Bohemian Flats

Hard living, high hopes - forging a life on the flats

Bohemian Flats Park sits just below the Washington Avenue Bridge, as it crosses over the west bank of the Mississippi River. This bucolic setting belies contested histories over immigration, property rights and belonging.

At the turn of the 20th Century Bohemian Flats was filled with hundreds of immigrants from Northern and Eastern Europe. Slovaks, Irish, Swedes and Czechs (Bohemians) were the largest groups, but Norwegians, Poles, Germans, Hungarians, Austrians and Danes also made their homes here. The river flats acquired many nicknames-Danish Flats, Connemara Patch, Little Ireland, Little Lithuania-but Bohemian Flats, lumping together Czech and Slovak residents, endured.

By the early 1900s the flats had streets, gardens, two breweries and a church. It was a thriving settlement, but a challenging place to live. Springtime flooding, a lack of proper sewage and limited access to clean water and city services made life difficult. Residents built their homes with logs and driftwood found in the river. Many tried to grow their own food but were limited to crops that survived in the wet soil. Most families raised chickens or goats and one family owned two cows, which they used to sell milk to their neighbors. There were outbreaks of diptheria, scarlet fever and other diseases. In spite of these challenges, immigrants chose to live here because they found cheap housing and strong community ties.

Many residents worked in the barrel-making, flour milling and lumber industries that helped establish Minneapolis. Others worked in the millinery trade, in domestic service, or took in work as seamstresses or laundresses. Some established their own businesses up on the bluffs.

Flats residents considered their houses their own, although some had signed leases or had paid rent for the lots on which they built. In 1921, CC and Mary Leland sold their property to land speculator C.H. Smith. He was the first landlord to try and collect rents. Flats residents fought back, claiming "squatters rights," battling eviction notices in the courts and refusing to leave. Eventually Smith won, but many residents refused to pay and left. Then the City of Minneapolis used eminent domain to claim the area for a barge terminal. Flats residents were given until April, 1931 to vacate their homes. Most left by the end of March, but one resident, Frank Badnarek, refused to leave until the bulldozers came to his door.

In the 1930s, the flats were transformed into a municipal barge terminal and then served as a coal storage site for several decades. In the 1980s the area was cleaned up and designated as a Minneapolis Park. In 2006 it served as the resting site of the pieces of the I-35W bridge after it collapsed. While all traces of Bohemian Flats as a residential area are gone, this is still an important place in the memories of many former residents and their descendants.



Washington Avenue Bridge, County Rd 122, Minneapolis, MN 55455