St. Croix Riverway
Time and the River: A History of the Saint Croix
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Up North: The Development of Recreation in the St. Croix Valley

Written with Rachel Franklin Weekley

In 1936, the twenty counties of northwest Wisconsin cooperated in a tourist brochure that promoted the region as "Indian Head Country." The name was derived from the shape of Wisconsin's St. Croix borderland that appeared to the imaginative as the silhouette of a human profile. Pierce County was the chin, St. Croix County the mouth, and Burnett County formed a prominent "Roman" nose. For the tourist boosters the choice of "Indian Head" was obvious. Not only did the large nose suggest the Indian profile on the "Buffalo" nickel then in circulation, the Indian was the symbol of all that was uniquely American. The Indian was a symbol of wild, unrestrained nature. Never for a moment did the tourist promoters think of labeling the twenty county area "Swedish Head," or "Polish Head" country. Such a label was, of course, ludicrous even if it did call to mind some of the people who had devoted their lives to the unsuccessful effort to bring agriculture to the cutover. That history was to too recent, too painful, too prosaic. It would be as untrampled nature — a romantic, even ridiculous impossibility given the history of logging and farming — that the St. Croix region would be sold to the public.

As the St. Croix River began its emergence from wilderness to a developed and settled region, American attitudes towards nature and the wilderness were in a process of transformation. During the colonial era, America was seen, on the one hand, as a land of abundance and a refuge from Old World ills, but its primeval forests were also seen as a hostile wilderness filled with savage beasts and men. While it bestowed bounty on those able to meet its challenges, nature was a harsh taskmaster and it extracted a heavy price from those less fit. What enabled Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century to change their perspective on nature was the industrial revolution. Man became the master of nature instead of its victim. The industrial revolution, however, also scarred and even destroyed nature's beauty and exposed its fragility. At the hands of man nature was no longer to be feared, but cherished. [1]

This appreciation of nature had its roots in the eighteenth century Enlightenment when the natural world was held up as inspiration and a model for social organization. If human society followed the laws of nature instead of the dictates of the artificial, superstitious inequalities stemming from the medieval world of feudalism and traditional religion, it could find peace and harmony. These beliefs found expression through political, economic, social, and artistic channels. But whatever the ultimate aim, nature had to be experienced first hand. In eighteenth century England the term "picturesque" came to describe a natural scene that depicted the beautiful and evoked the sublime. This perspective on nature inspired the popular artistic genre of landscape painting. This glorification of nature continued into the early nineteenth century Romantic Movement with its reaction against the ugliness of the industrial revolution. Nature was not only beautiful, sublime and a guide to social order, but also a source of spiritual renewal for people severed from their rural roots in ugly urban cities.

In the United States the Romantic Movement developed its own unique perspective on nature. The English writer William Gilpin introduced to Americans the practice of rambling about the countryside in search of the beautiful and sublime and made "picturesque travel" a popular recreational pastime. It was trumpeted as a way to exercise both the mind and the body. Gilpin's tours of England's North and Lake Countries were used as models for American expeditions. The sparsely settled American landscape was ripe for "picturesque travel." The unspoiled vistas, mountains, valleys, lakes, and rivers came to be considered America's cathedrals and works of art that rivaled the manmade art treasures of the Old World, and certainly equaled or excelled any scenic wonders in Europe. Americans expanded the definition of the picturesque and applied it to their more rugged and unspoiled wilderness. The American wilderness came to be seen as part of the country's unique heritage and a national treasure, and became the subject matter for the paintings of the Hudson River School, the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the prose of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau. [2]

While the industrial revolution marred nature, it also ironically made nature more possible to enjoy. The invention of the steamboat and the railroad allowed people to experience natural wonders first-hand without forgoing many of the creature comforts of civilization. There they could experience spiritual renewal and regeneration from the more fast-paced and wearisome world of the city. While the wealthy had always been able to escape the city, their motivations had been chiefly to escape the heat, the smell, and the diseases that often plagued urban centers. Their country, mountain, or seashore retreats sought to duplicate the comforts of home, rather than lure them into the world of nature. But increasingly throughout the nineteenth century the wealthy were joined in these rural retreats by the expanding middle class who turned to the world of nature for health, recreation, and social activity.

This cultural context shaped the way late eighteenth and early nineteenth century white explorers and settlers perceived the St. Croix River Valley when they first ventured there. Its distinctive geographic formations, such as the "Old Man of the Dalles," provided explorers with navigation references, but also drew them into the unique splendors of the river valley. George Nelson, the Canadian fur trader who wintered in the valley in 1802-3, noted in his diary:

Whenever this country becomes settled how delightfully will the inhabitants pass their time. There is no place perhaps on this globe where nature has displayed & diversified lands & water as here. I have always felt as if invited to settle down & admire the beautiful views with a sort of joyful thankfulness for having been led to them. There is nothing romantic about them, frightful rock, & wild & dashing water falls. Nature is here calm, placid & serene, as if telling man, in language mute, indeed, -- not addressed to the Ears, but to heart & Soul: It is here man is to be happy: a genial & healthy climate — the rigour [sic] of winter scarcely three months, & in that time no very severe cold: I have diversified the land with hundreds of beautiful lakes all communicating with each other by equally beautiful streams, full of excellent fish, & ducks of twenty Species, Swans, & geese with abundance of rice for you & them. The borders well furnished with grapes, plums, thorn apples & butternut &c, &c. The Woods Swarming with Dears [sic] & bears & beavers: not one noxious or venomous animal insect or reptile: come my children, come & settle in this beautiful country I have prepared for you, & be happy. [3]

Nelson's paean to the Upper St. Croix Country was most likely added to his diary many years after his winter in the valley. It reflects the power of a picturesque landscape to overcome the realities of Nelson's last days on the river: cold, wet spring weather, rapids, portages, mosquitoes swarming, and king fear of a Dakota attack. Romanticism was necessary to transform a a truly wild landscape into a picturesque retreat and the mastery that came with technology and private property made possible the evolution of the Upper St. Croix from a battleground between the Chippewa and Dakota to the white man's "Indian Head" Country vacation destination.

Gorge of the St. Croix
Figure 29. The "sublime" and romantic Dalles of the St. Croix was captured in this 1848 oil painting by Henry Lewis. Titled the "Gorge of the St. Croix" the painting helped to promote the St. Croix as an ante-bellum tourist destination.

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Last Updated: 17-Oct-2002