My study of the Gateway began with a single passage in a sizable book. In Lost Twin Cities, Larry Millet wrote extensively of the Gateway’s architectural grandeur. Millet noted that, for almost a century, Minnesota businessmen built stately offices, lavish hotels, and grand public buildings near the intersection of Washington, Nicollet, and Hennepin Avenues to impress investors with the power of the Midwest’s industrial production and its commercial prestige. Following decades of decline, Minneapolis’ oldest neighborhood came to be a civic embarrassment—Millet summed up its eventual population with two sentences. “Not all of its drinking establishments were rotgut dives, and some—such as the Persian Palms nightclub—attracted a middle-class clientele searching, often with considerable success, for a taste of sin.” He wrote. “The area also featured bars that catered to blacks, gays, and others not welcome in mainstream Minneapolis.” (1)
Surely, I thought, there’s more to the story of “gays” in the Gateway than a passing mention. How did the Gateway come to attract a queer underground? What Gateway bars catered to queer people? What bars catered to people of color? Why are these two groups assumed to be historically separate?
I set about finding answers to these difficult and began with the Tretter Collection in GLBT studies—where all local quests for LGBT history should begin. The Tretter Collection had a relatively small amount of information—I discovered that, sadly, queer Minneapolitans did not actively produce many written accounts of their experiences during this era. As a result, the Tretter Collection has little source material to preserve.Luckily, there are many other resources at the disposal of local historians. I contacted the City of Minneapolis’ records management office in February of 2009 and explained my quandary. The office’s staff helpfully recommended a few sources within their collection. Located below the clocktower in City Hall, the Municipal Archive is itself a piece of history. Modeled after other late 19th century libraries, the (often-forgotten) space contains four levels of oak shelving, wrought-iron railings, stone floors, hundreds of brittle volumes, no heat source, and (to my shock) a sole electrical outlet.
After reading hundreds of run-of-the-mill criminal reports from the Minneapolis Police Department, I ran across an entry that suggested queer goings-on were part of the Gateway for most of the 19th century. In the summer of 1908, police responded to a gunshot on Nicollet Avenue and 3rd Street (the present-day location of Central Library). James Montague, a 16 year-old youth donned head-to-toe in women’s clothing (complete with shaved head and wig!), walked up to a middle-aged man and shot him in the head. (2) The Chicago Tribune reported that Montague’s victim, an elevator builder named A.P. Chandler, had a “premonition” about his death, yet the paper claimed that Chandler was unacquainted with Montague before being shot. (3) Police took Montague into custody, and reported that the young man was “clearly insane.” Jackpot.
To be continued…
(1) Millet, Larry. Lost Twin Cities. St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992. Page 267.
(2) Minneapolis Police Department. “Bertillon Ledger: 1917.” Record No. 382.
(3) “Camden Had Premonition.” The Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1908.