Black and beaky, double-crested cormorants are gawky and graceful at the same time. They have big black wings, angling awkwardly as if they somehow have an extra elbow that affords them surprising maneuvers that can drop them into the Mississippi on a dime to nab a fast silver fish. If you stand on the wide line of the dam that stretches between Brooklyn Park and Coon Rapids, you can see the cormorants splash and succeed, and it’s easy to see why they live on the Mississippi: food in the water, habitat along its shore. This is life…
Perhaps the cormorant will eat an American eel that made its way north, up from the Sargasso Sea, to live in the Mississippi River as its eely ancestors have for untold generations. For the eel, too, the river is life.
This connection is the same for the 3.2 million of us who currently call the seven-county metro home—whether we know it or not. It’s not just that the bulk of us in the core metro get our drinking water from the Mississippi, once all the eely and cormorant parts are filtered away. It’s that the whole reason we’re here at all is the Mississippi River.
History break! People have likely lived on and around the area we call St. Paul for more than 2,000 years. Go to Indian Mounds Regional Park, rising above the river just east of the city and overlooking downtown, to see burial mounds associated with the Hopewell people, who lived up and down the Mississippi Valley and whose settlements were taken over by the Dakota.
To the Dakota, the Mississippi was also life—practically, for transportation and food, but also spiritually. Three particularly sacred sites? Wakán Tipi, currently in what we call the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, not far outside downtown St. Paul, is a cave engraved with petroglyphs that some interpret as the Garden of Eden for Dakota culture, a place where mankind was born. The area where the Minnesota River enters the Mississippi, which we now identify as the tip of Pike Island in Fort Snelling State Park, was known as Bdote, the center of the whole earth. The waterfall just downriver from the Hennepin Avenue Bridge was another sacred site, Owámni, where women would make pilgrimages to have their babies and birthing ceremonies.
“We know the Mississippi in the Twin Cities today mainly as green parkland: the place where we go to see herons nesting, where we go to bike and paddle, where we go to visit our favorite park.”
Is the Mississippi River, as it threads through the Twin Cities, the Jerusalem of the Dakota? In the 1800s, European immigrants decided that didn’t much matter and forcibly evicted everyone, seizing power of the two steam-age engines of wealth in the area—the falls and the mighty, navigable river the region cradles.
The importance of these two vital elements cannot be overstated. They are why we all live here today. St. Paul was the farthest northern point you could navigate a barge on the Mississippi River. (In the 1900s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started creating the lock and dam system that made the deeper, more navigable river we know today, but even in the 1800s, a barge could get upriver to St. Paul, provided it wasn’t drought season and the river captain was skilled. Everything upriver from St. Paul was non-navigable rapids.) Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, the natural falls and rapids turned the water wheels that ground wheat in one season and sliced lumber in another.
Geography is destiny, and in Minneapolis that geography was entirely about the river. Farmers—first via ox- and horse-drawn carts and later via railcars—delivered grain to Minneapolis. Companies such as Pillsbury and General Mills would grind that grain into flour and get it to St. Paul, where it would be loaded onto barges and floated out to the world. Companies that insured those barges—like the St. Paul Companies, which is now part of Travelers—sprang up. Companies taking advantage of barge infrastructure and cargo space on empty barges returning upstream sprang up—that’s how we got Cargill. 3M is likewise here because of rail and barge options and access—though it started by moving mining products, not Post-its. Present-day food companies, from agriculture co-ops like Land O’Lakes to pork giants like Hormel, all sprang from that same steam-age killer pair: the falls and mills of Minneapolis processing stuff to put on those barges and the barges of St. Paul departing from the upper navigable head of the Mississippi. If you work for a Fortune 500 company in the metro today, your daily bread likely grew out of those two ghosts in our modern machine: barges and mills. Those two ghosts sprang from sacred ground.
It’s not easy to remember any of this today.
We know the Mississippi in the Twin Cities today mainly as green parkland: the 72 miles in the seven-county metro area where we go to see herons nesting, where we go to bike and paddle, where we go to visit our favorite park that goes and goes—here’s a secret boardwalk by the boathouse at the University of Minnesota, here’s a tucked-away lake with beaver lodges down inside Crosby Farm, here’s a perfect spot to see cormorants in Brooklyn Park and the path to secret islands in Fridley! All these little spots feel secret and special because each is typically in a separate municipal entity, and the people of Fridley just don’t tend to have a working knowledge of the secrets of Highland Park, and vice versa. That was largely the inspiration behind this feature: to connect the dots for the millions of us who live around this natural wonder and to inspire us all to start discovering our own stretch of the Mississippi.
Speaking of wonder: Did you ever wonder why we have this continuous stretch of urban parkland, with museums, waterfalls, pathways, and herons? Thousands of people before us protected it for us. For instance, when the first big dam projects went through in the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took as a guiding principle the preservation of the corridor for wildlife. Then, through countless development and redevelopment projects, thousands of us—politicians, citizens, nature lovers, and volunteers—have all contributed in ways big and small to further preserve and protect the river and riversides. For every contemporary Stone Arch Bridge, opened for pedestrian use in 1994 after decades of disuse, there was an argument to knock it down, privatize the land, or reduce or take away paths and places dedicated to the public and wildlife. In the end, wildlife and the public won enough battles to ensure the river prevailed.
These efforts are what helped make it possible for us to even be able to see cormorants here today. In the late 1800s, the species was likely extirpated in Minnesota—that is, made extinct in this part of its range. Since then, every time a little bit of habitat was rewilded, good things happened. For instance, in the 1960s, when St. Paul’s Crosby Farm stopped being a farm and started being a park, wildlife crept back. And every time a factory stopped dumping waste directly into the river, wildlife crept back. Now we have an estimated 40,000 double-crested cormorants in the state. Is this the summer you see one from a kayak or spy one as you bike away from Gold Medal Park or the Weisman Art Museum? Or is it the year you check out the bike trails, brunch on an island, or find your own favorite Mississippi River secret spot?
Whatever you find down along its sandy shores, you’re sure to walk away concluding what all creatures great and small have concluded about the Mississippi for 2,000 years: The Mississippi is life—for whole cities; for those with fins, fur, and wings; and for each and every one of us lucky enough to be able to get there this weekend.
—Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, Senior Writer
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