Owamniyomni: Re-imaging the Falls as an Urban Outdoor Focal Point

By Greg Lais | September 10, 2020

For most of my life I thought of the St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam as a dilapidated industrial zone filled with rust, crumbling concrete, and who knows what else. It hardly resembled the romanticized paintings of Fr. Hennepin standing at the base of the greatest waterfall on the Mississippi River. Then, in the early 2000’s, Wilderness Inquiry started taking school kids through the lock in 24’ Voyageur canoes, and my views began to evolve.

The closing of the Upper Lock brings an opportunity to re-purpose the St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam. It gives us space to re-think the story of the future, blending with the past when the Falls was called Owamniyomni and the first Americans fished along the riverbank.

It is no understatement to say that without the Falls, Minneapolis would not be here. Industrious Minneapolis residents saw it as a source of power. They channeled it, dug it out, collapsed parts of it and brought it to a point where we had to cover it under an apron of concrete. This shabby treatment more broadly reflects how we treated the Mississippi River itself for too many years—at best as a transportation route, and at worst as a sewer. I am so thankful to be alive in a time when these attitudes have changed.

The great promise of Friends of the Falls is to reconnect Minneapolis and all of Minnesota to this amazing place. The challenge of doing so is daunting, but the time is right to restore this world-class cultural icon to its rightful place.

Here is one small example of what I mean.

You may have heard that the Mississippi River near Monticello is renowned for its small mouth bass fishing. Anglers float various stretches in drift boats while they catch and release perhaps the most fighting of all fresh water game fish. There is a place on the River that is even better for small mouth located right below the Upper Lock. You will see it if you stand on the Stone Arch Bridge and look out at the end of the jetty that separates the main river from the pool below the lock. This spot, where Spirit Island was, is impossible to get to without a boat. And at this moment in time, the only way to get a boat there is to come up through the Lower Lock.

There was a time not so long ago when this part of the Mississippi River was, for all practical purposes, dead. Today, there is a rich if unknown fishery located right below the Falls. It only takes a bit of imagination to envision a walk-way and fishing pier extending out along the jetty to where people can fish for small mouth bass and more. This is one possibility of how the site may be re-imagined to restore public access to the riverfront. Now we turn to you, our community of stakeholders, to share your stories, inspiration and ideas for this site.

Greg Lais is a successful entrepreneur, avid outdoorsman, and longtime adventurer. He founded Wilderness Inquiry in 1978 and has a passion for connecting people of all abilities to each other and the natural world. Today, Greg serves as Wilderness Inquiry's Director of Strategic Initiatives and is a member of the Friends of the Falls board of directors.

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