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Ruins by the Mississippi: Industrial splendors have become aesthetic objects

Minneapolis’ mill ruins are reminders of the industry that built the city, and are still part of its DNA in odd and unexpected ways.

The old mills on the west bank of the river in the old milling district must have seemed as permanent a part of the landscape in their heyday as the Falls of St. Anthony.
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

The other day I was looking through a handbook published by the Minneapolis Institute of Art from the 1920s, a catalog of some of the museum’s notable holdings at that time. In particular, it highlighted a work by a late 18th century “Scotch painter” named Alexander Nasmyth. The work was acquired in the 1910s, and depicts a landscape scene with the ruins of a feudal castle at its center. Peasants work in and around the impressively decaying structure. The description says: “The interest plays back and forth between the romantic old ruin and the contrasting rural and domestic life which has put past splendors to such strange modern uses.”

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A day or so later I was walking down by the Mississippi River through Mill Ruins Park, thinking about those same ideas: past splendors and the strange modern uses of ruins. I imagined telling the leadership of the Minneapolis Institute of Art in the 1910s that the district responsible for the town’s spectacular growth – the source of all that flour money that made it possible for the art museum in this very young city to purchase works by European painters – would leave behind a set of ruins as spectacularly decayed as the ruins in Nasmyth’s painting. I’m sure they wouldn’t have believed it.

The old mills on the west bank of the river in the old milling district — specifically, they are the remains of the Minneapolis Mill, the Pillsbury B Mill, the Excelsior Mill, and the Northwestern Mill, all built in the 1860s and ’70s — must have seemed as permanent a part of the landscape in their heyday as the Falls of St. Anthony.  They lasted well into the 1930s and, in some cases, as late as the 1960s. Right down on the river, they were part of a sprawling industrial city that existed as much underground as it did aboveground. A power canal, carved out from the river, and the so-called “City Tunnel” beneath the sandstone were the centerpieces of a system of waterworks tied to the falls that powered the flour mills on the banks of the Mississippi. When the milling industry dried up around the 1930s, these mills went into a fast decline. I’m not sure if they were demolished, or just allowed to disintegrate on their own, or some combination. But over time, they were buried and forgotten until the 1970s and ’80s, when archeologists began showing an interest in the site once it was threatened by a road project.

overhead photo of mill ruins
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant

The timing was good, for once. At another time in Minneapolis’ history, the ruins might have been covered, razed, or otherwise disposed of. By the time historic excavation and archeology was happening in the area, the city had passed through its postwar mania for leveling unused and outdated structures in the interest of the civic good. The ruins around the river, as well as the unseen, subterranean sections, were unearthed, protected as historic sites, and by the early 2000s, on display with interpretive materials for visitors, after two decades or so of work.

photo of view of stone arch bridge from mill ruins
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant

It’s a quiet area, especially on a freezing cold morning. The river still churns away, spilling through the waterways into the power canal, giving the scene a somewhat ghostly quality. It’s as if the mills were still themselves churning away, underground, after all those decades. On an icy morning, steam bellows up from the grates, presumably from the heat below the surface. Or maybe it’s the water mist condensing. But it gives the scene an industrial look, like the clouds of flour dust that, in the early days of milling, could set off disastrous explosions. On a cold morning in Minneapolis, steam seems to emanate out of almost every surface. Half the skyline is hidden in steam and smoke, streaming out of the office buildings into the sky. The people in those offices work in banking, media, technology, insurance, research, and medicine. It’s been a long time since the riverfront was the site of industry. The descendants of those millers, at General Mills and Pillsbury, now work out in the suburbs, though some of those names still light up the tops of the mills that did survive into present day.

photo of broken off column in mill ruins
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant

Of course, there are no people down in Mill Ruins Park in the morning, save an occasional dog walker or jogger. On the weekends and afternoons, there are people wandering around with cameras, taking photos of the crumbling limestone foundations and twisted metal girders from the railroad tracks that carried flour out of the city. The way the ruins are experienced now is the reverse of Nasmyth’s scene in his MIA painting: the “strange modern use” of these structures is not practical or work-related, but in service of a contemporary splendor. They’re primarily aesthetic objects, meant for reflection and recreation. They are reminders of the industry that built the city, and are still part of its DNA in odd and unexpected ways – the initials for TV and radio giant WCCO, still broadcasting a few blocks south out of their studios on Nicollet, stand for “Washburn-Crosby Company,” one of the oldest, largest milling concerns in the city.

photo of gate to underground tunnel
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant

We’re living in a sort of golden age for urban ruins. Most American cities of the 19th century are post-industrial cities, full of crumbling physical reminders of that past. The mayor of Gary, Ind., recently spoke frankly about how “ruin gardens” and “blight tourism” could be a major draw to that economically devastated city: “I do accept that that might be one of the aspects of an attraction here in Gary,” she said, “just like a golf course or some of the other things you might want to do.” The term “ruin porn” is thrown around a lot to describe the sort of ghoulish art photography that depicts ruined urban spaces with a fascination bordering on the erotic.

The Mill Ruins, spectacular through they are, don’t quite have the scale to approach some of the urban ruins elsewhere in the Midwest and Rust Belt. In addition, the decline of the milling industry in particular is far enough off in the distance, nearly out of living memory, that the ruins seem more romantic than traumatic – certainly not the case in other cities where the decline of industry is a fresh wound.

photo of the ruins under and archway
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant

Again, it must have been unthinkable to those arts patrons at the MIA a hundred years ago that the scenes of ruin and decline they admired in European art would be a part of their own city’s landscape soon enough. But walking down by the ruins on a freezing November morning, I am glad they’re there to remind me and anyone else of the life of a city and a civilization. As in “Ozymandias,” a poem well-known to turn-of-the-century aesthetes, we see “the decay of that colossal wreck” from the future and wonder about who and what came before us.