Renewed Life Along the St. Louis
It has always been a people’s river. The St. Louis River has drawn people from ancient to modern times. It has helped them to live, and it almost died because of its link to the humans who congregated around it.
Now it is again the focus of people - but this time people who want it to survive and thrive once more.
The St. Louis River wends its way southwest in a giant C nearly 180 miles from its source in Seven Beaver Lake, about 12 miles west of Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, to Lake Superior. The river crosses over the bedrock of the 3-billion-year-old Canadian Shield, following a path weaving through sediment deposits left by glaciers some 10,000 years ago. It journeys from wilderness into urban development.
Artifacts show that as early as 7,000 B.C., people were gathering near what evolved into the modern St. Louis River. Permanent communities were established by 1,000 B.C.
The Dakota and later the Ojibway people, too, had an affinity for the river and lived beside it. It was a critical waterway by canoe, its wetlands grew abundant wild rice, fish thrived in its water. When Europeans arrived, they gravitated to the estuary formed by the shallow waters at the mouth of the river.
The first European explorers came just more than 350 years ago, and when Daniel Greysolon, the Sieur du Lhut after whom Duluth is named, landed in 1679, he established his camp just up the St. Louis at what is called the Fond du Lac/Gary-New Duluth area.
The early fur traders were drawn to the estuary. Hudson Bay Company established a post in 1689 on what would become the Wisconsin side of the bay. That post remained active until it was moved to Fond du Lac in the early 1800s. John J. Astor Park in Fond du Lac is named for the head of the American Fur Company that built a post there in 1816.
The fur trade was not the only business. In the mid-1880s, copper prospectors arrived after a low-grade copper oxide ore was discovered near the Nemadji River. By this time, Superior and Duluth had been platted and were growing cities, replacing the Ojibway villages. Wisconsin had become a state in 1848 and Minnesota in 1858.
The marshy St. Louis River estuary changed as each city established harbors and built blast furnaces, foundries, steel mills and ore docks. Harbor dredging began in 1867 for Duluth and in 1871 for Superior, creating maritime channels 6 miles up the river. Depths there changed from the natural 5 to 8 feet down to 27 feet. The ports flourished with flour and lumber mills arising on the waterfront, and coal and ore shipping were under way by the 1890s. Railroads linked to the region by 1871, including the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad along the St. Louis, remnants of which are still found between Fond du Lac and Thomson.
Dredged soils were used to fill in river wetlands and to landlock floating islands, creating land on which industrial facilities were often built.
Major logging grew and died fast around the St. Louis River after August Zachau constructed a mill to produce the lumber for his 1856 Pioneer House hotel in Superior. Henry W. Wheeler built Duluth’s first sawmill shortly thereafter. As many as 15 sawmills operated along the St. Louis during the peak of the region’s white-pine logging around 1895. The industry annually produced 1 billion board feet of lumber, according to a history developed for the St. Louis River Remedial Action Plan (RAP). White pines with trunks 18 feet around were described by a member of an expedition here in the early 1820s. By 100 years later, most of the giant pines were gone and only one mill remained along the river.
“It was really with the growth of the logging industry that the nature of the Duluth-Superior harbor began to change,” the RAP document reports. Dams, as many as 100, and log corrals were built along the river during the 1800s.
The Duluth Shipping Canal was dug by 1871, adding another way for Lake Superior to influence the river and causing a breach in the natural sandbar that had long protected and helped to create the bay habitat behind it.
The river’s power was harnessed by 1899, with the Fond du Lac Dam for Northwest Paper. Thomson Dam followed in 1907 along with other dams. Today there are five from Cloquet downriver, four publicly and one privately operated.
Heavy industries, such as paper and steel mills, developed along the river. More towns and cities sprang up. All used the river as their wastewater dump. Some residents used its banks as their unofficial landfill.
The changes were dramatic. Achille Bertrand lived in Superior from 1857 to 1886. In his memoirs, he describes the wild-to-urban transformation: “Nature’s undefiled shorelines of those days are now buried more effectively under the structures of a great country’s commerce than are the tombs of Egypt under shifting sands.”
People are not the only influences on the St. Louis River. Lake Superior, too, alters the habitat of its tributary. Seiches, fluctuations of water levels caused by atmospheric changes, can temporarily drive the river flow backward as far as the Oliver Bridge. The seiche action also changes the flow into and out of the lake and harbor.
What a Waste
By the turn of the 20th century, more than three centuries of intense human activity along the river had taken a toll. In 1928-29, a Minnesota Board of Health pollution survey of the St. Louis River from Floodwood to Lake Superior determined it was “pollutional.” Into the 1960s, several such surveys showed increased pollution levels.