The Main Street Stairs

Written by Mark Luebker

When Stillwater was founded in the mid-19th century, there was no easy way to reach what’s now known as the South Hill. “Nelson’s Field,” as it was called then (named for Socrates Nelson, an early settler and landowner), sat atop a bluff more than 100 feet high. But unlike the North Hill, there were no streets connecting it to the downtown below. And cutting through that bluff and filling in below to build such a connection would be a major engineering task.

Building staircases, on the other hand, wasn’t so difficult. At least two were constructed to reach the southern bluff in those early days—one near what’s now known as Chilakoot Hill on Second Street, and the Main Street Stairs, connecting South Broadway Street and the south end of Main Street below.

Based on mention of a “bluff staircase” in the Stillwater Messenger, historians believe the Main Street Stairs originally were constructed in 1857. One source suggests the inspiration was to make it easier for the brewmaster from the brewery at the foot of the bluff to get to work from his house up above. Either way, the stairs quickly became a public asset, allowing more people to begin building homes and neighborhoods up top, and to have a relatively easy way to reach the downtown for work or shopping.

Initially made of wood, the Main Street Stairs were extended, altered and rebuilt a number of times, finally being replaced in the late 19th century with the concrete version that still exists today.

How many steps are there? Wouldn’t you rather count them on your way up? From the top you can see a magnificent vista of Stillwater and the St. Croix River, one that’s been enjoyed and photographed for more than 150 years. (There are 157 steps.)