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

For nearly 150 years European and American merchants had passed through the St. Croix Valley, attentive to the number and location of Indians within the valley, mindful of the presence of wild game, sometimes observing its agricultural prospects, but largely unconcerned about the timber resources of the region. The bright and articulate George Nelson, who first entered the river valley in the fall of 1802, was an exception. The "beautifully wooded" islands and hills of the valley struck him, and with a merchant's eye he predicted they could be as commercially important as the timberlands of the St. Lawrence valley. The St.Croix's "splendid groves of pine" he wrote "could as easily be floated down the Mississipy as from Chambly to Sorel." More typical, however, was the U.S. Army Lieutenant James Allen's terse dismissal of the upper Saint Croix landscape as "poor, and pine; none of it fit for cultivation." [1]

Interest in the region's forest resources dramatically increased during the 1830s. The French scientist Joseph N. Nicollet, who journeyed up the valley in August of 1837, reflected this new interest in the valley's forests. In passing the mouth of the Sunrise River he noted "The banks of the St. Croix are still covered with black alder, sumac five or six feet tall, white and red oak, soft maple and some walnut or oil nut or shagnut trees. White pines are mixed with deciduous trees, and there are wild plum trees on the ridges." Above the mouth of the Snake River he noted that the patches of tall dark pine became more abundant. "They crown the peaks of hills and mix with other species which border the St. Croix." Nicollet's heightened appreciation of the region's forest cover may simply reflect his educated eye, but it is likely that he understood that during the 1830s trees replaced furs as the most coveted commodity within the valley. [2]

Nicollet's journey up the St. Croix came at a critical time in the region's history, as federal agents were negotiating to clear Indian title to the valley. The impetus for this change was a rising chorus of voices demanding access to the pine forests of the St. Croix. Forests hardly worth noting a generation before had been rendered into promising assets by the growth of towns and farms in the valley of the Mississippi. The St. Croix, Chippewa, Red Cedar, and Rum Rivers, all tributaries of the Mississippi that boasted vast forests of pine became the wooded hinterland that helped to build downriver towns such as Winona, Rock Island, Davenport, and St. Louis. In the post-Civil War era the demand became even more insistent and the market more lucrative as the treeless plains were surveyed into 160-acre homesteads. The exchange of a sod house for a frame home built of Wisconsin or Minnesota pine was a badge of success for the homesteader and the basis of many a lumber baron's fortune. [3]

The fur trade had divided the St. Croix valley between a upper river dominated by the Chippewa and economically tied to Lake Superior, and a lower river, home to the Dakota and linked to St. Louis based traders. In terms of transportation geography the logging frontier would restore the unity of the valley. The entire river system would be harnessed to bring the winter's harvest of logs to the collecting booms along the lower river. Like a funnel the St. Croix River was used to concentrate the wealth of the entire valley at its mouth. The forests of the upper river played a large role in building towns and the industry along Lake St. Croix, as well as the nearby cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The logging frontier first made manifest the dichotomy of a thinly inhabited upper river resource frontier and the prosperous urbanized lower river. In the course of doing so it wrought a massive transformation of the valley's landscape and severely, in some cases irrevocably, altered its ecosystem. Through its involvement in the lumber industry the St. Croix played its most important role in American history, but at a cost still being exacted today.

Lumbermen attempted to transform the free flowing wild river into a disciplined industrial waterway. Never before and never again would the river be used so intensely. Mill operators began each day by studiously noting its fluctuations in level. Around blazing campfires log drivers endlessly debated the ebb and flow of its current. By building dams as assiduously as the all but eliminated beaver, by blasting boulders and constructing booms the lumber men made each mile of the St. Croix's 165 mile length serve the purpose of delivering logs to mill and market. Like the tentacles of some great industrial monster the lumber industry probed, damned and controlled even the remotest of the river's tributaries, bending their wild reaches to its commercial purpose. The early lumbermen more than doubled the natural transportation capacity of the St. Croix watershed to 330 miles of water capable of carrying logs to market. When the industry expanded further in the wake of the Civil War more splash dams and stream improvements brought the size of the St. Croix system to a staggering 820 miles of useable waterway. The St. Croix was more than a logging river. For better than a half century, when the ice went out each spring, from its headwaters to Stillwater, it became a river of pine. [4]

Figure 12. Snake River Valley Fur Trade Sites.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 17-Oct-2002