Discover the ONLY Natural Waterfall on the Mississippi River

Written by Cindy Rasmussen
Updated: July 19, 2023
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It is surprising that along a 2,340-mile river, there would not be many natural waterfalls. Niagara Falls, for example, is a natural waterfall, not manufactured by human engineering. It is on the Niagara River which flows between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, but what about the Mississippi? What is the only natural waterfall in the Mississippi River?

The only natural waterfall on the Mississippi River is Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, MN.

Where Does the Mississippi River Start and End?

Mississippi river delta

The Mississippi River is 2,350 miles from Minnesota down to Louisiana and into the Gulf of Mexico.


The Mississippi River flows north to south through the center of the United States. It starts in central Minnesota at Lake Itasca and flows down along the border of Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois,  Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It empties just past New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico.

What is the Only Natural Waterfall on the Mississippi River?

St. Anthony Falls

Look at the power of the flow of the falls! The only natural waterfall on the Mississippi River is Saint Anthony Falls. It is now a man-made lock and dam system.


The only natural waterfall on the Mississippi River is Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, MN. The falls used to be completely natural but a concrete overflow spillway had to be created due to the natural falls collapsing in 1869. Now an artificial structure forms the lock and dams at Upper Saint Anthony Falls and Lower Saint Anthony Falls.

Where is Saint Anthony Falls on a Map?

The falls are located in the northeastern part of downtown Minneapolis. Its waters come from the river into the Mississippi River Gorge. It is part of the Saint Anthony Falls Historic District and is listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places.

How did Saint Anthony Falls Collapse?

In 1869 the collapse was caused on October 5, when water seeped into a tunnel underneath the falls. The massive power of the flow caused a whirlpool that washed away large sections of the falls. The tunnels were created by businessmen William W. Eastman and John L. Merriam who had bought a chunk of Nicollet Island and they were diverting the water for their use. Volunteers had to build several cofferdams to protect the edges of the River from overflowing. It would be years before the falls were stable again.

When Were the Lock and Dams Built at Saint Anthony Falls?

In the 1950s and 1960s, the series of locks and dams along the falls was constructed to expand the navigation options in the growing city along the river. The population of the Minneapolis area was 996,000 in 1950 and by 1960 it had reached 1,384,000 so you can see the rapid growth during this period. The lower dam was actually completed first with construction ending in 1956. The upper dam was completed in 1963.

How was Saint Anthony Falls Formed?

It is believed that around 10,000 years ago the falls were formed from the Glacial River Warren – Ft. Snelling. The falls crashed down onto the limestone and the sandstone with large portions breaking off over the years.

How Big Was the Natural Waterfall at Saint Anthony Falls?

Niagara Falls

Saint Anthony Falls was once as tall as Niagara Falls is today.

©YingHui Liu/

At that time (10,000 years ago) the falls were estimated to be 180 feet tall! In comparison, the drop of Niagara Falls is between 167 feet (51 meters) and 188 feet (57 meters). Incredibly, Saint Anthony Falls was once the size of Niagara Falls!

How Big is Saint Anthony Falls Today?

Today, Saint Anthony Falls has a lock next to the dam that has a lift of 49 feet. Incredibly, this single point accounts for 10% of the elevation change the Mississippi River experiences between Minneapolis and St. Louis. The dam is 1,575 feet long, which is a little over 5 football field lengths long.

What Kinds of Dams are Built on the Falls?

Hoover Dam, The United States

The Hoover Dam is the second-largest dam in the U.S.

© Pavone

The upper falls is a hydroelectric dam in a horseshoe shape and the lower dam is a gravity-type hydro-electric dam using the force of gravity to generate electricity and power. In comparison, the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River on the border of Arizona and Nevada is a concrete arch-gravity dam that uses the force of gravity and the pull of water flowing downstream. Did you know the Hoover Dam is 726.4 feet tall?

What is the Biggest Dam in the World?

The biggest dam in the world is the Nurek Dam on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan (by China and Afghanistan). It is 984 feet (300 meters) tall! Can you imagine standing at the top of that and looking down? Now that is a tall structure.

What was Saint Anthony Falls Used For?

Due to the convenience of the river and the power of the falls two cities were built along the shores of the Mississippi River at the falls. One of the cities was Saint Anthony and the other was Minneapolis. Three milling operations thrived in this area with sawmills, textile mills, and flour mills leading the way. At one point the two cities combined forces to take advantage of the economy at the time. Lumber industries started up along the falls as loggers in the north would cut down logs and float them down the river with workers retrieving them at the falls and using them in their lumber mills.

Later the falls were used to provide electricity to the area surrounding the river, both commercial and residential. The power plant today generates 12 megawatts and is operated by Xcel Energy, the primary electrical utility company in Minneapolis.

What About Minnehaha Falls, Isn’t That a Natural Waterfall?

bald eagle just caught a fish

Keep your eyes open for bald eagles at Minnehaha Falls. This waterfall is a natural waterfall but it is not on the Mississippi River. It does feed into it from the Minnehaha Creek.


Minnehaha Falls is a natural waterfall in Minnesota but it is not on the Mississippi River. It is on the Minnehaha Creek which feeds into the Mississippi River. It is located in the Minnehaha Regional Park about 7 miles downstream of Saint Anthony Falls on the west side of the river. The large park is popular for the off-leash dog park and wildlife viewing. You might see white-tail deer, hawks and bald eagles along the limestone trails.

What Kind of Fish Live in Saint Anthony Falls?

Happy fisherman with walleye fish

Walleye are a popular fish to fish for at Saint Anthony Falls.


You can fish for bluegills, northern pike, largemouth and smallmouth bass, channel catfish, flathead catfish, and one of Minnesota’s favorites…walleye. North of the falls is Boom Island where there are good spots for fishing and Father Hennepin Bluff Park is another good fishing spot. You can hike across the massive Stone Arch Bridge to the visitor center to learn all about the fish and animals that make Saint Anthony Falls their home.

Is it Safe to Boat, Kayak, or Canoe at Saint Anthony Falls?

No, the currents are so strong and the waters so turbulent it is important to follow posted warning signs to stay safe.

Where is the Best Place to see Saint Anthony Falls?

The view from the Stone Arch Bridge is amazing as you can see, hear and feel the mist of the mighty waters flowing over the dam. Definitely something worth taking the time to visit. You really do understand how important waterfalls are and how much power we can use from their flow, whether it is natural or man-made.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © melissamn/

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About the Author

I'm a Wildlife Conservation Author and Journalist, raising awareness about conservation by teaching others about the amazing animals we share the planet with. I graduated from the University of Minnesota-Morris with a degree in Elementary Education and I am a former teacher. When I am not writing I love going to my kids' soccer games, watching movies, taking on DIY projects and running with our giant Labradoodle "Tango".

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