100 years since the last log

Workers at the Boom Site in 1907. (Photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society)
Workers at the Boom Site in 1907. (Photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society)

Across the St. Croix Valley, there are references to a bygone era — lumberjack,  log jam, saw mill, and boom — with each word and phrase harkening back to when timber was king. In the 100 years that have passed since the last log ran through the St. Croix River Boom Site, the influence of the lumber industry has been lost, found, and is ready to be celebrated once again.

According to the National Park Service, the St. Croix Boom Site was the earliest, most important, and longest-lived of the major log storage and handling areas in Minnesota. From 1880 until 1910, only Michigan and Wisconsin beat out Minnesota in lumber production.

With their access to the Great Lakes, Michigan and Wisconsin shipped their timber back east, but it was Minnesota and its link to the Mississippi River that supplied building materials to the immigrant farming families who built the Midwest.

The St. Croix Boom, opened in 1856, had more than three and a half billion feet of lumber pass through it by 1874 and nearly eight billion feet more between 1875 and 1903.

When commercial logging first came to the approximately 5.4 million-acre St. Croix Valley, the National Park Service believes that at least 70 percent of the area was originally covered with heavy growths of white and Norway pine.

From 1856 until 1914, the St. Croix Boom Site, just north of Stillwater, served as the terminal point for the great Minnesota log drives down the St. Croix River and its tributaries. According to the St. Croix River Association, millions of logs were stored each year at the Boom Site, where they were then sorted, scaled, measured and their ownership determined. “Fitting-up crews” made the logs up into rafts and sent them further down the river to the mills. At the peak of the drives, the stored logs sometimes covered a nine-mile stretch of river.

From 1856 to June 12, 1914, when the last log went through the boom, the St. Croix Boom handled more than 15.5 billion feet of logs. By 1907, however, Minnesota’s great forests had been almost entirely cut, and the lumber industry in the state declined rapidly after that.

The modern Boom Site

During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed the modern Boom Site recreation area under the Works Progress Administration. It consists of a boat launch, scenic overlook, historical marker, picnic grounds and river access.

For 70 years, the Boom Site wayside rest area was managed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and is one of six locations in the state that are registered as historic landmarks.

With dwindling state funds during the Great Recession, the Boom Site faced permanent closure by MnDOT in 2007. At that time, a nonprofit called The Friends of Washington County began a public campaign to reopen the Boom Site, and they succeeded in 2008. In 2009, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, located at the William O’Brien State Park office, took over the management of the Boom Site from MnDOT.

While the landmark is currently open to visitors, the site faces a much smaller budget for maintenance. When MnDOT cared for the site, the operating budget was about $50,000 per year, while the DNR only devotes $20,000 to the up-keep. A subgroup of the Friends of Washington County, called The Friends of the St. Croix Boomsite, has been created to support the park area through fundraising efforts and clean-up.

“Two picnic shelters and an indoor toilet have been torn down, and there are no funds yet to replace them,” said Marc Hugunin with Friends of St. Croix the Boomsite.

In 2013, Hugunin said their group of 25 volunteers patrolled the Boom Site and the nearby Fairy Falls area to keep the park areas safe and clean.

“There can be some trouble with illegal activity late at night,” Hugunin said. “We are just there to show that people care about it.”

The Friends of the St. Croix Boom Site sponsored a 2009 resolution that transferred the ownership and management of the Boom Site from the state of Minnesota to the National Park Service. The group continues to work with the park service to raise funds and volunteers to support the landmark.

On the 100th anniversary of the last log through the site, the Friends of the St. Croix Boom Site are hosting a celebration. It’s at 2:30 p.m. June 12 at the Boom Site recreation area on Highway 95, just north of Stillwater. The event is sponsored by the Washington County Historical Society, Friends of the St. Croix Boom Site and the St. Croix River Association, and will features speakers from the Minnesota Historical Society, National Park Service, Minnesota DNR and the National Heritage Area Initiative. Information on volunteering will be available.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]