Unearthing Downtown's first boom

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July 25, 2005 // UPDATED 1:56 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

A condo site excavation rustles the ghosts of long-dead tourists - and 90-year-old molasses

In the midst of a development boom on the Mississippi River's east side near St. Anthony Falls, entrepreneurs and the well-to-do flock to the area for its economic rewards, riverfront views and natural wonders.

Sound familiar? The time is the last half of the 19th century, when milling and tourism drove growth along today's Southeast Main Street. One hundred fifty years later, another boom has developers and condo buyers charging in.

"That's the great irony of all the gentrification of that industrial area - the same amenities that made it attractive to tourists are attractive to buyers now," said David Wiggins, a park ranger for the Mississippi National River and Recreational Area (MNRRA).

Local developer Schafer Richardson sponsored an archeological excavation - which ended July 12 - at the corner of Main & 3rd Avenue Southeast. There, it plans to build Phoenix on the River, luxury condominiums named for the flourmill that stood on the site 130 years ago.

Although the dig unearthed only a few treasures and a couple of small mysteries, Wiggins said it opened up "layer upon layer of history."

The Phoenix rises

The Stamwitz and Schober Company built the Phoenix mill in 1875, according to Wiggins, who formerly conducted Minnesota Historical Society tours of the area. The four-story mill was the tallest in the area until the Pillsbury "A" Mill was built across the street in 1881.

Fittingly, Schafer Richardson's planned 1,095-condo project on the "A" Mill site will eventually dwarf its Phoenix on the River development.

The mill was not the only new construction in 1875. That year, Mannesseh P. Pettingill built a resort, which drew tourists to St. Anthony Falls and Chalybeate Mineral Springs. Tourists tramped the river bluff boardwalk over the springs, and bought the iron-rich water from Pettingill.

Wiggins said the springs still flow from the lime and sand stone bluff, just downstream from the "A" Mill.

Pettingill's resort was an industrial reuse project in its own right. Tourists floated down tailraces (where the water flowed to the river after powering the mill) in flat boats. They then drifted along the 900-foot-long Chute tunnel, dug below Main Street in 1866 to compete with west-bank mills. The tunnel had hit a large natural cave between 3rd and 4th avenues and was discontinued for milling purposes, but by 1875, the cave was outfitted with novelty attractions such as a giant serpent's skeleton and "colorfully named" cave formations, Wiggins said.

The mammoth Pillsbury operation eclipsed the resort, as well, and the tourist playpen closed in 1883. "It was hard to argue that it was a tourist attraction when there was such a big industry there," Wiggins said.

He said the cave and tunnel are still there, but are not easily - or legally - accessible.

In 1895, the Phoenix added a fifth story and in 1916, Pillsbury acquired the flourmill and converted it to a rye mill.

In later years, Wiggins said the whole east side became "an extension of the Skid Row district, filled with marginal characters" who salvaged and sold any scrap metal on industrial sites.

Finally, in 1956, the Rose Brothers Company demolished the mill and left little of historic or economic value behind.

"If we dug around everywhere, we might see evidence of the early boom," Wiggins said.

No formal digging is done on the bluff edge because it is unstable. Wiggins did make an interesting "surface find" - a doorknob he believes could have come from Pettingill's resort.

"Development such as the Phoenix project are an opportunity [to unearth artifacts]," Wiggins said. "But don't expect to find much beyond industrial materials."

Digging the past

The St. Paul-based 106 Group helps developers who are converting historic buildings meet historic standards, company President Anne Ketz said. The 106 Group will also work with Whitney Partners LLC on its Whitney Hotel conversion at 150 Portland Ave.

Staff archeologist Mark Doperalski called the process "diesel archeology." Much of the work was done by excavator John Buelow's backhoe.

After breaking through the pavement, the crew found the old mill's cellar, a 43-by-41-foot, 16-foot-tall room.

Although the archeologists hoped to find the mill's tailraces and headraces (where water fed the mill turbine), the structures were not where historical drawings said they would be.

They did find a 10-foot cylindrical block device covered with a cement cap, which archeologist Allen Westover said "was not meant for anyone to ever go in there."

The crew removed the cap and device to reveal a 40-foot-deep vertical shaft, 3 feet in diameter, lined with metal sheeting. They lowered a camera into the shaft and found, just below the opening, a 6-foot tunnel jutting off with a vaulted stone archway. One mystery had solved another - the tunnel is likely the missing headrace, which came in from the west rather than south as expected.

Midway down the shaft was another room 11 feet across, 7 feet deep and 24 feet high, which held the mill's turbine, now gone.

The turbine room still had pieces of the wooden planks that lined the walls before the planks were largely salvaged.

From the floor of that deep room, another shaft - the tailrace - continues 21 feet until it hits water. Where it goes from there remains a mystery.

Westover said the tight space prohibits them from investigating further. The shaft has been recapped and the dig site partially refilled, soon to be covered by condos.

A giant old molasses tank - at 27 feet tall, more like a room - was also reburied. Pillsbury likely installed it in 1916 to flavor or add nutrients to the rye flour, said Ketz. It still contains molasses, which she did not recommend tasting.

Not everything was re-interred, however. Corroded "masonry stars" - metal bars that held the masonry onto the building's structure, likely original 1875 construction, were kept. The excavators found the leather sole of a shoe with nails still in it, half of a cut-glass ink well, part of an old phone book, and a horseshoe, which might have hung above a doorway for good luck.

They also found animal bones.

"Lunch," Westover said.

On the last day, the crew found a 28-inch-long wrench, which Westover said was "very hard to find because Pillsbury made their own tools. When the mill was closed, people took them, thinking they were worth something."

This one is in rough shape, he said, but is unique, with "odd turns and cut-outs."

David Frank, Schafer Richardson's project manager, said the Minnesota Historical Society would catalogue the finds.

Under section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, federally funded projects require excavation. Schafer Richardson didn't get such money. Some work was required. Frank said, but not to the extent the developer went.

"[For Schafer Richardson] to spend money on this when they don't have to is very unusual," he said. "We're usually the last people [developers] want to see on the site."

Noted Frank, "What if you find the world's coolest thing?"

The findings will also help the project's engineers.

Frank said the excavation was planned to coincide with construction, which sales have delayed a couple of months. Until then, Schafer Richardson will secure the site against vandals and the curious, he said.

Frank said that a similar excavation might be performed for the "A "Mill where finds might be displayed in the completed project. Wiggins commented on the importance of respecting history.

"It's all about the river and the quality of place that gives this value. To see this place retain its value over all this time, it's one of the reasons it's a national park."