Throughout the 19th century, a pretty little waterfall was the most famous place in Minnesota, that northern state in the far reaches of the Great Northwest. On the frontier and as the frontier moved west, Minnehaha Falls was as famous as Niagara. Visitors came by the tens of thousands to see this picturesque and perfect gem of a waterfall. Its fame only increased when Longfellow included this place in his poem “The Song of Hiawatha.”
But it was photography that preserved that fame and the public’s reverence for Minnehaha. To tell the early photographic history of Minnehaha Falls is to weave together the stories of the great panoramas of the Mississippi; the influence of Longfellow, America’s favorite poet; daguerreians Alexander Hesler and Joel Whitney; and the frontier photographers who followed in their footsteps.
Karen E. Cooper has followed an undoubtedly-familiar path from accumulator to collector to researcher to expert. Her collection of Minnehaha Falls images is unsurpassed. In studying the earliest images of the Falls, she has added to the biographies of early photographers. She has also discovered the lost history of Minnehaha Falls, wherein rowdy behavior and criminal hijinks threatened to overrun the public’s love for this place. Her book “When Minnehaha Flowed with Whiskey” is scheduled for Spring 2022 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Karen has also written for Minneapolis newspapers, writing photo-histories, house histories, and restaurant reviews. Besides working as a photo-historian, Karen’s other passion is in philanthropy and working with non-profits to raise money.
Presented on January 23, 2021.