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When Minnehaha Flowed with Whiskey

When Minnehaha Flowed with Whiskey

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A Spirited History of the Falls

Karen E. Cooper

Minnesota Historical Society Press (August 2022)

Winner of the 2023 Emilie Buchwald Award for Minnesota Nonfiction from the Minnesota Book Awards!


The lost history of Minnehaha Falls—featuring dance halls, secret saloons, wild behavior, lawsuits, and plenty of whiskey.

Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis has been a much-loved place for a very long time. Native people visited the Falls for millennia before 1855, when Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha put its “laughing waters” into the American imagination. Tourists from the cities in the East soon began arriving on new railroads to view its picturesque loveliness. And Minnehaha Regional Park is still a favorite place for walking, biking, and glorying in the sights and sounds of the famous waterfall.

But from the 1880s until at least 1912, Minnehaha Falls was a scene of surprising mayhem. The waterfall was privately owned from the 1850s through 1889, and entrepreneurs made money from hotels and concessions. Even after the area became a city park, shady operators set up at its borders and corrupt police ran "security." Drinking, carousing, sideshows, dances that attracted unescorted women, and general rowdiness reigned—to the dismay of the neighbors. By 1900, social reformers began to redeem Minnehaha Park. During the struggle for control, the self-indulgent goings-on there became more public and harder to ignore.

Karen E. Cooper here tells the astonishing stories of the time when Minneapolitans went to the Falls to turn a profit and raise a little ruckus.

In the Media

"If not for Cooper, this history might have been lost. But her account is a lively and fun read, and the book is filled with rare images from her collection. It's a must-read for anyone who cares about the history of the city, of the state, and even of the country. Because in rescuing this messy, loud piece of our past, Cooper has helped make our story more complete, more real and more true than it has been for some time."
Frank Bures, Star Tribune 

"Nowadays it may be hard to imagine Minnehaha Falls as anything but a public space, but Cooper’s book focuses on the period in the late 1800s when private owners cashed in on the majestic surroundings with hotels, bars, and sundry entertainments that made the site a go-to for drunken shenanigans and illegal activities that kept the neighboring communities constantly on edge. Cooper’s thousand-strong library of historical photographs brings to life a wild—and largely forgotten—chapter of local history when the so-called 'Minnehaha Midway' rang with the shouts of carnival barkers and the clatter of liquor bottles."

"Karen E. Cooper has done an outstanding job at compiling the remarkable history of Minnehaha Falls and its surroundings. Saying this book is a page-turner is an understatement. If you’re a local history buff, want a glimpse into Minneapolis past, or love taking strolls along Minnehaha Creek, this book is a must-have."
Mill City Times

Advance Praise

“In walking you through the liquor-soaked history of Minnehaha Falls, Karen Cooper is the ideal tour guide, with a historian’s eye for the larger context and a true enthusiast’s eye for colorful detail in the stories she recounts. It’s great to know that whenever you’re enjoying a Summit at Sea Salt, you’re part of a long lineage.” 
Andy Sturdevant, coauthor of Closing Time: Saloons, Taverns, Dives, and Watering Holes of the Twin Cities

“An obsessed collector of anecdotes and vintage photographs, Karen Cooper has crafted a history of Minnehaha Falls with the intimacy of a memoir — employing an encyclopedic scope and authoritative voice that reflects her twenty years of research. It’s a rollicking tale laced with whiskey, greed, corruption, and arson that not only tells the story of the famous falls but also reveals the early development of Minneapolis.” 
Curt BrownStar Tribune columnist and author of Minnesota, 1918: When Flu, Fire, and War Ravaged the State

“A richly detailed romp through the rogues’ gallery of rabble-rousers and reprobates who sought to cash in on the fame of Minnehaha Falls. As always, conflicts arose between public and private interests, between reverie and revelry, in and around today’s park. The battle was engaged, and Cooper helps sort out the colorful players and the stakes in a history not nearly as tranquil as the falls itself.”
David C. Smith, author of City of Parks: The Story of Minneapolis Parks

Author Information

Karen E. Cooper, a photo historian and writer, has been collecting photographs and researching the history of Minnehaha Falls for more than thirty years. 

  • Paperback
  • 224 pages
  • 40 b/w photos
  • 6 x 9 inches
  • ISBN: 978-1-68134-226-9

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