Minneapolis in the 20th Century book coverAn excerpt from the first chapter of Iric Nathanson’s Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City


T. B. Walker could barely contain his anger. Minneapolis was about to get a “dictator,” Walker thundered in a letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Tribune. The influential civic leader’s strong words were provoked by an ambitious plan in 1900 to overhaul the city’s charter. A passionate opponent of charter reform, Walker had parted company from fellow members of the local elite who were determined to overhaul what they viewed as the city’s outmoded governmental structure and replace it with a system that centralized political power in the hands of the mayor.

Throughout the next one hundred years, the seemingly arcane issue of governmental structure would continue to arouse passions like Walker’s. More than once, the term dictator would be used by opponents of the various plans to establish a strong mayoral form of government for Minneapolis.

Striving for Home Rule

The origins of the city’s governmental structure extend back to 1856, when the frontier settlement of Minneapolis, on the west bank of the Mississippi River, received its act of incorporation from the Minnesota Territorial Legislature. A year earlier, the town of St. Anthony, across the river on the east bank, had been incorporated by the legislature.
Following the Civil War, Minneapolis soon overtook St. Anthony in size and prominence. Seventeen years after it was first incorporated, St. Anthony lost its separate civic identity and was swallowed up by its west-side neighbor in a new municipal charter established by the Minnesota Legislature in 1872.

During the latter decades of the nineteenth century, as Minneapolis and St. Paul experienced explosive growth, both cities faced the need to revamp their governmental structures to accommodate this rapid change. But each time a charter change was proposed, the cities were required to approach the Minnesota Legislature, hat in hand, requesting legislative authorization to make changes. The state’s major cities found that they were at the mercy of a statewide legislative body not always responsive to their needs and interests.

Finally, in 1896, the cities were able to lift the heavy hand of the legislature through a “home rule” amendment to the state constitution which enabled them to adopt and amend their own charters through a local election process, without first seeking state legislative approval. The home rule amendment set Minneapolis and St. Paul on separate paths that would continue to diverge for more than one hundred years. Even though they would all but merge in a geographical sense, the two cities would create quite different governmental structures for themselves-a difference which would continue up through modern times.

In 1898, Minneapolis and St. Paul both sought to take advantage of the new home rule amendment but both failed to gain voter approval for their charter changes. “It was a great mistake to have incorporated so many desirable reforms in this first edition of the new charter . . . it invited attack at so many points from such an array of interests as to make its defeat almost certain,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press editorialized.

Two years later, Minneapolis and St. Paul were ready to try again to achieve home rule. The start of a new century proved a pivotal year in the history of municipal government in both cities. In 1900, St. Paul charter advocates successfully sought to implement reforms, adopting in May a new charter with overwhelming popular support and setting in place a strong mayoral system for Minnesota’s capital city. Seven months later, Minneapolis voters rejected their own home rule charter-an electoral outcome repeated throughout most of the twentieth century, as one charter reform plan after another went down to defeat in the larger of the adjoining cities. These electoral defeats left Minneapolis with a municipal structure once described as a “hodgepodge” by the city’s own charter commission.

Moving Ahead in St. Paul

In April 1900, as the charter election drew near, the St. Paul Pioneer Press gave its readers a series of reasons why they should vote for the new civic document. The first and most important reason, according to the Pioneer Press, was charter’s home rule provision. “Even if the charter contained objectionable features, this one consideration would far outweigh any conceivable objection to it,” the paper maintained. “Once adopted, it can be easily amended without asking permission of Minneapolis and Duluth, which is now necessary . . . It makes St. Paul a self-governing autonomy, with all necessary powers within the limits of the constitution and the general laws of the state vested in the people of the city for managing their own affairs.”

In addition to conferring home rule authority on the City of St. Paul, the 1900 charter broadened the appointment power of the mayor, who was given direct control over the city’s public works department. The commissioner of public works, previously appointed by the quasi-independent public works commission, would now become a mayoral appointee. The charter also diminished the authority of individual aldermen. In the past, they were able to authorize the placement of streetlights in their wards; in the future, this function would be performed by the citywide public works department.

A key charter provision established ground rules for the allocation of public franchises, including that of the Twin City Rapid Transit Company. This latter provision did not sit well with leaders of the powerful, privately owned transit company, which controlled public transportation in both cities. The Pioneer Press surmised that the company and certain other local franchises would, “in all probability,” like to see the charter defeated. “But,” it noted, “if they are doing anything in that direction they are doing it so quietly that it has escaped observation.”

The week before the charter election, one of St. Paul’s other major dailies, the Globe, noted that “no opposition has been openly made to the Charter . . . No interest in the city, political or otherwise, is concerned in its defeat. On the contrary, the entire commercial community is profoundly interested in its success.” On May 2, the day after the election, the St. Paul Dispatch declared that the charter had carried overwhelming, winning support in every city precinct. “Comparatively Few Votes,” less than three thousand, “Recorded Against It,” the paper reported.

An Unsuccessful Campaign in Minneapolis

The Minneapolis Charter Commission represented the pinnacle of the city’s political and economic power structure. The fifteen-member commission included men like Alexander Ankeny, William Hale, Fred Bell, and August Darelius-many of whom were born in New England and most of whom shared a Waspish pedigree. None of the names on the commission’s membership list indicated any direct ties to the huge number of foreign born who constituted more than 30 percent of the city’s population.

The commission’s complex charter, unveiled in the summer of 1900, contained thirty-two separate sections. The document’s main thrust was to tip the balance of power in city hall away from the city council and toward the mayor. Under the 1881 charter, then in effect, the mayor did little more than appoint the police chief and hold seats on several local boards. Under the new plan, he would appoint the city engineer, the fire chief, the superintendent of the water department, and the building inspector, along with the members of half a dozen key city commissions.

The plan limited the city council to a mainly legislative role, stripping away its power to hire and fire city department heads. The twenty-six-member council itself was also restructured. In 1900, the council comprised two members from each of the city’s thirteen wards. The new plan added a fourteenth ward but also called for a single member from each district. In order to gain a citywide perspective, the charter added six at-large positions, for a total of twenty council seats.

Almost immediately, the city’s major daily, the Minneapolis Journal, began a concerted effort to generate support for the proposed charter. The paper published a series of guest editorials by noted local historian Horace B. Hudson, who used a question-and-answer format to explain the charter’s merits to the Journal’s readers. In an early editorial, Hudson examined the form of municipal organization then in effect in Minneapolis. The city had what was considered a council form of government, he explained:

“[In a "council" government] the city council is the chief authority-both legislative and executive. The council not only passes ordinances, appropriates money and determines how it is to be spent, but it also spends it, lets its contracts and carries out the work and finally approves its own bills. The council also manages the several departments of the government, through committees, and appoints and removes the heads of such departments at pleasure. The mayor remains something of a figurehead. At present the mayor of Minneapolis has practically no appointive power except in the police department. The charter makes him accountable for the conduct of the departments, but gives him absolutely no power to enforce such authority except through legal proceedings.”

Hudson’s analysis, by and large, accurately described charter arrangements in Minneapolis for the next eighty years.


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