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150 Minnesota moments we’d just as soon forget

Compiled by MinnPost editors and writers | Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Bet you thought MinnPost forgot all about Minnesota’s sesquicentennial. Not so.

First in a three-part series

The widely circulated cartoon that led to our nickname of Gopher State.
Illustration by R.O. Sweeny/Minnesota Historical Society
The widely circulated cartoon that led to our nickname of Gopher State.

Bet you thought MinnPost forgot all about Minnesota’s sesquicentennial. Not so. It just took us a while to dig up enough unpleasant events to fill “150 Minnesota moments we’d just as soon forget.”

Surely you’ve noticed all the recently published lists of the state’s glorious and significant moments in 150 years of statehood. We salute those achievements even as we acknowledge our inclusion in the “lest we forget” crowd. Our desire to recall darker events for a more complete look at Minnesota’s storied past simply could not be squelched. So we’ve compiled our 150-moments list; we’ll publish 50 in each of three installments, ending July 4.

Still, we’re not sure we’ve listed the best “150 Minnesota moments we’d just as soon forget.” We sought variety and a spread of events over the years. So, please feel free to send your own nominees, including your sources of information, to the comments section below the list.

And, lest we forget: Happy Sesquicentennial, Minnesota!

For better or worse, Minnesota is nicknamed the “Gopher State” after the Legislature guarantees a $5 million loan to railroad interests in February. A widely circulated cartoon at the time shows a “railroad car of corrupt men being pulled by nine striped rodents with human heads, representing the people of the territory,” according to “Minnesota Book of Days: An Almanac of State History” (Minnesota Historical Society). 

The temperature falls below freezing on July 4.

Thirty-eight Dakota are hanged after the Dakota Conflict, considered the largest mass execution in the nation’s history.

Gov. Alexander Ramsey declares that “the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.”

Little Crow
Minnesota Historical Society
Little Crow, 1836

Little Crow, the Indian leader during the Dakota Conflict, is shot while picking berries. His body is horrifically mutilated and the flesh is boiled off his skull, which is presented to the Minnesota Historical Society, which keeps it and a few other body parts until the remains are surrendered to Little Crow’s descendants in 1971.           

First Minnesota Regiment makes historic Gettysburg charge, losing 215 of 262 men.  (

Captain Theodore H. Barrett
Minnesota Historical Society
Captain Theodore H. Barrett, 9th Minnesota Regiment, 1862

Confederate forces capture 233 soldiers from the Ninth Minnesota Regiment in Mississippi; 119 of them die in captivity in Georgia.           

By the end of the Civil War, 1,800 Minnesotans lose their lives in the war between the North and the South.       

Photographer Charles Zimmerman of St. Paul survives being struck by an icicle weighing several hundred pounds while trying to take photos of the frozen Minnehaha Falls. Bruised and sore — yes. Broken bones — no. 
The start of a five-year grasshopper plague in southwestern Minnesota. Hundreds starve.               

Three-day January blizzard kills 70 Minnesotans. (

Jesse James Cafe, Northfield
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Jesse James Cafe, Northfield, circa 1948

The Younger gang, some of whose members ran with the Jesse James gang, attempts to rob the First National Bank in Northfield on Sept. 7. Though the gang is driven out of town, a bank treasurer is killed.              

May 2 — The Washburn “A” Mill, the largest flour mill in the United States at the time, explodes in Minneapolis, killing 18 workers.

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Oct. 16 — A major blizzard sneaks up on 14-year-old Michael Dowling, who was working on a farm near Canby. Doctors amputate both of his legs and an arm. That’s the bad part. The good part: Three years later, Dowling offers a deal to Yellow Medicine County commissioners. If they buy him artificial limbs and pay for one year at Carleton College, he will vow to live independently. They agree and he goes on to become a noted educator, businessman and a state legislator.

State Capitol building
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
State Capitol building, circa 1873

March 1 — The state’s first Capitol building is destroyed by fire in St. Paul. We’re now on our third building.              


Sept. 8 — Nine people are killed and White Bear Lake is hardest hit when a tornado tears through Ramsey, Hennepin and Washington counties.

April 14 — The deadliest tornado in Minnesota history hits St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids, killing 72 people and injuring 213. Among the dead are 11 members of a wedding party, including the bride and groom.              

Eager enforcement of the Nelson Act results in Ojibwe reservations being divided into 160-acre family allotments. A lot of land is left over and sold by the government to lumber companies.               

The Republican National Convention comes to Minneapolis. “Hotels and restaurants were widely panned, setting back the convention and tourism business for decades.” (Source, Star Tribune, Sept. 29, 2006)

The arrival of the Republican National Convention delegates as they marched up Nicollet Avenue toward the West Hotel, Minneapolis, 1892
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The arrival of the Republican National Convention delegates as they marched up Nicollet Avenue toward the West Hotel, Minneapolis, 1892

An assimilation program is started that forces hundreds of Indian families to surrender their children, who are sent to boarding schools where they are taught to abandon the ways of their “unhappy race,” as an official calls it. The boarding schools continue well into the second decade of the 20th century.               

Virginia, Minn., is destroyed by fire.

The Hinckley fire, fed by debris left through timber clear-cutting, kills 400 Hinckley residents in its path.

View of Hinckley's main street the morning after the fire
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
View of Hinckley’s main street the morning after the fire

The Kensington rune stone is discovered, and some people refuse to forget about it.               

Virginia, Minn., is destroyed by fire. Again.            

St. Paul Police Chief John O’Connor initiates a unique “safe haven” program for gangsters, allowing them to stay in St. Paul as long as they don’t commit crimes in the city and they donate to his favorite charity: The John O’Connor Fund. By the 1930s, years after O’Connor’s death in 1924, the legacy of his ingenious criminology program has earned St. Paul the title “poison spot of American crime.”

The steamer Bannockburn disappears on Lake Superior after departing Duluth with 20 crew members.


January — McClure’s magazine publishes muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens’ “The Shame of Minneapolis,” which exposes the corruption in city government.

St. Paul’s first fatal car fatality occurs when a child is hit on Selby Avenue.
Feb. 13 — William Williams’ botched hanging in St. Paul becomes the last capital execution in the state.              
The three-day Great Storm of 1913 kills 251 people on the Great Lakes, including 44 on Lake Superior, and sinks 17 boats.
The Spanish flu epidemic comes to Minnesota, but in an effort to maintain war morale, officials ignore the outbreak or downplay its extent. Thousands die.

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Minnesota Commission of Public Safety
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, 1918

The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, created by war hysteria, unleashes a broad campaign against labor groups and German-Americans — in one case arresting the entire city government of New Ulm and replacing it.
Oct. 18 — A forest fire, which begins on the railroad line between Duluth and Hibbing, kills 435 people and burns through 38 communities.

2,716 Minnesotans lose their lives in World War I by its end in 1918.

Andrew J. Volstead
Minnesota Historical Society
Andrew J. Volstead, circa 1933

June 22 — The second-deadliest tornado in state history kills 59 in Fergus Falls.               

Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead fashions legislation, called the Volstead Act, to criminalize booze. He is later tossed out of office and spends years heading prohibition enforcement for the Midwest out of offices in what is now Landmark Center in St. Paul. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union built a monument to him in Rice Park, which for some reason has disappeared.               

June 15 — Three black men are lynched by a mob in Duluth.

Sinclair Lewis
Minnesota Historical Society
Sinclair Lewis, circa 1915

The Alexandria, Minn., public library bans Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” in the mistaken belief that his fictional Gopher Prairie was based on Alexandria.               

A get-together we could have done without: 1,100 Ku Klux Klan members and 13,000 spectators fill the Fairmont fairgrounds to initiate 400 Minnesotans into the KKK.
The Ku Klux Klan burns a cross in St. Paul’s Mounds Park, reportedly in response to an alleged assault of a white 17-year-old girl by a black male.               

Though John Philip Sousa is commissioned to write a march to commemorate the opening of the Foshay Tower in Minneapolis, Wilber Foshay goes bankrupt in the stock market crash and is later sent to prison. Sousa, who never got paid for his work, never allowed the march to be performed in his lifetime.

Foshay Tower
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society/Photo by Charles P. Gibson
Foshay Tower under construction, 1928

A Communist Party-owned bookstore is bombed on Third Avenue in South Minneapolis, after which a mob loots the store and tosses remaining books into a bonfire.                               

On April 1, a St. Paul newspaper reports two major stories: First, John Dillinger evades arrest by shooting his way out of an apartment on Lexington Parkway. Second, a St. Paul grand jury concludes a lengthy investigation by declaring that the city, contrary to rumors, did not have a gangster problem.            

July 20 — On this day in the long, bloody, history-changing Minneapolis Teamsters strike, police open fire on unarmed strikers, killing two and injuring 50. Many of those injured were shot in the back as they tried to flee the scene.

Walter W. Liggett
Minnesota Historical Society
Walter W. Liggett, 1935

July 22 — Gangster Homer Van Meter, on the run following the death of his pal, John Dillinger, is literally shot out of his socks in St. Paul by four cops, including former Police Chief Thomas Brown. The FBI later says the cops split a large amount of cash Van Meter had been carrying. Reportedly, gangster Fred Barker of the infamous Barker/Karpis gang, is so incensed by the slaying that he reneges on his promise to contribute $5,000 to Brown’s campaign for Ramsey County sheriff.

Dec. 9 — Muckraking journalist Walter W. Liggett, who tracked Minneapolis corruption, is murdered. No one was ever convicted.              
St. Paul is named the best place in America to hire a hit man by Fortune Magazine.               

Jan. 18 — Temperatures fall below zero and stay there for a record 36 days. (

Hormel Foods introduces Spam, love it or leave it.

Bemidji’s 8-foot-high, 10-foot-long version of Babe — Paul Bunyan’s ox friend — makes news when its tin horns become entangled in Christmas lights while parading through the town’s narrow streets perched atop a Model T. (“Weird Minnesota”)

Next: Fifty more moments we’d just as soon forget — from the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 to lightning striking at the U.S. Open Championship at Hazeltine in 1991.

Did we miss an event? Please leave a “Minnesota moment we’d just as soon forget” in the comments below. Reference sources are much appreciated.

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150 Minnesota moments we’d just as soon forget: Part 2 | Part 3

Credits: This concept can be blamed on News Editor Casey Selix, but she could not have compiled the list without the wit and wisdom of reporters Doug Grow, David Hawley, Joe Kimball and David Brauer. Nor could the list have been executed without the brilliant expertise and contributions of Web Editor Corey Anderson, News Editor Don Effenberger, Co-Managing Editor Susan Albright and Office Manager Virginia Kujawa.