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Finding Minnesota: Nicollet Island's Treasures

By Angela Davis, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- We are fortunate to have a lot of natural features that make Minneapolis a special place to live and work. But, you have to admit, it's rather odd to find a 48-acre island in the middle of a river, right next to a downtown area.

Nicollet Island is the largest and only inhabited island along the Mississippi River. It is one of the most scenic sections of Minneapolis, right next to downtown.

Nicollet Island is a familiar site to many of us, with a history that is not so well-known.

Rushika and Christopher Hage are historians, so moved by the story of Nicollet Island that they wrote two books about it.

Rushika said the first inhabitants of the island were Ojibwe and Dakota Indians.

"The Dakota called this place 'wita waste' which means 'beautiful island.' And the whole area around here, Nicollet Island and the falls, the St. Anthony Falls, was sacred to both the Dakota and Ojibwe. They saw it as a nexus to the spiritual world," Rushika said. "There's also an understanding in their oral tradition that women came here for childbirth and the noise of the falls would drown out any sounds and sort of protect them from enemies."

One of the books they wrote is full of pictures and the other looks at history of the island and the architecture of the buildings located on it, as early as the 1850s.

"What was really interesting there is that you had everything from working class people living in little shanties, to the 'who's who' of Minneapolis living in mansions. They all lived in this very small place," Christopher said.

The most famous of places on the island way back then and even now is the Nicollet Island Inn.

With it's limestone exterior, it is an architectural jewel.

It was built in 1893, first to be used as a factory where doors and windows were made, and then about a decade later, the Salvation Army bought it.

Larry Abdo and his wife, Caryl, are the owners today. They bought it six years ago after being longtime patrons.

"It was a men's soup kitchen for 60 years. During that time, I was a student at De La Salle and this was like the forbidden place to come because this is where all the derelicts were here," Larry said.

In the 1970s, it was turned into an inn and today Nicollet Island Inn is home to fine dining with lovely views of the river, and countless special occasions of families.

So much so that the owners have had to exercise great care in remodeling it.

Larry said a longtime patron was definitely worried about changes.

"And he said, 'You're not going to move this table are you? I have been bringing my wife here for 20 years on her birthday and this is my table, No. 7.  And you can't move this table.' I said, 'We are not moving the table, we're not moving the table.' That's when I realized that the history of the inn was way beyond anything I imagined when we bought the property," Larry said.

The owners of the Nicollet Island Inn have made improvements to every room there since they bought it six years ago.

And on the outside, they've added flower boxes, gardens and awnings.

In addition to the restaurant, there are 24 guest rooms where you can stay overnight. For more information about Nicollet Island Inn, check their website.

And you can find those books about Nicollet Island on, as well as several locations around town, including:

  • Nicollet Island Inn
  • Lunds - NE Minneapolis
  • The Bibelot - NE Minneapolis
  • Mill City Museum
  • Minnesota History Center
  • Barnes & Noble
  • And various local bookstores
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