On warm summer evenings in Morrison County people are often drawn to the Mississippi River and its dams. 

Early stages of the dam construction on the east side of the bridge in Little Falls in 1887. Photo compliments of the Morrison County Historical Society.

Not far from Bowlus, at the Blanchard Dam and 18 megawatt power station, a family strolls across the old Soo Line Railroad bridge. The bridge is now part of a bicycle trail. From high on the bridge they can look down on the dam and watch the water roaring over the 46-foot tall dam. Below them, on the west side of the river, are people fishing from the rocks and bridge footings. They’ve made the somewhat challenging walk down to the river from a small parking lot near the bicycle trail that is maintained by the dam’s owner, Minnesota Power. Once down near the foot of the dam visitors may be able to feel mist in their faces from the crashing water and see a shimmering rainbow. Across the river, on the east side, more people are fishing along the banks. There’s even a group lounging on lawn chairs just watching the river tumble over the dam.

Upstream a few miles, at Little Falls’ Maple Island Park, a similar leisurely group has gathered. The somewhat smaller Minnesota Power dam there has drawn them together. Fishing is also popular below this 24-foot high dam and 4.7 megawatt power plant.

“I had my rod just leaning there with my lure in the water,” reported an elderly gentleman strolling on the park’s extensive walking path. “Before I could grab it the thing went flying into the water. It must have been a big race horse of a northern. I’m lucky the reel was a cheap one because I never saw it again.”

But fishing isn’t the only activity possible below the dam. The city of Little Falls has been generous with benches sprinkled along the shore. Sitting on them visitors can have a picnic, watch the ducks or people fishing, and be soothed by the sight and sound of water falling.

The history of the Little Falls dam is as old as the town itself. The town, which is among the oldest in Minnesota, was established in 1848. The first dam was built the following year by a group of investors calling themselves the Little Falls Manufacturing Company. It was a wing dam and only extended part way across the river. It was washed away 10 years after being built. In 1887 an organization known as the Little Falls Water Power Company owned the dam site and was building a dam all the way across the river.

According to documents at the Morrison County Historical Society, residents of Little Falls had great expectations for their water power company. So much confidence that they pooled their resources and loaned the company $100,000 at 5 percent interest. The city also offered tax breaks. The 1887 dam must have generated electricity because, by 1901, the company was referred to as the  electric and water company and was offering to wire buildings in Little Falls for $1 per light, according to historical society records. Another promotion offered to wire a home for free if the owners agreed to install at least six lights.

Five years later, in the fall of 1906, the Little Falls Daily Transcript newspaper reported that a new electrical generating power house was under construction and that it “will be one of the best to be found in Minnesota.” Two of the six generators operating in the power house today were installed at that time, according to Minnesota Power.

The Daily Transcript reported that the power house was being built from brick made in Little Falls and was “nearly fire proof.”

Unfortunately, in 1911 the Daily Transcript reported that a fire in the power house had caused considerable damage. In 1915 the power house was being rebuilt and the wooden 1887 dam was replaced by a concrete dam, according to the newspaper.

Dam building for electrical generation was booming in Central Minnesota during the first and second decades of the last century. While workers were improving the Little Falls dam, two others were built upstream on the Crow Wing River, a major tributary to the Mississippi River. The 1.8 megawatt Sylvan dam and power station were built in 1913 and expanded in 1915. The Pillager dam, which  generates 1.5 megawatts of electricity, was built 100 years ago this year.

Water rushes through the Little Falls dam. Photo by Jan King

While dam builders were busy in Little Falls and on the Crow Wing, business speculators were looking downstream near Blanchard Rapids. The rapids were named after Allen Blanchard Sr., who built a home for his family near them in the late 1850s. Local newspapers referred to Blanchard as “one of the last of the Daniel Boone style of pioneers.” He was renowned as a rifle marksman and is reported to have shot 99 deer with 100 shots.

“A gang of engineers and helpers are encamped on the Mandry farm on the banks of the Mississippi River about a half mile below the Soo Line bridge. They have been there for more than three weeks prospecting for the location of a big power dam to be built soon in that vicinity,” the Bowlus Advance wrote in an article from the early 1920s.

Fifteen years earlier, on Dec. 13, 1906, the Royalton Banner newspaper reported that a similar engineering crew was in the area prospecting for the location of a new railroad that would pass through Bowlus. By the fall of 1909, grain, potatoes, and passengers were passing over the new Soo Line railroad bridge at Blanchard Rapids east of Bowlus. Passengers could travel by train from Bowlus and arrive in Minneapolis, via Brooten in Stearns County, in just a few hours. The cost for the trip was $2.04, according to a timetable published in Bowlus: A Pictorial History by Louis Titel, James Beniek, and Tim Jendro.

The Soo Line and the Blanchard dam will always be very closely connected. Throughout the early 1920s there was much speculation about whether the dam would be at Pike Rapids or Blanchard Rapids. The first prospecting crew, reported on by the Bowlus Advance, had been exploring near Pike Rapids, downstream from Blanchard Rapids. When Blanchard Rapids was finally settled on, the railroad bridge and the dam would only be 100 feet apart. The remarkable engineering accomplishment that allowed for that close proximity is what provides today’s dam watchers such a fantastic view.

There was even more speculation about who would own the dam than there was regarding its location. Early speculation focused on the Cayuna Range Power Company. Even the auto maker Henry Ford came out to look at the potential dam sites, fueling speculation in the local newspaper that he would own the dam. But, in October 1923, when Pike Rapids Power Company received a federal license to build at the lower dam site, ownership and location seemed to be settled.

Construction of the hydroelectric plant in Little Falls. Photos courtesy of Morrison County Historical Society.

Then, in November, with the financial assistance of General Electric, the Minnesota Power and Light Company was created by a merger of four Minnesota utilities. MP & L became the owner of the Blanchard Rapids dam site as well as the Little Falls dam and power station. Before the ink was dry on the various agreements construction work had begun at that location.

“Work started this morning clearing the site of trees and brush. There are 12 men employed now and more may be added next week. When the work gets under way it will require from 300 to 400 men,” the Royalton Banner wrote on Jan. 31, 1924.

The Banner also reported that a crew bunkhouse would soon be built, and by April 1, a small town had been constructed on the east side of the river. Less then a year later the difficult and dangerous construction project was complete.

“Generation from the new station was brought online in February 1925,” said Chris Rousseau, manager of hydro operations for Minnesota Power. “Initially the station had two units each capable to generating six megawatts. An additional six megawatts unit was added in 1988.”

“During the two-year period of 1923-1924 MP&L built the Fond Du Lac, the Blanchard, and the Winton hydroelectric stations,” Rousseau said.

The Fond Du Lac dam is Minnesota’s tallest, according to Rousseau. The Blanchard is the state’s largest dam, and Minnesota Power is the state’s largest hydropower electricity generator. It owns and operates 11 dams and hydropower stations across Central, North Central, and Northeastern Minnesota.

“During World War I, the U.S. Army was stationed at the Thomson Hydro Station, which had been constructed in 1907 and was then operated by the Great Northern Power Company,” Rousseau said. “During World War II, Minnesota Power’s hydro assets played such a critical role in national security that U.S. Marine Corp servicemen were assigned to Thomson hydro, Fond Du Lac hydro, and Winton hydro to ensure the power supply to the iron mines would not be interrupted.”

Rousseau said that Minnesota Power encourages safe recreational uses in the reservoirs formed above its dams and on the land around the dams. One of the unique features at the Blanchard dam is that it is one of the few places in the world where the mineral staurolite is present.

“It is nature’s gift to us and a special find if you are lucky enough to spot a twined crystal,” he said. “We are proud of all the recreational opportunities we are able to provide to our customers and the region.”