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It's a playful rivalry now, but competition between Mpls. and St. Paul was once fierce

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An old newspaper headline
This collection of old newspaper headlines brings into focus the 1890 census feud between Minneapolis and St. Paul. This was an actual reprint of the headlines that appeared in a story by the Minneapolis Tribune in its April 7, 1940, edition.
Diana Magnuson

The Twin Cities rivalry between Minneapolis and St. Paul may be mostly good-natured these days.

But in the late 1800s, as the cities grew rapidly from frontier towns into centers of politics and industry, the competition between them was fierce.

Each wanted to claim the prize of being the bigger city, and those tensions came to a head during the census of 1890.

The frenzied push to count the population of each city grew corrupt and underhanded, drawing national attention and gifting America with a new phrase: "padding the numbers."

"The rivalry had really heated up," said Diana Magnuson, a history professor at Bethel University who studies the history of the U.S. census. "St. Paul, of course, was the capital. But Minneapolis was growing more visibly. So, St. Paul was maybe feeling a little bit, you know, diminished."

1890 was a major census year for the Twin Cities. Ten years prior, the population of Minneapolis, with its booming saw and flour milling industries, had surpassed St. Paul. By 1890, both cities had more than tripled in population, and both cities wanted to be declared the biggest.

Bigger cities at the time were perceived as better, more wholesome places, Magnuson said. They had more political clout, too.

"It's almost like a boxing match," Magnuson said of the census. "They're they're duking it out with each other. Both sides are guilty (of underhanded tactics). One side is just a little smarter about it than the other."

Inflating the numbers

St. Paul officials, seeking to catch up to Minneapolis, knew everyone in the city needed to be counted. Minneapolis wanted to ensure its population stayed ahead. Enumerators were local hires, and they had two weeks to do the job. They went door to door, and then reported their results.

"When the numbers started to come back in the tallies, it was becoming clear that Minneapolis had a lot of people. And St. Paul was becoming suspicious that maybe there was something afoot," Magnuson said.

There were reports of many homes listed as having 10 people living in them. Other workers were accused of reporting residents at addresses that didn't exist.

And some enumerators reportedly counted people buried in cemeteries, gathering names off tombstones.

"There was probably actually a lot of incentive to pad because ... as an enumerator you got paid by the name," Magnuson said. "It's kind of like — well, why wouldn't you do that?"

St. Paul city officials enlisted a private detective to spy on Minneapolis enumerators. The detective tracked them to a Minneapolis hotel that he said was the hub of the fraudulent census tallies. Late one night, a U.S. marshal burst in on the men, shattering a window in the struggle. Seven men were shoved onto a train, brought across the river to St. Paul and thrown in jail on charges of fraud.

The newspapers had a field day. Minneapolis headlines took one view:

"Outrageous! A dastardly piece of legal vandalism! Minneapolis enumerators arrested in the night."

St. Paul papers disagreed:

"Arrested! Minneapolis enumerators charged with padding. Returns come to grief. Scheme to swell the population of the Flour City knocked in the head."

The fight became so contentious that federal officials in Washington ordered a census recount. That was a rare, expensive endeavor at a time when there was no standing census bureau.

Squabbling cities are nothing new. But Magnuson said that looking back at Minneapolis and St. Paul's 1890 battles, "it's unique in how vicious it was. It's unique in that there are arrests made and we have this account of that."

The jailed men were quietly released the next day; most had their charges dropped. The new census report vindicated Minneapolis as the larger city, and — ever so slowly — relations between the two cities improved.

Minneapolis has remained the biggest city since. In 2018, the Census Bureau estimated the population of Minneapolis at 425,403 and St. Paul's population at 307,695.

Current concerns

As local and federal officials gear up for the 2020 census, it's undercounting, not overcounting, that is the concern.

The U.S. Census Bureau can easily rule out the padding tricks of the 1890s, with most addresses now easily verifiable. Instead, a range of groups are at risk of being undercounted: "low-wealth communities or people with language barriers ... immigrants, populations of color and renters," among others, said Susan Brower, the Minnesota state demographer. 

Young children are sometimes left off the list when adults in the home fill out the census forms. Census officials can pinpoint the groups at greatest risk of not being counted, Brower said. "Then it becomes a matter of trying to do outreach on the front end so they know that it's coming and understand why it's important.”

Brower noted that the Census Bureau's usual pre-census push to raise awareness has been slowed this year due to low funding.

Census forms come out March 2020. For those who don't fill them out, enumerators will go door to door, just like they have every decade when trying to count everyone accurately.