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

The Impact of Logging on the St. Croix Valley

Like the fur traders before them the lumberjacks embrace of the St. Croix valley transformed it. They had turned the forest they all valued, many appreciated, and a handful loved, into lumber, a utilitarian if prosaic commodity. The volume of lumber produced by this single valley was staggering. During the peak year of 1890 the St. Croix valley, as either logs or lumber, had produced 450 million board feet. The total production between 1840 and 1912, if loaded on to standard log cars would have required 2.2 million rail cars. As a single train such a span of cars would be long enough to reach across the continent more than six times. The transfer of this wood from where nature intended it along the Upper Mississippi valley to the treeless region to the south and west made the agricultural settlement of the Great Plains possible. The majestic white pine of the St. Croix lived again–in some cases still lives–as homes, barns, corn cribs, fence posts, doors, from the support beams in great public buildings to lowly outhouse seats. While the establishment of grain farms on the plains was not in itself an unmixed ecological benefit, in the balance the loss of a vast forest for the gain of a breadbasket was a trade nineteenth century Americans would have been pleased to accept. [113]

Masked behind the balance between the Upper Midwest's loss and the Great Plain's gain is the enduring impact of the logging frontier on the St. Croix valley. The sudden, dramatic loss of the valley's forest was an ecological change unrivaled since the last descent of the glaciers. The vast plains of old-growth white pine, an area exceeding four thousand square miles and boasting trees two to three hundred years old, have never been replaced. White pine had dominated the presettlement forest because of its ability to adapt to a wide range of conditions. But the impact of intensive logging and forest fires was to destroy the natural reseeding mechanism of the forest. Well-meaning, but misguided efforts to reseed white pine led to the introduction of an Asian tree disease known as blister rust that devastated white pine seedlings and led to the elimination of most efforts to replant the forest's most valuable and beautiful tree. A generation of hardy immigrants broke their lives trying to follow the axe with the plow on the cutover lands. Only a persistent handful, blessed with a patch of rich soil, survived. The homesteads of the rest are today lost amid succession forests of poplar or plantations of jack and Norway pine. The myth of the upper river as a land of inexhaustible forest resources was quickly replaced by the myth of the region as future agricultural cornucopia – each myth burdened with tragic consequences. Much of the Upper St. Croix is again a forest, but it is not, nor can it ever again be, a wilderness. It is rather a curious mix of the failure of agriculture and the success of sylvaculture, as much a product of human design as a Kansas wheat field. [114]

Logging vastly changed the valley through urbanization. While logging took place at widely scattered, only temporarily occupied sites, milling and transportation concentrated the harvest of wood on specific, reoccurring locations. Initially these were waterpower sites on the lower river such as Taylors Falls and Marine. Eventually most of the energy of the logging frontier focused upon Stillwater and it grew to a city of more than a dozen mills and thousands of inhabitants, the majority of whom were beholding to the forest for their livelihood. After the Civil War a new pattern of town development followed the blueprint of the steel rail. A string of new mill towns sprouted along the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad and along the North Wisconsin Railroad. Hinckley, Minnesota and Hayward, Wisconsin each came to symbolize the success and failure of the logging frontier. These hinterland towns did not displace Stillwater's importance as the principle funnel through which the bulk of the pine flowed. Pine remained largely oriented to the river, but when the softwoods had been cut, the railroad towns became the focus of hemlock and hardwood production. These towns and much of the cutover countryside turned their backs on the St. Croix River. [115]

The St. Croix River itself was left vastly changed by the logging frontier. What had been in 1837 a wild river, disturbed only by a handful of Chippewa fish weirs, had become one of the most controlled and manipulated river systems in America. There were between sixty and seventy gated dams in the St. Croix watershed and uncounted numbers of splash dams, hastily constructed of brush and earth. When combined with the loss of forest cover to logging and frequent brush fires, the dams left as their legacy a river that flowed much less clear and whose banks were more prone to erosion. The habitat of brook trout and other native fish that favored clear, cold waters was gradually destroyed. The strong current of the Upper St. Croix River, the flushing action of the multitude of dams, sent waves of turbid water to the lower river. Where the current slackened, the sand and earth suspended in the river settled into bars and shoals. Where steamboats easily navigated in the 1840s, commercial vessels repeatedly were grounded in the 1880s. Even when the loggers did not hold back water at Nevers Dam, dredging and wing dams were necessary for boats to effectively navigate between Stillwater and Taylors Falls. In addition to all of the silt and sand sent down river the lumbermen infringed on the St. Croix at Stillwater with extensive landfills. The mill owners had created more than ten acres of new waterfront land either by accidentally creating the conditions for mudslides or by consciously trying to increase their river frontage by dumping massive amounts of slabs and sawdust into the St. Croix. Such annual depositions further clouded the water. [116]

While logging as a business continues and will continue to linger in the valley in the twenty-first century, the logging frontier ended in 1914. In that year the boom at Stillwater, the great net of wood and chain that captured and sorted all of the pine driven on the St. Croix, handled its last log. It was a demise that had been long expected. More than a decade before William Folsom, one of the valley's first pioneers, who had lived and prospered long enough to become its first historian, observed:

The business has been a wonderful one; it has enriched many; it has furnished and is still furnishing a means of livelihood for thousands but is going rapidly and like the sands in the hour glass that keeps running, ever running on, its day will soon come. And then what?

Most of the men of Folsom's generation, had come as young men from New England to make their fortunes in the woods. Reflecting on their lives before marble clad hearths, in the comfort of homes paneled with finely grained wood, they took satisfaction in their accomplishments. The white pine boom had lasted long enough to see them into plush retirement or honored internment as founders of prosperous communities. [117]

Younger men were left to ponder the question posed by Folsom, "then what?" Many men cast their lot with the business of logging not the valley of the St. Croix. From the boss logger of the river Frederick Weyerhaeuser to a modest lumberman like William Veazie, many a man who made his fortune on the St. Croix gambled he could make another in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. Some who stayed moved into farming, which by 1900 supported more people in the valley than logging. Others looked to tourist excursions, manufacturing, or mining to be the next boom for the valley.

The men who prospered in the lumber boom left behind ravaged forests and splendid Victorian homes. Visitors to Stillwater can today see the homes of Roscoe Hersey, the partner to Isaac Staples, and that of Captain Austin Jenks, who made his fortune rafting St. Croix timber down the Mississippi River. The lumber barons of Stillwater had the financial means to build in whatever style struck their fancy and they did so with the intention of erecting not only a comfortable home but a monument to all that they had accomplished in their lives on the frontier. John McKusick arrived from Illinois in 1840 and stayed on in Stillwater, eventually founding its first sawmill. His brothers Jonathon, Ivory, and Noah joined him in Minnesota all joining in the lumber business. Today the Ivory McKusick house in French Second Empire splendor stands in Stillwater as an example of how well the family did. Albert Lammers celebrated his success in the lumber industry by building elaborately with wood. In 1893, he chose the Queen Ann style, with its elaborate millwork and hand craftsmanship, for his new home, which still may be seen today at 1309 S. Third Street in Stillwater. Like the McKusick, Jenks, and Hersey houses, the Lammers mansion is on the National Register of Historic Places. William Sauntry was not one of the founding generation of St. Croix lumbermen, but he did so well through his association with Weyerhaeuser that he was able to join the elite in 1891 with his own fine residence. It was not, however, a place where Sauntry lived out a prosperous and contented retirement.

The young men of Stillwater could take little comfort from the fact that their fathers had done well. On the frontier social mobility moved in two directions and the challenge for those who stayed in the St. Croix valley was to find a path to profits that did not lead to the played out pineries. Among those who stumbled in pursuit of illusory new ventures was William Sauntry, the most successful and promising of the second-generation of St. Croix loggers. Although he lacked formal education and polished manners, Sauntry had convinced Frederick Weyerhaeuser to trust him with management of some of the timber trust's biggest projects, from the boom company to Nevers Dam. In the years that followed those coups Sauntry demonstrated again and again his mastering of the business of logging. He directed the Ann River Logging Company, the large and multifaceted company that cut the bulk of the remaining pine on the St. Croix. There was a swagger and, what one historian called an esprit de corps, about the lumberjacks who worked for the Ann River Logging Company. In 1891, for example, they showed off their prowess by loading a sled with a mountainous 31,480 board feet of logs and then hauling it for their own ice-rut roads for one mile. Sauntry was the hardriving, tireless, and inspirational leader of the company. When the Ann River outfit cut its last log, Sauntry invested his sizeable fortune into a variety of mining ventures. But he was in a new field in which he lacked an intuitive grasp of what spelled success or failure. His energy and drive only plunged him deeper into losing investments. By 1914, he had lost all that he had won from the forest–money and reputation. His splendid house on Fourth Street in Stillwater became just another asset to be wagered on an increasingly bleak future. When even his old associates from the Ann River Logging Company turned their backs on him, William Sauntry purchased a revolver and put it to his head. [118]

That same year in Stillwater Frank McCray, the master of the St. Croix River Boom, hopped on to the last pine log to ever enter the boom. Workers watching from the cribs and log channels sent up a hallow cheer. More than thirteen billion board feet of logs before that, in 1856, a much more spry Frank McCray had guided the first log through the Stillwater boom. To mark the occasion the lumbermen invited all of their old employees to the boom company boarding house for a farewell feast on the banks of the river. The old timers slapped each other on the back and told again the stories of their youthful antics and the epic scenes of a river of logs. The St. Croix River had remained an important logging stream much longer than any of its Lake States rivals, longer than Michigan's fabled Tittabawassee or Muskegon, longer than Wisconsin's Chippewa River. Yet, the era opened and closed within the course of one man's working life. "It makes one sad to realize," a veteran of the logging era later wrote, "that a great industry has absolutely faded, like a mist before the sun, largely because of the greed and hurry and lack of foresight of the generation that is gone." [119]

Back in 1837, during negotiations with the United States Government, the Chippewa had proposed not to sell their lands, but to lease them to the Americans. The Chippewa were aware that the desire of lumbermen for access to St. Croix pine was pushing them off the land. "It is hard to give up the lands," lamented Chief Flat Mouth. "They will remain but you may cut down the trees and others will grow up." The Chippewa proposed a lease of sixty years. Although the American negotiators brushed their offer aside, the Chippewa had rather accurately predicted how long the lumber frontier would last. They missed the actual ending of logging by only seventeen years. But when the St. Croix Boom closed, it was not the native people of the valley that inherited the deforested lands. New people from old lands across the ocean were already reimagining the St. Croix as a cutover cornucopia, a North Star of opportunity. [120]

Figure 25. This map of the natural division of the St. Croix watershed into farming and forest regions is based upon soil types. In the late nineteenth and twentieth century farmers coming into the valley had no idead that the St. Croix's agricultural potential was so restricted.

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Last Updated: 17-Oct-2002