St. Croix Riverway
Time and the River: A History of the Saint Croix
NPS Logo

The St. Croix: River of Paradox

Rivers are symbols of hope and agents of change. The steady flow of bright water means renewed life for an entire valley. The constant current flowing of its course is a model of restless motion and ceaseless change. From Mark Twain to Norman MacClean rivers have served in American literature as an outlet for adventure and a place of retreat, symbols of the opportunities of an expanding nation and oasis of individual renewal. "Eventually," MacClean wrote, "all things merge into one, and a river runs through it." Paradoxically rivers represent both flux and continuity. As the ancient Greeks observed in the fifth century B.C. it is not possible to step into the same stream twice, for no sooner has one entered a stream than that water is swept on by the current. Yet, while rivers constantly change they are themselves ancient. For more than 10,000 years the St. Croix River has added its cold clear northwoods waters to the flow of the Mississippi River. For the people of its valley the St. Croix has been a source of hope and renewal, as well as a vehicle of transformation.

Rivers are highways that bring together people from distant places. Rivers also serve as barriers and boundaries. In the seventeenth century the St. Croix River brought the Chippewa invaders who, after a century of bloodshed, drove the Sioux from the land of their fathers. In more recent times the river has brought, thanks to United States Army Corps of Engineers lock and dam projects, invaders from the Baltic Sea, in the form of zebra mussels. For this exotic species, like human immigrants from Europe before them, the St. Croix has been a river of opportunity as new colonies flourish and indigenous populations are vanquished from a transformed ecosystem. As a highway of change the St. Croix has consistently exerted its stiffest penalties on those populations, human, animal, and plant that reside closest to the river. During the nineteenth century logging dams transformed shoreline habitats; floods, such as in 1965, have deluged the homes and businesses along the banks of the river; and it was the property owners along the upper St. Croix who lost their homes when the federal government declared it a Wild and Scenic River.

The St. Croix has been the vehicle by which a significant portion of the north woods has been transformed; yet the river has also served as a barrier to travel, people, and change. It has not been as bloody or decisive a boundary as Europe's Rhine River or even America's Potomac, still the St. Croix has been a border river. Where nature created one valley and one watershed, politicians saw the St. Croix as a logical dividing line between the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Rivers are natural barriers, better at impeding the spread of wildfires than preventing the migration of plant or animal species. For human populations the St. Croix sped the movement of people and goods along its north-south access, while at the same time the river was an obstacle to east-west movement, necessitating bridges and ferries. These improvements were unknown before the nineteenth century and rare before the twentieth century, making possible the river's function as a frontier, first between the Chippewa and the Sioux, and later between two states. The political boundary hardened the natural division of the valley between east and west bank. School districts, local governments and road commissions defied the logic of propinquity and excluded people living on the other side of the river. A river valley shared in common by two Indian peoples and then two states too often became a resource for both to exploit and neither to protect.

In his 1965 contribution to the Rivers of America series James Taylor Dunn dubbed the St. Croix as a "Midwest Border River." The theme of border river embraces more than the political division between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The St. Croix Valley is also divided between ten different counties whose jurisdictions overlap with eleven different municipalities. Hundreds of township and thousands of individual property lines further subdivide the valley. Quite accurately one of the earliest European-American settlers in the region described the establishment of the first county as beginning the "dismemberment of the St. Croix valley." [1] The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 and the Lower Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway Act in 1972 created a new set of boundaries along the river. Upriver from Stillwater, Minnesota the St. Croix River was divided between a zone of federal management to the north and a zone of state cooperative management along the lower river. This division reflected the historic difference between the narrow wild waters of the Upper St. Croix and the broad, lake-like reaches of the Lower St. Croix. The former was a north woods river, evocative of Hiawatha or Hemingway, its valley dominated by wilderness, timber extraction, cutover farms, and more recently tourism. The lower river is marked by farms rooted in deep black soil, prosperous river ports, the scene, a century ago, of belching smokestacks from mills and steamboats. The upper river has been the hinterland, the resource rich frontier, of the more heavily populated and urbanized lower river.

The upper river is a remote, isolated corner of the American Midwest. In contrast the lower river is on the border of the dynamic Minneapolis–St. Paul metropolitan area. Originally the St. Croix towns such as a Stillwater and Prescott, Wisconsin vied with the Twin Cities on the Mississippi for metropolitan status. Having decisively lost that competition the Lower St. Croix gradually fell under the ever-lengthening suburban shadow of the Twin Cities. During the early twentieth century the metropolis sought hydroelectric power and summer homes along the St. Croix. By the last half of the century, urban sprawl, industrial pollution, and metropolitan traffic flows became realities for the Lower St. Croix Valley.

In recent years the St. Croix's location on the fringe of a growing urban center has overshadowed the crucial historical position of the river valley on the border between the two great inland waterways in North America, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Before there was a Minneapolis or a St. Paul, before the sources of the Mississippi were known, the headwaters of the St. Croix were accessed via portage trail by Indians and fur traders on the move from Lake Superior to the Mississippi. The portage between Lake Superior waters and the St. Croix was crucial to making the region the cockpit of the conflict between the Chippewa and Sioux and the scene of intense fur trade rivalry between the Northwest Company, the XY Company, and later the American Fur Company. The unsuitability of the rapid, rock strewn Upper St. Croix to offer navigation to more than birch bark canoes brought an end to the river's strategic role as a regional link, although the desire to maintain and later revive the waterway through the building of a modern canal was sustained throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In spite of the fact that the upper river itself was bypassed by commerce, the valley corridor of the St. Croix continued to link the Upper Mississippi with Lake Superior through railroads and later highways.

The St. Croix is not a large river in terms of its size, nor a great river in terms of its impact on the development of the United States. It flows for 165 miles from its source, a long narrow finger of water known as Upper Lake St. Croix, to the Mississippi River at Point Douglas, where the river, once again placid and lake-like ends its journey. Between the river's mouth and its source the St. Croix drains 7,760 square miles. [2] Much smaller rivers, the Chicago River and Buffalo Creek, have given rise to great cities. Other, larger rivers became crucial pathways to the interior, such as the Columbia or the Hudson Rivers. The St. Croix was selected in 1968 to be one of the first wild and scenic rivers within the National Park System, yet for most of its history the significance of the St. Croix has been within the framework of the Upper Midwest region. If the St. Croix's story is not of national significance, it is crucial to understanding the north woods history of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The St. Croix valley encapsulates the history of the Upper Midwest, from its role as a voyageurs highway to its Bunyanesque contribution to the logging frontier. Its painful transition from a countryside patchwork of the ethnically diverse cutover farms, to a thinly inhabited tourist haven in the "land of sky-blue waters," mirrors a transformation forced upon much of the region. The Upper Midwest, the area bordering the Upper Great Lakes of Huron, Michigan, and Superior and the Upper Mississippi River, does not have a firm place in the regional history of the United States. The South or the Great Plains, and certainly New England, have more clearly established regional identities, in part because their place in national history is well known. The people of much of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota share a common experience of land, labor, and cultural heritage, but that experience must be understood before it can be used to bind separate states into a self-conscious region. The St. Croix River valley, on the frontier between the Mississippi and Lake Superior drainage, on the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota, with its rich lower valley and more rugged up country, has a story that reflects the experience of a region and illuminates the nature of a nation. As writer James Grey observed a half century ago, "The Upper Midwest contains within itself the memory of everything that America has been and the knowledge of what it may become." [3]

This study is an environmental and a social history. It seeks to explore the interactions between the land and waters of the St. Croix and the people who have called the valley home. It is a history of the land, how that land was perceived, altered, and how people adjusted to the reconfigured environment. "The valley was considered too far north and the soil too sterile for cultivation," recalled W.H.C. Folsom, one of the first European-American settlers in Taylors Falls, Minnesota. Soil quality and climate are immutable factors in regional history and examples of the way environment shapes historical development. Environmental history is the story of how the natural landscape interacts with social and cultural forces. Just a few years after the St. Croix was dismissed as an agricultural region it became the seat of hundreds of new frontier farms. Folsom noted, "Many of those who came here in 1838 found out their mistake and made choice of the valley for their permanent home." What had changed was not the length of the growing season or the quality of the soil, but the settler's perception of the valley. Environmental imagination, the interplay between land and culture, is a critical ingredient to this north woods story. The St. Croix valley offered opportunities and imposed constraints on all of the plant and animal communities within its corridor. But just as important to determining the history of the valley were the ideas and institutions of the people who came to live there, what anthropologists refer to as a people's "cultural script." The stories about the St. Croix that follow are about the dialectic between a natural blueprint and a cultural script. [4]

map of St. Croix River Watershed
Frontispiece: The St. Croix River Watershed
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 17-Oct-2002