Minnesota History: Building A Legacy

Legacy Funds Re-establish Underwater Archaeology Research in Minnesota

Images related to underwater archaeology research
conducted by Maritime Heritage Minnesota, made
possible by Legacy funding.

ACHF grants have allowed a small St. Paul-based nonprofit, Maritime Heritage Minnesota (MHM), to re-establish the discipline of underwater archaeology in Minnesota. Without this support, MHM could not have conducted its groundbreaking nautical archaeological and maritime historical research.

Underwater archaeology began in the state in 1960 with the Quetico-Superior Underwater Research Project, a 13-year whitewater riverine investigation. The discipline re-emerged between 1989 and 1997, when the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) sponsored maritime historical research of certain wreck sites for National Register of Historic Places consideration.

MHM was established in 2005 by professional nautical archaeologists Ann Merriman and Christopher Olson to preserve, document, and excavate Minnesota’s finite nautical, maritime, and underwater archaeological resources. Merriman and Olson are the only licensed underwater archaeologists working in Minnesota. In MHM’s first five years, they conducted small and infrequent archaeological investigations out-of-pocket, with sporadic monetary support from a few donors.

Since 2010, MHM has received support from the ACHF to conduct important sonar surveys and nautical archaeological projects in Lake Minnetonka, White Bear Lake, Headwaters Mississippi River in Aitkin County, the Minnesota River between St. Paul and Henderson, and Lake Waconia, utilizing the talents of a handful of dedicated diver and nondiver volunteers.

One thousand years of Lake Minnetonka’s maritime history

MHM’s Legacy-funded projects have facilitated the underwater and terrestrial study of nearly 1,000 years of Lake Minnetonka’s maritime history, maritime archaeology, and nautical archaeology. Before MHM began this work, there were six recognized wrecks in Lake Minnetonka. MHM’s Legacy projects have identified an additional 30 Lake Minnetonka wreck sites. These sites date from 1025 –1989 AD.

Many of the wrecks are associated with significant historical figures, such as railroad magnate James J. Hill, streetcar boat builder and designer Royal Moore, and boat designer and fleet owner Captain John R. Johnson. MHM has also identified 11 other non-wreck sites and hundreds of anomalies yet to be identified on the bottom of Lake Minnetonka.

Aitkin sites documented

MHM has documented various sites in the Aitkin area. The first is the sternwheel steamer Andy Gibson wreck site, in the Headwaters Mississippi River. This is a rare example of a partially dry and partially submerged nautical site. The starboard side of the wreck, with an intact deck, is imbedded in the riverbank. The center and port side of the site are underwater during normal and high water conditions. Very few steamer wrecks are known in the Mississippi River and none of them have an intact deck, as does the Andy Gibson.

The Andy Gibson wreck also rests on a “dry dock cradle” constructed underneath the steamer as a means to prevent her foundering during low water. This cradle is unique in the American maritime archaeological record. These aspects of the site allowed MHM to use Legacy funding to successfully nominate the Andy Gibson Wreck Site to the National Register.

Also in Aitkin, MHM located and began documentation of the remains of the Red Mill Wreck, a vessel that may be the steamer Walter Taylor. MHM has also identified a steamboat crib, two pier sites, one bridge site, and one mill site in Aitkin County.

Every archaeological site that MHM has identified, investigated, and documented through Legacy-funded projects are the property of the State of Minnesota, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the State Archaeologist. (Sites that do not yet qualify as “archaeological” fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources.)

Archaeological sites, both known and yet to be discovered, are physical representations of our shared past. Buoyed by Legacy funding, MHM is honored to be instrumental in locating, documenting, analyzing, and preserving this past.


Additional MHM Legacy-supported projects include:

  • Discovering the locations of over three dozen archaeological sites in or along the riverbank of the Minnesota River. MHM designated a swing bridge and levee site that connected Sibley and Scott Counties, part of a lifeline between the Twin Cities and Belle Plaine, as an archaeological site with the Office of the State Archaeologist, a division of the Department of Administration.
  • Monitoring the condition of the USS Essex in Duluth, the only Navy wreck in Minnesota waters and the last vessel constructed by premier shipbuilder Donald McKay. Using Legacy support, MHM has prepared a detailed preservation plan for this National Register-listed wreck and digitized 62 of the ship’s known log books located in the National Archives in Washington, DC, and at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. The log books are being edited and transcribed in preparation for uploading to the Internet. Fifteen of the books have been completed to date, with two more on the way.
  • The Minnesota Dugout Canoe Project received world-wide attention in early 2014. MHM documented and radiocarbon dated eight dugout canoes, the oldest canoe, from Lake Minnetonka, dated from the Woodlands Culture, between the years 1025 and 1165 AD. This canoe joins a group of six others that comprise the oldest known watercraft in Minnesota.