Thanks for your question about the steps.
To tell you the truth, I’ve actually never heard of that stairway referred to as the “hundred” steps, or even given those steps too much thought. Initially I thought that you were referring with your question to the steps down to Bohemian Flats (an ethic river flat community across from the University) but I guess it had a 79 step staircase — everyone likes to recall the number. Those steps came to symbolize the distance and difference between the Flats residents and the residents living above the bluff. I’m no artist — but if I were, I might also think about what your stairs connect.
I can’t say that I know anything about the steps at 33rd street in particular — I’d be willing to bet that they were part of the work done on riverside parks by the WPA. The WPA did work at Hidden Falls Park, Minnehaha Park, and along the Winchell Trail (they had a camp of 400 or something at Fort Snelling) so it would be surprising to me if these steps had another origin. If you wanted to check that — the Minneapolis Central Library has the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board archives — and that’s where I would look to find out about the WPA and their construction.
Let me tell you what else I think is notable about the area:
The area of the river through the gorge is unique — created by the recession of St. Anthony Falls since the ice age. The river at the bottom of the steps was once a shallow rapids — creating dangerous conditions for steamboats until the river was dredged out to encourage passage.
As you descend the bluff you’re also going back through geologic time — the rocks in the bluff are sedimentary, and were deposited by ancient inland seas. The limestone has fossils of early ocean life from about 450 million years ago — from before there were fish.
River of History – Chapter 1 – Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
Dams & Commerce:
When the Ford Dam was completed in 1917 the river became slower and deeper at the site. Just upriver at Bohemian Flats, the city of Minneapolis made its first barge terminal. The Meeker Dam, the first dam on the upper river was built just north of the Lake Street Bridge in 1907 (also part of an effort to make the river deeper and more navigable) but was taken out — it’s ruins can still be seen in low waster. Now that area of the river is used by the Minneapolis Rowing Club and the rowing team at the University of Minnesota because it is so calm and predictable.
One of the big river controversies right now is about whether the river should be restored to its free flowing self & whether the dams should be removed. Since the closing of the Upper St. Anthony Lock to traffic in 2015, there is no longer commercial traffic in that area of the river — and it is no longer being dredged for navigation. The Army Corps of Engineers is doing a disposition study on its Locks and Dams — trying to figure out what to do with them & who should be responsible for them — and the question of dam removal has loomed large.
An Endangered River: The Mississippi River Gorge | Open Rivers Journal (umn.edu)
The secret history of the Mississippi’s earliest locks and dams / John O. Anfinson. (mnhs.org)
Disposition Study, Upper St. Anthony Falls and Lock and Dam, Upper Mississippi River > St. Paul District > St. Paul District Projects (army.mil)
Mississippi Gorge Regional Park, at the top of the stairs, has a remnant oak savannah — which is a rare and endangered habitat. That area also has great fall colors. The narrow green corridor along the river is a passageway for all kinds of animals — and in the winter you can go down and see their tracks. In the spring and fall the river is North America’s most important migration route for birds.
Mississippi Gorge Regional Park – Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
Mississippi River Gorge Regional Park Master Plan – Chapter 6 Master Plan (minneapolisparks.org)
River Flat Communities:
I don’t know of any river communities in the area of the city near your staircase, but closer to downtown there were communities at Bohemian Flats and across the river at East Side Flats. They are interesting and nearby, if not directly associated with your staircase. From what I can tell, the area above the bluff was not very developed — the earliest development seems to come just before 1913 — when a map first shows homes in that area. Interestingly Edmund Blvd is the road that comes closest to your stairway — and the developer Edmund Walton has been written about as one of the first to use racial covenants in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis Atlas: https://umedia.lib.umn.edu/item/p16022coll231:1374
Bohemian Flats | (historyapolis.com)
There’s a slim volume called Bohemian Flats put out by the WPA Federal Writers’ Project if you want to read more about the flats.
That’s all that I can think of — hope that’s enough to inspire some art. If not — let me know what else might help.
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
111 E. Kellogg Blvd., Suite 105
Saint Paul, MN 55101