Jun 2015

Headwaters History

(Preliminary notes from The Mississippi Headwaters Region: Scenes from the Past, Harold T. Hagg, 1986)

The North West Company's fort on Leech Lake was enclosed by a stockade 13 feet high and 150 feet square. (11)

The fur trading posts…were the earliest centers of agriculture in the Northwest…George H. Monk, a clerk at Leech Lake, wrote in 1807: "The North West Company have an establishment at the west end of Leech Lake where five acres of ground produce 1,000 bushels of potatoes, 30 bushels oats or rice, cabbages, carrots, beets, beans, pumpkins and Indian corn. The Company have introduced horses, cats and hens into this quarter."

The historian mentioned seems to be Grace Lee Nute. Cf. "A Description of Northern Minnesota by a Fur Trader in 1807," Minnesota History Bulletin, 5 (Feb 1923), 28-39.

After the War of 1812, muskrat fur replaced the nearly extinct beaver, and "The American Fur Company gradually took over the old British trading sites…The Leech Lake post on Pine Point on the west side of the lake was, according to Lieutenant James Allen…'one of the most valuable posts of the north for the American trade.'…There were small trading houses on the west shore of Lake Bemidji and at Lake Winnibigoshish." (11-12)

The American Fur Company was reorganized in 1834 and trade with the Ojibway [sic] was controlled by the company's "Northern Outfit." The furs were shipped out by the Lake Superior route. William A. Aitken supervised the fur business around the Mississippi headwaters…In 1842 the American Fur Company failed but the old Northern Outfit kept the Ojibway business. Soon, however, rival traders were competing in the north country and a new organization, the Chippewa Outfit, absorbed the Northern Outfit." (12)

In 1855 the Ojibwe "ceded a vast area" of land in what is known as the lumberman's treaty, and pine forests were opened for cutting "as rapidly as surveys could be extended." This was the beginning of the end for the Indians. Although they had often been taken advantage of by traders (who sold them goods on credit at high rates of interest), they lost their ability to move freely across the landscape. This set the stage for the classic conflict between usufruct rights and ownership that had become a staple of Indian affairs in the East.


On his 1832 mission, Indian agent Schoolcraft was charged with brokering a permanent peace between the Sioux and the Ojibwe. He was also "to have as many Indians vaccinated for smallpox as possible." (18) Dr. Houghton, the expedition's physician, reportedly vaccinated over two thousand headwaters Indians against smallpox. (20)


It's interesting that the fur traders had mostly stuck with the Ojibwe names of the lakes, just switching them to French. The lake that was the source of the Mississippi was called Omushkos (Elk) by the Indians and Lac la Biche (Elk Lake) by the French.  Itasca is a word Schoolcraft apparently made up: a combination of the words Veritas and Caput, for the true head of the Mississippi. Schoolcraft liked renaming the lakes he visited. Lake Irving was apparently named in honor of Washington Irving. Andrusia is named after Andrew Jackson.


Names to remember: Thomas B. Walker, John S. and Charles A. Pillsbury, Edward W. Backus, Henry C. Akeley, Thomas H. Shevlin, Frederick Weyerhaeuser. (probably read William Cronon chapter on Chicago lumber industry  again)

Walker gained vital info about the opportunities up north as a government surveyor of the upper Mississippi valley in the 1860s. Walker "was reputed to be the largest owner of pine land in the northern Headwaters." (23) So how do we get from Walker to Potlatch?

"Charles F. Ruggles was probably the most colorful. 'I am the lion,' he said, 'and I want the lion's share.' A bachelor, Ruggles had many eccentricities." (23)
"Loggers invaded the Pine River region soon after the Civil War. The logs were driven down the waterways to sawmills at Brainerd, Little Falls, and Minneapolis. During the 1890s a logging railroad, the Brainerd and Northern Minnesota, was built from Brainerd to tap the pine timber to the north. In 1896 it reached Walker…In 1898 the Brainerd and Northern Line was completed to Bemidji." (25-6)

The Great Northern also reached Bemidji in 1898.

"Drives down the Mississippi and Schoolcraft Rivers brought millions of feet of logs to Lakes Bemidji and Irving where they were hoisted from the lakes and shipped by rail to Brainerd." (26)

Cass Lake, Solway and Bagley were on the Great Northern line, Turtle River, Blackduck and Kelliher on the Minnesota and International. Logs on the Turtle River were also floated down to Cass Lake.

In 1899, Walker built the Red River Lumber Company mill in Akeley. It had a capacity of 375,000 board feet per day.

"The first large sawmill in Bemidji was that of the Crookston Lumber Company, owned by the Shevlin-Carpenter interests. It began operating in 1903 and during its first few years had an output of 35 to 45 million board feet annually." (27) This was on the land taken from Shaynowishkung and his family.

Loggers came every winter seeking work. A December, 1900 newspaper article said, "They come on every train, on foot, and on horseback. For a month past, trains from the west dump their passengers at Bemidji and give our streets the appearance of an Oklahoma land rush." (29)

"In 1901 drives down the Mississippi and Schoolcraft Rivers brought about 130,000,000 feet of logs to Lakes Irving and Bemidji." (34)

Walker and Akeley built their own spur line off the Great Northern, 3 miles west of Solway, to their mill at Akeley. In 1908 they had 4-5,000 men in the woods. (36)

Minnesota logging peaked in 1905 and had dropped in half by 1915. (37) So, a short-term boom.

In 1912 100 carloads of logs from the Crookston camps were shipped daily down the Minnesotan and International Railroad  to the two Crookston mills in Bemidji. By 1915 these mills employed 500 men in the summer and had an annual cut of 100 million board feet. (37)

All too rapidly the machines greedily gobbled up Minnesota's original forests. Probably not more than two-thirds of the pine was harvested; the remainder was wasted. Destructive and wasteful logging was the rule and it is usually blamed for the rapid disappearance of the timber. But most of the waste was the result of forest fires, sometimes accidental but more often intentional. Fires set for land clearing frequently spread to green standing timber, destroying vast amounts of it. Inadequate forest fire protection and a tax structure not adapted to forest lands contributed largely to the "cut out and get out" practice of the pineland owners. (37)

Beginning in 1910, one after another of the mills shut down until a long final blast of the Crookston Mill's whistle in October, 1926 signaled the end of large-scale lumber manufacturing in Bemidji and the closing of the last large sawmill in the Headwaters area. (38)

Market Failure in Minnesota

During a recent "special" session of the Minnesota legislature, a bill was snuck through the House and Senate eliminating the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizen's Board. Established in the 1960s, the Citizens' Board had consisted of eight members and the Commissioner of the MPCA. Their bylaws called for one member to be "knowledgeable in the field of agriculture." According to former Board member Jim Riddle, "The Citizens’ Board came under fire from corporate agribusiness interests last fall, after we required an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a proposed confined animal feeding operation (CAFO)."

The owners of the CAFO didn't have enough land to spread even half the manure they would generate. They had no idea (or interest) how much their water use would impact existing farms in the area. Their water plan consisted of building a twelve mile pipeline from a well that had been permitted seven years earlier for an ethanol plant that had never been built.

The Board's request for an environmental impact statement angered the
Agri-Growth Council, whose Directors include executives from Cargill, CHS, and General Mills. Although Riddle says the Board didn't prohibit the CAFO, apparently agribusiness is unhappy with the idea that anyone has the authority to insure that "more information be provided on the environmental and economic impacts of the proposed facility, in order to demonstrate that Minnesota’s laws would be followed and the health and safety of area residents and the environment would be protected."

Advocates for a lot of schemes like CAFOs, sulfide mining on the Iron Range and pipelines through the Headwaters like to portray the opponents of these schemes as head-in-the-sand Luddites. Elimination of the Board, says Riddle, will make it "easier for industrial agriculture, mines, pipelines and other extractive and polluting activities to be approved with little or no citizen participation."

The reality, it seems to me, is that the advocates of these schemes fear their plans won't stand up to close scrutiny. The point is not that CAFOs should never be built, that copper should never be mined, or that oil should never be transported. People could argue those points, but that's not the point here. The point is that politically powerful owners and corporations want to do these things in the cheapest, sloppiest way possible, with no oversight. This makes good economic sense, if your economic perspective extends only to the next quarterly or year-end report. The corporations are acting rationally, from their economic point of view, when they behave this way. CAFOs and companies like Enbridge and Polymet have a long history of cutting corners to save money, and then trying to evade the penalties and costs of cleanup when things go wrong.

But clearly this kind of sensible economic behavior is not in the public interest, or even in the long-term interest of the companies involved. The decision to do it anyway and try to silence the opposition is what economists call "market failure." It is precisely why we can't have a completely free market (despite the fantasies of Ayn Rand-readers), and why regulatory agencies and citizen boards need to exist.