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City of Rochester
201 4th Street SE
Rochester, MN  55904

Phone: 507-328-2900
Fax: 507-328-2901
TDD: 507-328-2900

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History of Rochester

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Historic Crossroads

For thousands of years, native peoples traversed and settled in the area that would become Minnesota.  Native peoples came from Upper Mississippi cultures, from the Northern Woodlands and Western Prairies.  In the last few hundred years, those most frequently inhabiting this area were the Dakota /Sioux, Ojibway, and Winnebago.  The earliest European explorers came to this area seeking a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. First to arrive were the French in 1660 - Father Louis Hennepin and Pierre Le Sueur. Later Jonathan Carver and other English explorers paddled their birch bark canoes to Minnesota - either up the Mississippi River or across Lake Superior.  For almost two centuries after Hennepin paddled his canoe up the Mississippi, few non-natives had seen the rolling plains and deep valleys of what is now southeastern Minnesota. Under a treaty with the U.S. government concluded in 1853, the Dakota/Sioux Indians relinquished the area, that would include Rochester, to the Territory of Minnesota.

Rochester developed as a stop along the Dubuque trail, a stagecoach line between St. Paul and Dubuque, Iowa.  Located at a crossroads near the Zumbro River, travelers would stop in this area to camp and water their animals. On July 12, 1854, George Head and his family laid claim to land that now forms part of Rochester's central business district. It was there that they built a log cabin known as Head's Tavern. Head named the city after his hometown of Rochester, NY.  In 1855, the territorial legislature created Olmsted County, named after David Olmsted who was the first mayor of St. Paul but never a resident of the county named for him. Rochester was declared the county seat and was incorporated as a city on August 5, 1858. Drawn to the region by its cheap and fertile farm land, other settlers soon followed in Head’s footsteps, and within six years of his arrival, the town’s population had grown to 1,424 residents.  

In 1863 a physician named William Worrall Mayo, who emigrated to the U.S. from England in 1845, arrived in Rochester from Le Sueur, Minnesota, to become examining surgeon of federal draftees during the Civil War.  Dr. W.W. Mayo stayed on and became Rochester’s “County Doctor”.  In 1864, Rochester became a stop on the Winona & St. Peter Railroad. Three years later, the line was sold to the Chicago & Northwestern Transportation Company, providing area farmers and businesses with the ability to bring their goods to a national market.  By 1880, Rochester had become a regional urban center with a population of 5,103 people.

On August 12, 1883, a thunderstorm swept across the rolling plains.  This violent storm brought a tornado to Rochester killing 24 people, injuring 100 and destroying 150 buildings. The Sisters of Saint Francis and Dr. W.W. Mayo and his sons came to the aid of those injured by the storm.  Sister Mary Alfred Moes, a Franciscan sister teaching in Rochester, was convinced Rochester needed a permanent medical facility. She approached Dr. Mayo with a proposal.  The Sisters would find a way to build a hospital if the good doctor and his sons, William, who joined the practice in 1883 and Charles, who would join in 1888, would agree to provide the medical staff.  This collaboration laid the framework for today’s St. Marys Hospital which opened in 1889 with 27 beds.  Other doctors came to practice with the Mayo’s, and the medical team developed scientific laboratories to test and refine their medical knowledge. Their efforts would set in motion the development of what has become one of the world's foremost centers of medical care.

Growth and innovation would continue in Rochester into the 20th century.  By 1915, five additional doctors had joined the Mayo partnership (Stinchfield, Millet, Graham, Plummer and Balfour).  The 1914 red clinic building (now the site of the Siebens Building) was outgrown and the iconic Plummer Building was opened in 1927. By 1929 there were 386 physicians working under the Mayo name.  The unique concept of a group medical practice was born out of this partnership - the cooperation and combined wisdom of peers is greater than any individual.  Practitioners at the Mayo Clinic gained renown for pioneering new medical practices and technologies, and over the years, continued to expand their clinic operations, and research and educational facilities.  Outstretched demand for appointments at the Mayo Clinic lead to the construction in 1955 of the first phase of the Mayo Building.  At St. Marys, the Joseph (1922), Francis (1941) and Domitilla (1956) buildings were added to expand the capacity of hospital services.

Thomas J. Watson, Jr., who would later become the second President of International Business Machines – IBM, was a pilot in WW II where he struck up a friendship with another pilot from Rochester named Leland Fiegel.  In 1946 Watson Jr. returned to work at IBM, the business his father had founded. Fiegel remained in the Air Force after the war, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross, rising to the rank of colonel and eventually assistant director of Air Force training.  In 1948, flying on a return trip to Washington from a visit with his friend Watson Jr. in New York, Col. Fiegel died in a plane crash.  Watson Jr. became CEO of IBM in 1962.  IBM decided to expand and build a plant somewhere in the Upper Midwest.  A real estate consulting firm narrowed the location search down to two comparable sites, one in Madison, Wisconsin and the other in Rochester.  Watson Jr. confided to Leland’s surviving father, Lester Fiegel Sr., that he chose Rochester over Madison for the new IBM plant to honor Lester’s son and his lost friend.  In February 1956, IBM announced plans to establish new manufacturing, engineering and educational facilities on a 397-acre site on the edge of Rochester.  IBM Rochester began with 174 employees and had 1,800 employees by the1958 opening of the first phase of the main “blue” building, designed by AIA Gold Medal architect Eero Saarinen.  The main building at IBM Rochester would eventually become IBM’s biggest building under one roof and employment would steadily grow to around 6,000 by the late 70’s.  The IBM facility bolstered Rochester’s reputation as a center for innovation reflected in consistently high national rankings in the number of patents filed per capita.

Rochester was situated on the banks of the South Fork of the Zumbro River to take advantage of the water supply, the power of natural falls and eventually manmade mill races.  The City was laced with small creeks feeding the Zumbro – Cascade, Bear, Silver and Willow.  This location made the city subject to periodic flash flooding from heavy rainfall events.  The city experienced serious flooding in the 1950’s and its worst to date in 1965 – the year communities all over Minnesota experienced high water.  City and county planners knew Rochester needed a flood control system, so officials made continued requests for assistance in creating a flood control system for Rochester to the state and federal agencies.  Working with the federal government, a flood control plan for Rochester was developed during 1976-77 and first submitted for funding in a bill to Congress in 1977. 

After a relatively wet early summer in1978, an epic rainstorm began on July 5th.  A 4-inch plus or rainfall band hit the area - 12-15 miles wide and 74 miles long and covered 700 square miles. The National Weather Service gage at Rochester International Airport measured 4.99" in 3 hours (between 5:53 p.m. and 8:53 p.m.) on the July 5th. The total rainfall at Rochester International Airport was 6.74 inches.  The tributary creeks entering Rochester flowing to the Zumbro River began to rise during the night causing flash floods through residential neighborhoods which would later be again inundated as the Zumbro River rose and left its banks.  Precipitation ended around 1:50 a.m. on the July 6th.  The Zumbro began rising during the evening and continued at a foot per hour through the night.  The July 6th crest (at 10 AM) at the Rochester river gage on the south fork of the Zumbro River established an all-time record of 23.36 feet (flood stage 12 feet) and 30,500 cfs, easily exceeding the previous record crest (1965) by over 4 feet. The floodwaters affected approximately a third of the city at the time. Five deaths were attributed to the July flood, which caused $60 million in damage to homes, buildings and infrastructure.  This flood and another just a couple months later on September 12, 1978, prompted Congress to approve construction of a major flood control project.  The channelization portion of the project was designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Natural Resources Conservation Service was responsible for a seven reservoir system in and around Rochester. The flood control project was completed in 1996, at a cost of $97 million for the Corps project, $18 million for the reservoir system and $25 million collected through a sales tax by the City for its share of recreational and aesthetic costs, select property acquisitions, and funding for continued maintenance of the system. The flood control project protects a large part of the city against a 200-year recurrence interval flood event.  The highest Zumbro River level reached since completion of the project, occurred in June of 2014 with almost no flood related effects.  The recreational component of the flood control project created 10 miles of bicycle and pedestrian trails in a linear park corridor throughout the city - the backbone of the robust trail system which has developed throughout the city.




Web Sources: Olmsted County/ History; City of Rochester/Comprehensive Plan/Charter/The Flood Control Project 10 Years After/106 Group - Rochester Historical Context; NOAA/ July 1978 storm data; IBM/Rochester History; Mayo Clinic/History; Rochester Post Bulletin/ Why did IBM come to Rochester?/IBM 1978 flood 35th anniversary/2014 rainfall event; Govtrack/Bill introduction; CITYDATA/Rochester.