Development in the railroad era favored nodes and corridors along railroad lines. Places adjacent to railroads held a distinct situational advantage. Prior to the railroads, the only connection between the northern suburbs and the central Twin Cities were rudimentary wagon trails. The railroads provided the only viable means for urban and industrial development outside the central Twin Cities as well as facilitated market connections for farmers on the periphery.
After northern expansion of the railroad, settlers in present day Anoka were able to take advantage of both site and situation to assume a more profitable position in the timber industry. Harnessing the power of the falls on the Rum River to run sawmills and then shipping the finished product to market by rail (to Minneapolis), Anoka advanced from an extraction site to a processing site. This would lay the foundation for future industrial and commercial development. The first dam and mill began operating in 1853. Three additional mills were up and running by 1855, spurring the development of an early downtown. These mills experienced limited growth as result of a sparsely populated hinterland and limited connections on the still infant railroad network in the Upper Midwest. At this point, northern and western rail connections were highly limited.
Due to this limited market potential Anoka was highly vulnerable to the Financial Crisis of 1857, which sent milling activity into significant decline. The small Anoka mills on the Rum River could not compete with Minneapolis/St. Paul milling industries; which forty years its senior, were able to accumulate credit/capital and develop relationships with broader markets. While business in the Twin Cities still experienced solid, but slowed, growth, Anoka’s came to a standstill. A series of debilitating fires at mill sites and within downtown also stunted Anoka’s growth. Many historians (with a pro-Anoka bias perhaps) speculate that if not for these setbacks, Anoka would have rivaled Minneapolis in form and stature
In response to milling activity, a nonbasic commercial scene developed. Supporting service and retail establishments were required to meet the associated needs of conducting business and sustaining a labor population. Trade activity required spaces to accommodate and entertain visiting businessmen and a post office to facilitate communication. The growing labor population required accommodations and access to everyday goods and services. A school was necessary to attract men with families to work in the mills. Within just fifteen months of the opening of the first mill site in Anoka, an infant downtown was active.
“On the west side of the river stands the Farnham House, a large and commodious hotel; also a post office, three stores …groceries… dry goods…and clothing; a livery stable …two shoemakers and a tailor’s signs, greet the hungry, the naked, the weary and sick. Here 21 buildings in a town of scarcely 15 months of age, enliven the western banks of the Rum River. On the east side of the river are located the mill, the Anoka House… hardware store.., dry goods and grocery…, which with dwellings swells the total number of buildings to 50 and over in the town … a comfortable school house is in the process of construction.”
The first form of public transportation shortly followed initial industrial activity. In the early 1850s regular ferry service connecting Anoka to neighbors across the Mississippi and Rum Rivers began. The first bridge over the Mississippi, the river on the Minneapolis-facing side of Anoka, soon followed. It would be thirty years before construction of a bridge over the Rum River, connecting Anoka to Champlin Park. The fact that the bridge over the Mississippi preceded the Rum River reflects the precedence of facilitating efficient connections with Minneapolis due to Anoka’s reliance on economic ties with the central Twin Cities.
The industrial infrastructure and downtown that developed as result of the timber mills allowed Anoka to easily transition into other emerging industries. Agricultural trade and processing would become Anoka’s “bread and butter.” The maturation/mechanization of farms near the Twin Cities, combined with the establishment of a national rail network, opened the door for these industries. Farms near cities had been settled for a few generations; allowing the accumulation capital necessary to begin commercial farming (in addition to their current subsistence activities). Growing rail connections enabled these maturing farms to capitalize on their new potential to operate for profit. Between 1870- 1890 strong rail trade connections between the Twin Cities and Chicago were established. Rail expansion within the Twin Cities hinterland and along the Twin Cities-Chicago corridor consumed 5% of the total iron and steal production in the United States. This established the first convenient trade connections between the Twin Cities’ hinterland and the nation.
Two regional railway stops, combined with the inaccessibility of the larger Minneapolis-St. Paul processing and trade centers for individual farmers, provided Anoka with a distinct advantage within the region.
Downtown markets were difficult to access (even for farmers located within what would become the present day suburbs). Today, due to highways and interstates, traveling the distance between the Minneapolis and Northern Suburbs is an easy task. However, in the 1880s, the distance proved an expensive obstacle for most farmers. Roads connecting the region to Minneapolis-St.Paul were nothing more than unpaved wagon trails, prone to cause frequent axle breaks and impossible to traverse in inclement weather. Farmers could either make the slow trip into Minneapolis themselves or send their produce by rail. These pre-processing transportation costs cut into profits. Opening flour mills and other agricultural processing industries in place of obsolete timber mills on the Rum River brought farmers within the Anoka area a higher premium for their crops and thus enabled a greater number of farmers to access regional/national markets.
A small feed mill, serving local farm communities, had been operating on Anoka’s banks of the Rum River since the 1850s. Anoka, however, did not become a significant player in the milling scene until Minneapolis miller William Washburn purchased and refurbished an old milling site in 1878. Washburn brought the latest milling technology and unprecedented flour production. The construction of the state-of-the-art Washburn Mill in 1880, and its subsequent success and public acclaim, inspired, in part, additional milling and other industrial development.
During the railroad era, throughout the country, professional services originally geared toward local farming markets (such as mills, machine shops, and dairies) adopted new technologies and entered regional/national trade markets. The maturation of these enterprises established the infrastructure for other manufacturing firms (farm and non farm related). An enterprise could open up shop in Anoka for less initial capital than in the city and still benefit from access to the both the swelling non-farm labor population and national rail connections of the Twin Cities.
When the Great Northern Development Company built an electric plant in 1914 in Coon Rapids the region became more attractive to industry. Electrification brought access to convenient, reliable, and more affordable power. Industry until this time relied first on water power and then on coal burning steam engines prone to frequent malfunctions. Industrial operations would no longer to have to depend on expensive coal shipments. Electrification set the stage for industrial migration both of out of the central city and eventually away from railroad lines (during the auto eras).
By the 1880s, the adolescent CBD began to take on the formal urban grid pattern. At its height, during the later stages of the Railroad Era (ca. 1890-1920), downtown Anoka housed a competitive lower-order commercial marketplace, complete with multiple grocery stores, dairies, hardware stores, dry goods stores, drug stores, stables, as well as multiple saloons and restaurants. No neighboring town or community could compete with the strength and diversity of its marketplace. Anoka was the “shopping center” of the immediate region. The transportation network dominated rail and unpaved hard-to-traverse wagon trails made the establishment of a competing commercial center essentially impossible. Downtown Minneapolis was far larger and had many more services and amenities to offer, however the trip was too inconvenient for every day shopping and business transactions. Before the end of the 19th century, the commercial wealth from industrial activity became apparent in the downtown’s landscape. Downtown boasted a permanent brick courthouse, its own branch of the National Bank, an upscale hotel, and an opera house. Middle-class and upper-middle class neighborhoods developed adjacent to downtown and along the river.
Commercial activity gave rise to a series of increasingly sophisticated public transportation systems, both serving the intra-Anoka area and connecting Anoka to Minneapolis.
In 1884, horse-drawn streetcars began running between downtown Anoka and Champlin Park, facilitating easier access to the commercial and retail activity for residents. Success of the horse-drawn street car was short lived. Residents opted for the more mobile horse-drawn buses and put the horse-drawn street cars out of business, the first among many battles against buses streetcars would lose around the US.
During the late 19th century to 1913, horse-drawn bus services made daily trips between Anoka and Minneapolis. Passengers had the pleasure of long bumpy treks on unpaved, often heavily rutted, roads. Inclement weather made bus trips virtually impossible. In winter months, the main stations in Anoka served as the only viable access points to the Twin Cities. Unfortunately, for the many rural residents of the region, the same conditions that made trips into the Cities impossible made accessing the Anoka stations a difficult task in the winter.
In 1912, private developers acquired the rights to run streetcar tracks between Anoka and Minneapolis. By 1913, the first gas-powered street cars rolled into Anoka. Although the gas-powered cars made faster and more frequent trips possible, riders complained of unreliable service and frequent breakdowns.
Anoka had its real public transportation wishes answered in 1915 when power lines were installed along the length of the tracks (thanks to construction of the power plant in Coon Rapids). The electric street cars were both a product of and catalyst for economic development and population growth in Anoka. Ridership and trip frequency steadily increased until buses and personal automobiles pushed streetcars out of the market in the 1930s.
In 1920, Minnesota began to develop a paved trunk highway system within the Twin Cities and to outstate regions. This foreshadowed the end of an era in which railroad lines dictated the location of industrial and commercial activity. Anoka’s outright situational advantage over other townships in the region would soon come to an end. Highways would allow industrial activity to migrate away from the railroad locations and commuter neighborhoods to develop. Areas along main highways and intersections would find themselves with a new advantage.
At the end of the railroad era, wheat and potato production centers moved to more rural regions. The sandy soil proved to be unable to support commercial wheat production, and rail expansion and eventually the development of a highway systems opened markets to farmers located farther from the central Twin Cities. These transportation advances also brought new opportunities for industrial and residential development within the suburbs. Over the course of the late railroad era and subsequent auto eras, the demand for land would eventually price-out agricultural use. When wheat production declined in the region, mills shipped in wheat, raising transportation costs and cutting into profits. As profit margins declined, Anoka’s wheat milling industries either closed or moved out of Anoka to more profitable locations. Wasburn’s Lincoln Mill, the largest of the Anoka mills, remained in operation until 1930.
Dairy products became the largest source of income for area farmers because of the proximity to the large urban populations of Minneapolis/St. Paul. A product which can be difficult to keep fresh, such as dairy, must be produced close to its market. Potatoes could also be grown in the Red River valley in Minnesota and in other northern rural areas. It was more profitable to use the land close to the city for dairy. Once the study area and the urban center were connected by efficient transportation routes, dairy surpassed potatoes in production.