A Stranger’s Opinion of St. Paul

(Engraver: John Chester Buttre, 1860, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)

(Engraver: John Chester Buttre, 1860, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)

Harriet E. Bishop is a name familiar to anyone interested in the history of Saint Paul. Born in Vermont, Bishop came to Minnesota in 1847 and here achieved many firsts—Saint Paul’s first teacher, founder of the first Sunday school in Minnesota, first leader of the women’s suffrage movement, and a driving force behind several social movements. She was well known in the city’s literary ­circles[1] and wrote about Minnesota and Saint Paul, though her writings often include language that today would be considered racist, ­revealing attitudes toward Native Americans common to the era but whose effects are still felt to this day. In this chapter from ­Floral Home; or, First Years of Minnesota (1857), Bishop quotes ­letters from visitors to Saint Paul as “witnesses” to the virtues and potential of her beloved city.

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The language of the interested citizens of St. Paul, respecting their young and thriving city, is universally the same, and might be ­regarded as a “one-sided view.” We therefore choose, as far as possible, to allow disinterested persons to speak, that in the “mouth of two or three witnesses” the truth may be established in the mind of the reader. We subjoin a letter from a gentleman, making a second visit here, bearing date—

June 28, 1856.

“St. Paul has advanced very considerably for twelve months past, more so, perhaps, than any place I have visited. Not that its population has increased very materially or in a greater ratio than many other cities of the West. Its advance has been one more of wealth, enterprise and energy, than of population. The question, ‘Will St. Paul be a large city?’ appears to have been solved, and that in the affirmative, since my last visit; and there is little or no croaking regarding the ‘crash’ that people all around had predicted would overwhelm it sooner or later. The fact is, its position as a great commercial center of Minnesota—as a grand center for the territory, North and West—is now fairly and irrevocably established, and St. Paul cannot fail to become a large and populous city. Those whose fortunes are locked up in her ‘corner lots,’ now feel safe; they talk, act and walk with a firm, don’t-care-gait, and rattle the loose change in their pockets as if they ‘dined on ducats.’ Her merchants also feel satisfied; ask prices with a ‘stiff upper lip;’ despatch a customer without worshiping him, and drive fast ­horses after business hours, that will vie with any city in the Union. St. Paul is comparatively an infant city, with a population of probably ten thousand souls; but here, ‘every man counts.’ Here men are picked, not from the fossilized haunts of old fogyism, but from the swiftest blood of the nation. Every man here, to use a western expression, ‘is a steamboat,’ and is determined to make his mark in the history of Minnesota.

“One thing is sure to attract the attention of eastern men on their first visit to St. Paul. They come expecting to find a new, unshaped city, with a rude, rough and unrefined people; but they find a much higher degree of elegance, fashion and display, than in any other city of its size in the world. It is decidedly fast in its character. The ladies revel in finest silks and satins; the gents carry gold-headed canes, keep splendid driving establishments, and there is a much larger display of finery and jewelry than is consistent with a modest taste. All this, however, is indicative of success. It requires prosperity to keep up such luxuries; and although extravagance may be indulged in to an extent not commendable, still, as the city settles down, these matters will regulate themselves.

“There are a large number of new buildings in course of erection all over the city; some of a most permanent and costly character. Several large warehouses are building; some of stone, others of brick, on a scale of magnitude known only in the West.

“The new hotel, one of the largest out of New York, to be kept by Messrs. Long & Brother, well known as the first landlords in the Territory, will be equal to the best in the United States.

“The progress of St. Paul has not been only material. In all that pertains to intellectual and spiritual advancement, there is a healthy action kept up by the people. Schools and churches are well and willingly supported, and societies, both literary and benevolent, are kept up with spirit and zeal.

“A bridge is about to be built across the Mississippi at this point.

“The bluffs all around the city are now being thickly dotted with splendid residences; and if things progress as they have, during the past year, it will not be many years before St. Paul casts in the shade some of the older eastern cities of wealth and importance.”

Another writer from the “Great West,” thus discourses with an eastern editor:

“It is a strange medley, indeed, that which you meet aboard a Mississippi steamer. An Australian gold-hunter, just returned by way of England, from Melbourne; a merchant on a trip of pleasure; a professor in an eastern University, going out to invest in Minnesota; a St. Croix raftsman, returning from a trip down river, with a small fortune of logs; a New York doctor, with a pocket full of land warrants; an eastern man, who administers electrochemical baths; a South Carolina boy, with one thousand dollars and a knowledge of double-entry; a sturdy frontier man, with a saw mill for the interior; an engineer, who escaped the Panama fever on the Isthmus railroad; a Yankee schoolmaster, who has become a small speculator in oats; and scores of others of doubtful character, who sport heavy moustaches, and keep their mouths shut. Verily, a strange medley do you find aboard a Mississippi steamer!

“Now, half wearied by observation, you sit listlessly in the front gallery of the great steamer, watching the golden clouds piling themselves high towards the zenith, in preparation for a regal sunset. Presently the crowd thickens about you, the knowing ones are on the alert, and all catch the spirit. You turn to your next neighbor and ask him the cause of excitement. He glances at the shore and replies, ‘St. Paul’s just round the next curve.’ The boat presses nobly against the current, and you feel yourself swinging around towards the west. The ladies have come from their cabin to the forward deck, books are laid aside, Fremont and Buchanan are forgotten, conversation flags, and all eyes are strained towards one point. Another turn of the wheel, we shoot from behind the forest, and the miraculous city bursts into view. First, an amphitheater-like basin, benched with ephemeral houses and a huge steam-mill puffing in the mid arena. Then the high bluff, crowded with more substantial tenements of brick or stone, from among which spires and cupolas of churches and public buildings rise with sharp outlines against the orange clouds. Coaches from the different hotels, warned by our whistle, already cluster around the plank. Runners from different establishments show a commendable zeal in skimming the cards of their respective establishments. ‘Winslow House!’ ‘Snelling House!’ ‘Merchant’s!’ ‘American!’ ‘Fuller House!’ are shouted from the coaches. One by one the vehicles are filled and rolled away; the freight of stoves, groceries, grain and machinery, is being carried ashore, when we press our way through the crowd, and seek a private boarding-house high up the bluff. . . .

“The history of the town is brief, and no where out of the Great West can we find an analogous instance of prosperity. Eight years ago, had we come up the river as we have done to-day, and swept in against the unimproved levee, quite a different scene would have been spread before us. Then high on the bluff a half dozen huts environed the diminutive Catholic Chapel, and had the whole town turned out to meet us we would not have seen over one hundred and fifty people. Even at that time a small irregular town plot had been staked out, but no one, not even the projectors of the village, had yet, in imagination or judgment, penetrated the teeming future of their infant settlement. . . .

“When on the 3d of March, 1849, Congress organized the territory, and by an organic act constituted St. Paul the capital of the inchoate state, then were the people’s eyes anointed, then they saw a second Chicago springing up on the forest-covered bluff, and property at a single leap went up two hundred per cent. Addition followed addition, quarter section after quarter section was cut into building lots, until the city plan reached its present limits. Each addition was laid off according to the caprice of the owner, and such was the variety of tastes that the finished plot of St. Paul has much of the irregularity of a European metropolis.

“From the date of the organic act immigrants flocked into the new capital in great numbers. They came chiefly from the Northern States. Maine has a great many hardy men, reared among the pineries of the Penobscot and Kennebec, and perhaps is the most numerously represented of any of the States.” . . .

In 1850 only seven [steam]boats were engaged in the trade, in 1856 there were seventy-nine. . . . The average annual increase of the number of boats for the last 12 years, is thirty-six per cent. An increase for the next four years of only twenty per cent will make the number of arrivals in 1860 nearly 1,600. Think of this, you, who have doubts as to what St. Paul is, and what it will be!

Steamboats at Saint Paul Levee, 1880. (Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)

Steamboats at Saint Paul Levee, 1880. (Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)


The modern-day equivalent: New Orleans’s Mississippi Queen visits Saint Paul. (Photo: Tom Reynen/tom-reynen.artistwebsites.com)

The modern-day equivalent: New Orleans’s Mississippi Queen visits Saint Paul. (Photo: Tom Reynen/tom-reynen.artistwebsites.com)

 

Footnotes
1.
Norma Sommerdorf, “Harriet E. Bishop: A Doer and a Mover,” Minnesota History Magazine, vol. 55:7 (1997): pp. 320–23.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/55/v55i07p320-323.pdf

 

Harriet Bishop (1817–1883) came to Minnesota in 1847 and became Saint Paul’s first teacher, established the first Sunday school, and was one of the founders of many social movements, such as women’s suffrage. She wrote four books, both nonfiction and poetry.

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