Both the park and island are named for Joseph Nicollet, who visited the St. Anthony Falls area in 1838. Nicollet, a scientist by training, had led many expeditions exploring wilderness rivers in North America and had seen magnificent waterfalls. Yet he described St. Anthony Falls as an “imposing spectacle.”
Nicollet's view, of course, was of a falls in its natural state with its constant roar, boiling mists, and downstream rapids surging amidst tree-studded islands. Eagles nested on the islands and soared overhead. Schools of fish spawned in the rocky shoals below the falls.
The falls, however, wouldn't remain in its natural state much longer. Ten years after Nicollet wrote about the falls, Franklin Steele constructed the first dam in this area to power his sawmill built on Nicollet Island. Steele’s dam began the transition that took the river, once dominated by natural physical forces, to one being increasingly shaped by humans.
In 1865, William Eastman and John Merriam bought Nicollet Island and began construction of an ill-fated water race to power a sawmill located on the island. The tunnel collapsed threatening the integrity of the falls, and perhaps the future of the growing cities on the river's shores whose industry depended on water power. The Army Corps of Engineers finally stopped the erosion by forcing water towards the center of the falls, building a concrete apron to protect the bed of the falls, and constructing a concrete dike across the river just south of Nicollet Island beneath the limestone cap to prevent the rushing from undermining the falls.
Nicollet Island was also been home to a papermill built in 1859, which supplied much of Minnesota’s paper needs at the time. Today, the northern end of the island contains a number of fine, historic homes built in the mid- to late-1800s.