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Protecting the wilderness of Lake Itasca: Itasca State Park

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Jacob Brower at the Lake Itasca basin at DeSoto Lake, 1889.

The Itasca forest during the late nineteenth century contained towering pines and numerous lakes. Individuals like surveyor Jacob Brower became captivated by the region and the wildlife that inhabited it. They recognized that the economic potential of northern Minnesota would change its landscape. Their effort to preserve Lake Itasca led them to contend with the lumber industry, public interests, and the politics that weaved between them.

People have long appreciated Lake Itasca’s beauty and resources. Some eight thousand years ago indigenous hunters left spears at a bison kill site in the area. Around 1200 CE the Blackduck people created a village there, eventually leaving remnants of their unique pottery behind. Ojibwe groups have lived in the lake’s vicinity since the 1700s.

The U.S. government slowly began turning their attention to the region after buying Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. In 1832 the Ojibwe leader Ozaawindib brought Henry Schoolcraft to Omushkos Lake and the Mississippi headwaters. Schoolcraft renamed the lake Itasca by combining the Latin words veritas (truth) and caput (head).

Questions about the Mississippi’s source, however, lingered for fifty years. Skeptics believed the dense, swampy marshes around Itasca concealed the true headwaters. The Minnesota Historical Society commissioned Jacob Brower to survey the region in 1889 and end the confusion. Brower’s background as a lawyer, historian, and archeologist aided his task. A year later, when Society members reviewed his report, its content reaffirmed Lake Itasca as the Mississippi’s source.

Meanwhile, economic opportunities attracted others to the forest. Demand for wood products throughout the country powered a tremendous building boom. Aggressive lumber companies sought land access legally and illegally to begin harvesting the large white pines. A treeless landscape took shape in northern Minnesota as thousands of trees were cut and processed in mills throughout the state.

Coinciding with Brower’s survey, an alliance formed to protect the giant Itasca pines that remained. Its members included Brower, Alfred J. Hill, and Joseph A. Wheelock. They forged partnerships and adopted lobbying strategies such as writing letters to newspapers. Their goals included generating support for the great pines, creating a five-by-seven-mile park around Lake Itasca, and managing the area for future generations.

The group’s momentum peaked in early 1891 when Senator John Sanborn introduced these proposals in a bill brought before the Minnesota legislature. A close vote emerged as Senator Charles Crandall led an opposition that favored timber production. After narrowly passing in the Senate, the bill was revised and approved by the House. Governor William Merriam signed it into law on April 20, 1891.

The Itasca law, however, provided few resources. After becoming the park’s first commissioner, Jacob Brower labored for four years without pay or a budget. He focused on reforming the patchwork ownership of land within the park’s boundaries. By 1893 he had secured the transfer of federal lands to the state. Brower then began the complex task of negotiating with railroad and lumber companies. His effort was cut short, though, when the state government dismissed him two years later.

Mary Gibbs’ brief tenure as park commissioner in the spring of 1903 continued Brower’s progressive policy. Just twenty-four years old, she had learned about the challenges facing the park from her father, park commissioner John Gibbs. Logging continued on non-state land with companies using Lake Itasca as a holding area.

That year, a dam outside the park built by the Mississippi Schoolcraft Boom and Improvement Company raised water levels over the shoreline. Worried that pine trees would be damaged, Gibbs contacted company officials. A stalemate ensued when both sides met at the dam. The local sheriff brought a warrant to open the lift. The officials backed down on April 16, but not before tension neared a breaking point. Gibbs’ small victory aside, loggers maintained influence over the park for the next fifteen years.

After the standoff, Itasca did not remain stagnant. In 1905, Douglas Lodge (originally known as the State House) became the park’s first structure for overnight guests. Esteemed state architect Clarence Johnston’s rustic-style designs used natural, local materials that blended into their surroundings. The two-story structure featured shaped logs, a large front balcony, and a massive split-stone fireplace. Several cabins built later followed the same style.

Logging finally ended in Itasca in 1920, ushering in a new era of improved visitor experiences and forest management.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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