Minneopa State Park, located in southern Minnesota, is Minnesota’s third-oldest state park. It was created in 1905 to preserve Minneopa Falls, a two-tiered waterfall once described as nature’s masterpiece. The park has since expanded to include Minnesota River frontage, the historic Seppman stone windmill, and a herd of American plains bison.
The name Minneopa, a contraction of mni hinhe nunpa, is most commonly translated from the Dakota language as “water falling twice.” The park is situated in the Minnesota River Valley, which formed 12,000–9,000 years ago when glacial meltwater from Lake Agassiz drained south, creating the massive Glacial River Warren. This erosive force created a valley 320 miles long, up to five miles wide, and 250 feet deep. Also, beginning over 14,000 years ago, the erosion of limestone moved Minneopa Falls upstream about three-quarters of a mile. It’s still moving.
The first Euro-American settler-colonists began arriving in the area in 1853 by small steamboat and by wagon. Local newspapers and settler-colonists’ diaries describe a Dakota village, Makatosa, on the west bank of Minneopa Creek and just north of what became US Highway 68. Records tell of interactions with the Dakota leaders Sitomni Duta (Red All Over) and Wahpe Duta (Red Leaf).
Minneopa Falls, first owned by D. C. Evans, quickly became a popular local picnicking and gathering area. The first resort, called Minneinneopa, opened in 1858 just east of the falls. Prominent artists took photos; newspapers and immigration brochures promoted the area. In Euro-American literature from the 1860s and 1870s, the falls is referred to as Minne-inne-o-pa and interpreted as “singing waters where the elk play.”
In 1870, the St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad reached Minneopa Falls and scheduled several daily trips from nearby Mankato. Excursions from churches, schools, and businesses came for the day. Large camp meetings (Christian religious gatherings, with attendance as high as 5000) came for multiple days. The upper falls area was said to be a natural amphitheater.
In 1903, Orange Little, the newest owner of Minneopa Falls, spoke of wanting to cut the trees and graze cattle. Alarmed by this possibility, local business leaders formed a committee to preserve Minneopa Falls by designating it as a state park. In 1905, Ezra Gates, a Minnesota state representative, introduced a bill to create Minneopa State Park. Some dissenters thought it should be a locally owned park. But this was an era when the state government had already created other state parks and historical monuments, setting a precedent. The bill passed.
From 1905 to the early 1960s, Minneopa State Park grew minimally. Local commitment to the park remained strong, and the site maintained its popularity (45,000 visitors were reported in 1935, a year of heavy rains). Between 1937 and 1940, the WPA (Works Progress Administration; later, Works Projects Administration) built seven rustic-style structures that were later added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Also during this era, the state park administration began to rethink what a state park should be and whether the minimum size should be 500 acres. By 1967, Minneopa State Park had just over 145 acres. Should it expand or should it revert back to local control? Local sentiment supported expansion.
Expansion supporters formed the Mankato Active Community Thought (ACT) Minneopa Expansion Subcommittee. They mobilized around three facets: the Minnesota state legislature and Governor Harold LeVander; US Senator Walter Mondale and the Department of Interior; and a local “Expand the Park” fundraising campaign. By these actions, they added almost 800 acres to the park. It expanded to the Minnesota River and the state-owned historical site Seppman Mill.
In 2015, eleven American plains bison were reintroduced to the park. The bison are part of the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd, which includes the Minnesota Zoo and Blue Mounds State Park. These herds are unique: they are considered genetically pure, largely free of genetic material that would have come from cross breeding with cattle. The bison reside on 332 acres of native prairie.
Minneopa State Park in 2017 consists of 2,599 acres. The southern, smaller section of the park includes Minneopa Falls and the WPA structures. The northern section borders the Minnesota River and includes the drive-through Bison Range, historic Seppman Mill, and camping facilities. Interpretive services include geocaching, birding, and naturalist programs.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.