Harris Machinery
Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis’ Mechanical Time Capsule

“Yeah, it’s awesome, but what is it?”

This was my first view of Harris Machinery's property... it was strange to find what looked like a ghost town five minutes from downtown Minneapolis!
This was my first view of Harris Machinery’s property… it was strange to find what looked like a ghost town five minutes from downtown Minneapolis!

By then, the old man with his jingling key rings had turned and walked back to the office, leaving the pair of photographers behind that, he felt, had nothing better to do than make “artsy” photographs of antique buildings. Maybe he was right, but as my friend and I poked our heads inside, any self-consciousness dissolved into the cool, musty air.

“Looks sorta like a Post Office…”

“Yeah, I can see whatya mean by all the old bags—those cloth?”

“Mmmhmm, and those would be conveyor sections, like for production lines… weird! Must have been a sorta factory at one time… but either way,” I continued, “shoot first, ask questions later.”

Peteler, Gray & Harris

The complex that comprises Harris Machinery today began more than a generation ago as Peteler Portable Railway Manufacturing Company in 1870. A Civil War Veteran, Francis Peteler is still known for inventing and producing the first rail-mounted dump car, a tool to move raw materials quickly for railroad construction. When he erected his factory in Minneapolis it was to manufacture this specialty rail implement, as well as his patented portable railway system.

Portable railways are temporary systems of track that can be assembled quickly to aid construction projects, then taken apart and reused later, all without the usual engineering that goes into traditional rail beds and track-laying.

In 1914, though, the company declared bankruptcy, and the buildings stood empty until three years later, when Gray Tractor Company bought the property and buildings.

Gray Tractor manufactured an 18-horsepower farming tractor with four interchangeable shovels, although the most interesting feature is the design itself. This tractor looks like a steampunk’s sex dream. The tractor was the size of a compact car and was powered by an engine that turned one giant drum, like a steamroller, with two steel wheels in the front for steering.

Gray would use the building for about a decade.

Ghost signs advertising tractors and boilers face a bike trail.
Ghost signs advertising tractors and boilers face a bike trail.
A view of the Harris offices, complete with great block glass.
A view of the Harris offices, complete with great block glass.

1928 would bring a local into the mix, Harris Machinery and Company, which had been operating in the Twin Cities since 1905. In an instant of abandonment-themed synchronicity, Harris purchased the scrapped remnants of Gopher Ordnance Works, the defunct Rosemount gunpowder plant also featured on this website.

In modern years, the company’s perspective seems to have shifted into wholesale retail, stocking camping supplies and canvases in addition to a fascinating amalgam of rusty boilers and heavy machinery. Demolition of a few buildings and a collapsed roof has permanently changed the view around the factory, nestled between a major college campus and empty grain elevators.

A side door for the brick factory.
A side door for the brick factory.

From the top of neighboring elevator one winter, these changes were obvious.

It feels strange to watch the gradual fall of these buildings that outdate my great-grandfather in my time, but it serves as a reminder that we’re surrounded by history; we live in it, and it passes around and through us whether we always take notice or don’t.

References »

  • Hoffman, B. (2006, Mar 22). Southeast Angle
  • Kahn, A. (2006, Jul 4). Gadgets and doodads of the industrial age . Pioneer Press
  • Roise, C., & Hess, N. (2003). Semi survey: Peteler portable railway manufacturing company. Roise and Company.