Bringing Back St. Croix Recreation Demonstration Area

Log cabin with a fallen tree on the roof.
St. John's Landing Group Camp Lodge damaged by debris from the storm.

Photo courtesy of Lynn Ellis, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

On the morning of July 2, 2011, thousands of acres of trees in the heart of the St. Croix State Park, approximately 60 miles northeast of Minneapolis, on the St. Croix River, looked as if they had been involved in a giant game of “Pick-Up Sticks”. The evening before, straight-line winds that topped 100 miles per hour slammed through the state’s largest park, located in eastern Minnesota. Within the next two weeks, additional severe storms, flooding and tornadoes would fell more trees, snarling campgrounds and blocking roads and hiking trails. Beneath the downfall of pine and hardwood, some seventy park structures sat damaged or crushed. Fifty-seven of these had been built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, as part of the creation of the St. Croix Recreation Demonstration Area (RDA)—the precursor to today’s state park. Remarkably, no one was injured; the park had just been shut down July 1 following a state budget impasse that closed all state parks.

Although the state resolved its financial issues and reopened many state parks on July 22, it would take two months for St. Croix to again welcome the public. Just clearing roadways sufficient for crews to further access the park required two weeks, and trail work lasted through August. During the initial clean-up, and subsequent recovery planning, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), took care to bring back life to the badly damaged park, which had been designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL) in 1997.

Of forty-six RDA/state parks planned by the National Park Service (NPS) during the New Deal, the St. Croix RDA was the largest and one of the best examples of such Depression-era planning and design in the country. The RDAs were a new type of state park, accommodating private non-profit organizations that provided summer camps for youths. The RDAs were also intended to “retire” marginal agricultural lands. Located on the St. Croix and Kettle rivers, this area had been logged over by 1915. The St. Croix RDA began in 1934 with the purchase of 18,000 acres. Under the direction of the NPS, the CCC and the Works Progress Administration transformed the lands into group camps, administrative areas, and campgrounds. Developed areas were established with careful consideration of topography, viewsheds and future reforestation. Swimming pools, open meadows, separate hiking and bridle trails, automotive roads and plantings were designed and created to encourage outdoor sports and activities.

Forest management during the CCC era had a direct impact on the species diversity and forest appearance today; therefore, the losses resulting from the July 1 storm were doubly significant. Within the nearly 34,000 acre park, the DNR estimated that approximately 11,000 acres had at least 50% tree damage, and 9,600 of those acres lost 75-100% of the trees. The DNR removed downed trees to reduce fuel loads, and pest breeding grounds. While the state intends to restore the park’s historic landscape (including rare Pine Barrens and Oak Savanna habitat), where damage was most severe, the landscape will more closely resemble a prairie.

The process of restoring the natural resources will take years, whereas work on the built environment is already underway. In order to effectively understand the scope of damage and treatment needs for the large number of damaged resources, the DNR hired architectural and engineering consultants with backgrounds in historic architecture to provide technical assistance. The DNR applied for and received emergency funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

St. Croix contains 164 Rustic style buildings and structures built between 1934-1942. Roughly half had been damaged in the July 1 storm. The buildings ranged from simple frame Adirondack-type shelters to masonry and log cabins; frame garages and a wood shed. Much of the impact was to roofs and chimneys, in a few instances, buildings were completely crushed. Treatment ranged from replacement of shingles; to repair or replacement in-kind of historic decking log or frame trusses; and reconstruction of demolished buildings, reusing as much as possible surviving material.

The DNR was required by law to consultation with both the Minnesota state Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and the NPS, due to St. Croix’s status as an NHL. In order to facilitate the review process, the DNR contacted our office, the SHPO and FEMA simultaneously, with the NPS and SHPO providing responses to FEMA within a 30-day review period. Over the course of the past winter and into the summer of 2012, regular telephone and conference calls ensured that the process remained on track, and resolved questions or issues that arose, in a timely manner. Just over one year after the storm, the DNR has completed its consultation, and is actively engaged in final preservation work.

The St. Croix NHL has survived other damaging storms in the past, but none as severe as the July 1 storm. A July 2008 storm mangled trees across 420 acres, and a blowdown in 2005 damaged an area roughly three times that size. In neither of these previous storms were buildings or structures damaged.

The July 1 damage had been caused by a number of severe thunderstorms that swept across the upper Great Plains that day. Hurricane-force wind gusts wrecked destruction on parts of South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Upper Michigan, and a tornado touched down in northwest Wisconsin. In Wisconsin’s Burnett county, thirty-nine people were injured.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 7, 2012, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Dena Sanford.

Last updated: June 21, 2018