Minnehaha Falls hidden history: The forgotten zoo that once thrived in the park

Minnehaha Regional Park, renowned for its breathtaking falls, holds a captivating secret within its grounds — a hidden history that goes beyond the cascading waters. Few are aware that nestled within the park once stood a bustling zoo, housing an array of animals that drew visitors from far and wide. From bears to sea lions, this forgotten menagerie flourished in the late 1800s, captivating guests who flocked to witness the wildlife spectacle that rivaled the park's natural beauty.

The Minneapolis Park Bard in the 1800s accepted gifts, and many of those gifts were animals. Pretty soon, the Park Board was housing bears, birds, sea lions, and an alligator. By the 1890s, it was said visitors came here to see the animals more than the falls. 

In 1906, a new park superintendent, named Theodore Wirth, came in. He didn't want animals in his parks, and most were donated to a man who bought the adjacent property – his name was Robert "Fish" Jones. He ran a fish market and stood out in front of the store in a top hat with his bear to bring in customers. Since he already had a bunch of animals, he easily took the park animals in and created Longfellow Zoological Gardens, near what is now the Minnehaha Parkway Bridge where it crosses over Hiawatha Avenue. Flamingos, pelicans, seals, monkeys, jaguars, leopards, bears who performed were here.

To add to the attraction, Jones built himself a house that was a replica of Henry Longfellow's house in Massachusetts. Just imagine walking through the gardens to visit the sea lions, ride a camel, and attend lion-taming shows. Eventually, neighbors complained of the smells and sounds, and in 1922, there was talk of getting rid of the zoo. 

By 1924, the property was condemned, and the animals were gone. One of the lions, though, had become famous — his name was Hiawatha, and his remains are at the Hennepin History Museum.

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