was so novel that many locals thought the project would never come to pass. "This is a project that's been all about process," Ramadhyani observes, "about getting enough money, about getting things approved, about making things safe." For each of the phases of park construction, Ramadhyani says, "there is a patchwork of funding sources, much of it from TEA-21 grants."

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