The past in your own backyard

Local history is just as valuable and important as national history, and the Twin Cities have plenty.

Andrew Johnson

At the risk of making myself vulnerable to late night heckling, eggings or other pranks, I will mention that I moved into a building about three blocks away from the Stone Arch Bridge in September. Seeing it as just somewhere to rest my head for the next year, my new place has led me to a greater appreciation of the Twin CitiesâÄô past, something that is well worth exploring.

Growing up on the East Coast for the better part of my life, that region carried a certain historical pre-eminence in my mind. The megalopolis that spanned from the Mid-Atlantic to New England âÄî which includes Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston âÄî seemed like a tough area to contend with in historical significance, especially given its concentration. Those five cities alone are in an area smaller than the distance from Minneapolis to Chicago. Sprinkle in Revolutionary and Civil war battlefields and other smaller, but noteworthy, port cities, and itâÄôs easy to understand why there is such a focus in American textbooks on areas east of the Appalachian Mountains.

None of my âÄúEast Coast biasâÄù was due to unfamiliarity with the rest of the country, though; after all, I was born in the Midwest and visited at least once a year to see family. But my peripheral view of history was heavily dependent on convention. For example, Lewis and Clark are heralded as the only worthwhile explorers west of the Mississippi River, forcing many, including myself, to ignore the feats of those like Joseph Nicollet.

Fast-forward to my current apartment building. I knew the Stone Arch Bridge well prior to my recent move, even spending a Fourth of July or two there. While I was certainly aware of MinneapolisâÄô milling history, particularly when the neon signs are lit up, I figured knowing the broad, general history of it was enough. Yet, with it now just steps away, IâÄôve come to further appreciate and educate myself about the Twin Cities, Minnesota, and the nation as a whole.

IâÄôll avoid making this a history term paper, but by just reading the plaques and markers along the Stone Arch Bridge and riverfront, the stories that part of the city has to tell deserve to be heard, and theyâÄôre all within just a 20 minute walk from where many of us live. For example, the Pillsbury A Mill used to be the largest in the world. As for the beloved Stone Arch Bridge, local business leaders in the 1880s commissioned its construction after the city repeatedly squandered money and did not keep the already-built bridges safe for railroads; in fact, itâÄôs only become a pedestrian bridge in the last 20 years after ceasing to be a railroad bridge in 1978. And just off Hennepin Avenue is the oldest church in the city still in use, originally built in 1854.

Further delving into the Twin CitiesâÄô past has introduced me to fascinating figures like Pierre âÄúPigâÄôs EyeâÄù Parrant, a one-eyed bootlegger and one of St. PaulâÄôs first settlers, and 1930s mobster Kid Cann. These arenâÄôt just fun factoids, but glimpses that allow you to better understand and value the culture of the Twin Cities.

Hennepin and Ramsey counties have 253 sites on the National Register of Historic Places between them. Whether you were raised here or are an outsider, make it a point to acquaint âÄî or reacquaint âÄî yourself with the history of the area. It doesnâÄôt have to be like homework: Stop by the Mill City Museum one afternoon, spend a few minutes reading an inscription in a downtown theater next time youâÄôre there for a show or just grab a beer on the cobblestoned Main Street. History can only be passed along if those in the present know enough to do so, and thereâÄôs too rich a history here not to.

 

Andrew Johnson welcomes comments at [email protected]