The Little Falls Ravine

The Little Falls Ravine at the corner of Broadway and Second Street NE, the current location of Pete & Joy's Bakery. The white building is O. L. Clyde's store. Note the two wooden bridges and how deep the ravine is. Photo by Neal & Simmons, 1884, from the collections of the Morrison County Historical Society.

The Little Falls Ravine at the corner of Broadway and Second Street NE, the current location of Pete & Joy’s Bakery. The white building is O. L. Clyde’s store. Note the two wooden bridges and how deep the ravine is. Photo by Neal & Simmons, 1884, from the collections of the Morrison County Historical Society.

Note: A pdf version of this article, which is in booklet form and has more photos, is available here.

When thinking about the terrains of most cities, with the exception of hilly places like Duluth or San Francisco, it’s easy to imagine that they are primarily flat. With cars, the ease of movement over slight hills makes the illusion of flatness more pronounced. Elevation changes in a city are like low-level background noise. We’re so accustomed to them that they’re not worth consideration or mention. Such was the case with a significant land feature in Little Falls, Minnesota.

Little Falls was once the site of a long, deep ravine. This wasn’t a ravine on the edge of town; it was a significant slice through the heart of the east side business district, running beside the old City Hall. City residents would be hard-pressed to find it today, although, if you know where to look, signs of it still exist.

The ravine was part of the Fletcher Creek system. Fletcher Creek flows into the Mississippi River about 6 miles north of the city. It’s difficult to picture an insignificant creek this far away as being connected with the Little Falls ravine. However, if you examine historic aerial photos of Morrison County on the DNR’s Landview website (http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/maps/landview/index.html), you’ll see a series of streaks on the land that look like the shadows of mini rivers, echoing the Mighty Mississippi. The aerial maps make it obvious that these are former waterways and they run from Fletcher Creek right to the city.

There are several historical references to the connection between Fletcher Creek and the ravine. One is found in the WPA biography of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Heroux: “Many times when they were children, Mr. and Mrs. Heroux went to Little Falls from Belle Prairie in a rowboat in a big slough called “The Ravine.” (March 1937)

In a July 1905 newspaper account of a City Council meeting, residents from the northeast part of town were on hand to discuss flooding. “There has been a great deal of trouble with water in that part of the city and many cellars have been flooded and gardens ruined. The stream in the rear of the Hawthorne school flowing down the hill seems to cause most of the trouble, and added to the water from Fletcher creek to the north, have made conditions worse.” (LF Herald, July 7, 1905)

A couple of years later, there was a repeat of flooding. “Fletcher Creek has again overflowed. Each year this little creek seems to take on too much water and overflows, the water rushing along a certain trend, which takes it along fourth street and fifth avenue northeast, filling several cellars and sometimes doing quite a little damage. Monday was the occasion of another of these annual visits, and a few cellars had their customary baptism of water. This was a mild visit, however, and the water has all been absorbed by Mother Earth.” (LF Herald, March 29, 1907)

There has been some confusion about how Fletcher Creek, and consequently the ravine, got its name. According the Nathan Richardson’s 1876 history of Morrison County, around the time the Little Falls Manufacturing Company built the second dam, c. 1857, a Mr. Fletcher erected a flour mill in town. “The dam broke in 1859 so that the mills could not be supplied with water; and Mr. Fletcher took down his flouring mill and moved it down on Sauk river, having seen enough of Little Falls water works.” (BHPM, pg. 183) Could this be the origin of the Fletcher Creek name, particularly in light of the fact that the Fletcher Creek system hooks up to the ravine?

Not so fast.

According to the History of the Upper Mississippi Valley, “Harrison Fletcher made a claim on section six, township 41 north, range 31 west, but after several years, removed to Minneapolis where he now lives.” (pg. 591) As it turns out, the piece of land with that legal description is in Belle Prairie Township and Fletcher Creek runs through it.

Some digging turned up the full name of the flour mill Fletcher: William H. Fletcher. There’s a short biography of this Fletcher in History of the Upper Mississippi Valley that explains how he came to St. Anthony (Minneapolis), Minnesota, in 1857 to work in milling. He came to Little Falls in 1858 “but only remained one year, coming to Sauk Rapids, where [he then] resided.” (pg. 347) He eventually went into bee keeping and married Ada M. Everest.

Harrison Fletcher was actually William Harrison Fletcher, whose wife’s name was Harriet. Notice that we’re dealing with two William H. Fletchers, one up at Fletcher Creek in Belle Prairie, and one in Little Falls with a flour mill near the dam. Neither one remained long in the county, but they were around long enough to cause confusion regarding the ravine’s connection to Fletcher Creek. Here, we’ll have to defer to the aerial maps that show a topographical connection between William Harrison Fletcher’s creek in Belle Prairie and the ravine in Little Falls. We have no evidence that the Fletcher flour mill was on the ravine.

To get a sense of the size of the ravine and its location, I walked the city streets with my husband Erik. We were guided by what I could find in historic documents and interviews with long-time Little Falls residents Fred Larson, Charlie Sprandel, Ed Tanner, and Rich May. The ravine ran a minimum of eight or nine blocks, likely longer as previously noted, from north of Third Avenue Northeast through Fourth or Fifth Avenue Southeast. It was located between Second and Third Streets Northeast until it reached Broadway, then it jogged to the west, running between First and Second Streets Southeast. When it reached Second or Third Avenue Southeast, possibly a little further south, it swung over to the west again to meet up with the Mississippi River in a couple of places. One of its outlets was Rosenmeier’s Pond. (See map below.)

For as big as it was, mentions of the ravine are difficult to find in past local newspapers. There are few photos of it in the Morrison County Historical Society’s collections. The ravine was background, not something to comment on, until it became a nuisance. It only warranted mention when its bridges deteriorated; trash was dumped in it; or when people and cars fell into it. In 1913 no less than the Honorable Clarence B. Buckman’s car went into the ravine, with Buckman still inside. (LF Herald, July 11, 1913) The constant danger and maintenance presented by the ravine drove the city’s desire to fill it in.

Filling the ravine happened in a couple of different ways. Dirt was brought in and dumped to bring the ravine up to grade, or buildings were built in it, the ravine saving the time and cost of excavating for a lower level. Some of the buildings built within the ravine include the Methodist Church that was on the corner of Second Avenue and Second Street Northeast; the church’s school building (now a law office) south of the church; the E.C. Goblirsch house (the only Art Moderne house in the city) on Second Street Southeast between First and Second Avenues; and the HRA building (formerly the W.H. Ryan home and Wendy’s Hair Estate) on Second Street Southeast between Second and Third Avenues.

There were others, including LaFond Motor Company at 114 First Avenue Southeast. This business used the ravine to its advantage by having customers drive their cars to the lower level for repair. At the current site of the Fletcher Creek parking lot, at the corner of Second Street and First Avenue Northeast, the Newman brothers used the ravine as a place for cows and horses. Bert and Clarence Newman had a livestock transportation company and Dr. John Newman was a veterinarian. As many as 50 head of cattle were kept in the ravine in the 1930s.

Imagine the size of the ravine if a herd of cattle could be kept in it. Not only that, but cousins Charlie Sprandel and Fred Larson used to ski in the ravine behind the Methodist Church and near the W.H. Ryan home location in winter. In the spring, when portions of the ravine would fill with water to a depth of three feet or more, kids used old doors as rafts and floated in the ravine. Charlie said this activity typically took place in the hole where the Shelley Funeral Chapel now is.

Ravine filling seems to have begun in earnest in the 1880s.

“It was a good scheme to utilize the dirt taken from the fire cisterns to fill Chestnut street across the ravine. This is a much needed improvement, and dirt enough can be had from that source to complete a good job. It will be a great convenience to many of our citizens.” (LF Sun, January 18, 1883 – Note: Chestnut Street is now Second Avenue Northeast.)

“A quantity of brick has been delivered at the ravine bridge on first street this week. A brick culvert will be put in and the street leveled to grade at that point. A good idea.” (LF Sun, September 4, 1884)

“The ravine on Oak street is to be filled up, and a culvert built underneath to carry off the water. This will be a decided improvement in appearance, and also in pocket to merchants adjoining the place.” (“Royalton Record, August 7, 1885 – Note: Oak Street is now Broadway.)

“More than half of the fill that is necessary to be made at present at the ravine on Oak street is now completed. All the property owners have agreed to build a retaining wall in the ravine ten feet from their property, and no assessment will be necessary by the village. The sand for the remainder of the fill will be hauled from Oak street near the river bridge.” (LF Transcript, May 27, 1887)

Filling did not occur all at once, as portions of the ravine existed until the 1950s. Fred Larson remembers playing in the ravine under the sidewalk as a kid at the current location of the Hardware Hank parking lot.

Prior to filling, city residents used bridges to cross the ravine. The Little Falls Manufacturing Company was building ravine bridges as early as 1858. A company ledger shows expenses of $305.39 for a ravine bridge that year.

According to the January 13, 1881, edition of the Little Falls Daily Transcript, “Hon. Moses Lafond has made an offer to the village council to build a bridge across the ravine on Chestnut street, near J.H. Rhodes’ house, the bridge to be made entirely of oak, for $200. As the bridge will cost about $100 more than that, the offer is an exceedingly liberal one. The bridge is much needed, and the council will probably accept the offer.”

In an article recounting improvements made by the village in 1880, the cost of building a bridge across the ravine on Maple Street was $250. (LF Daily Transcript, January 13, 1881)

By November1882, the newspaper reported, “The village authorities are derelict in duty in not having the ravine bridge repaired. It is in a terrible shaky condition, and unless soon repaired, some accident may happen.” (LF Sun, November 16, 1882) As there were several ravine bridges in town, it’s difficult to know which one the paper is complaining about. Maintenance of the bridges seems to have been a continual battle, as evidenced by the following:

“The village has replanked the Oak street bridge this week. This is the second time it has had to be planked in less than two years. As the frame work will not last longer than this set of planks, perhaps the city will fill up the gulch with slabs, and have something permanent.” (LF Sun, February 5, 1885)

But ravine maintenance wasn’t limited to its bridges:

“A wire fence has been constructed along the cement walk along the property, corner of Broadway and Second street northeast, to guard passerbys [sic] from falling in the ravine.” (LF Herald, October 30, 1908)

“Complaint was made that the crossing of cows on Second avenue and Second street southeast was causing the ground to be pawed down and that as a result the sidewalk was sinking down and would cave into the ravine. The street commissioner was directed to put a fence across the cow path to prevent them from passing. (LF Herald, October 6, 1911)

“The attention of the city authorities was this week called to the fact that the ravine between First and Second street southeast, just north of the W.H. Ryan home, was again being used for a dumping ground for refuse. This ravine was cleaned up by the city some time ago and the council does not intend to permit its becoming a dumping ground again.” (LF Herald, August 26, 1921)

It’s difficult to know exactly when most of the fill was completed on the ravine, although word of its demise appeared as early as 1903:

“The “oldest inhabitant” claims that years ago, when a big rain storm like that of last week struck the city, the ravine which used to run through the center of the city easily handled the water. But the ravine has disappeared.” (LF Herald, July 24, 1903)

The “oldest inhabitant’s” claim was a little premature. Little Falls resident Ed Tanner, whose family has been in the area since the 1850s, thought ravine filling was finished in the 1940s or 1950s.

Just because a ravine is filled, water doesn’t get the message to stop following it. According to Fred Larson, that’s exactly what the excessive waters of the historic 1972 flood wanted to do. The water rushing toward the northeast side of Little Falls was attempting to find its outlet through the ravine. Instead it was diverted to the Mississippi River by an order from Mayor Kenneth Flolid to cut through Highway 371.

Water still settles in former ravine areas. Walk behind the law office on Second Street Northeast during a wet spring and you’ll see evidence of what was once a dramatic feature of the city.

~ Mary Warner
Museum Manager

This article was originally published in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2014.

Note: A pdf version of this article, which is in booklet form and has more photos, is available here.

Approximate location of ravine that used to run through Little Falls, Minnesota, drawn in 2014 by Mary Warner from conversations with Frederick Larson, Charlie Sprandel, Ed Tanner, and Rich May.

Approximate location of ravine that used to run through Little Falls, Minnesota, drawn in 2014 by Mary Warner from conversations with Frederick Larson, Charlie Sprandel, Ed Tanner, and Rich May.

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