CRM Journal

Book Review

North Woods River: The St. Croix in Upper Midwest History

By Eileen M. McMahon and Theodore J. Karamanski. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009; 416 pp., illustrations; paper $24.95.


This publication had its beginnings as a historic resources study for the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, a unit of the National Park Service. The book reflects its origins. Such studies form the basis for understanding a park's cultural resources, helping to enable a park to manage and interpret resources appropriately. These studies provide the historical contexts for all the historic sites that are or may be present within a park. It is a daunting task to write a historic resources study for linear resources: long corridors, possessing centuries of history, covering a broad spectrum of events. Converting one of these studies into a book is even more so.

North Woods River covers over 300 years of history, a temporal scope matched by its geographical breadth. McMahon and Karamanski could have limited their book to the National Park's 255 miles of the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers, but they examine the entire St. Croix River Basin. Four chapters covering four basic subjects put the St. Croix River Basin into context. The first centers on the fur trade and how it shaped intertribal and international relations involving the Ojibwe, Dakota, French, English, and Americans. Chapter 2 studies the lumber industry from its birth before the Civil War to its end in 1914. In Chapter 3, McMahon and Karamanski detail the settlement of the St. Croix River Basin. And, in their final chapter, they show how the previous stages, combined with the evolution of technology and American society, created today's scenic and recreational river tourism industry.

Early in their book, the authors emphasize a divide between the upper and lower St. Croix River Valley. According to their narrative, the separation emerged during the fur trade, due to the conflict between the Ojibwe and Dakota. Later, the logging industry restored the basin's unity but also evidenced a growing division between the poorer, more sparsely populated northern reaches and the wealthier and more densely populated southern areas. The failure of farming in the northern cutover—the Pine Barrens—accentuate the contrast. Admitting that agriculture was not viable in the Pine Barrens, the Federal Government began buying out farmers during the 1930s. Tourism and the automobile eventually capitalized on the area's rugged character.

Although they call their study an environmental and social history, the authors also look at the political and economic forces that drove and defined development during each era. Fur trade companies, lumber barons, land speculators, railroads, and electric power companies all defined and affected the valley's environment. Sometimes, politics outside the valley determined its fate. The national debate over adding free and slave states before the Civil War helped determine Wisconsin's western boundary at the St. Croix River and divided a valley that its inhabitants had seen previously as a whole.

McMahon and Karamanski also try to give some insights into the social lives of the groups that lived in the basin. They highlight the basics of Dakota and Ojibwe life: their seasonal rounds and well as impacts of both the fur trade and logging industry on their economy and society. They touch on life in logging camps, lumber towns, and early immigrant enclaves (like the Swedish settlement at Chisago Lakes, Minnesota). They consider the difficulties of farm life in the Pine Barrens versus farm life in the more fertile and temperate lower St. Croix Valley. And they evaluate the origins and impacts of tourism on individuals and communities in these two sub-regions.

At a macro level, McMahon and Karamanski attempt to document the environmental changes forced upon the St. Croix River Basin from the fur trade through the creation of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. The fur trade eliminated the beaver, an animal that profoundly defined the St. Croix Valley's landscape and hydrology. The 19th-century evolution of the lumber industry, however, left no time for earlier related environmental effects to become manifest. Lumber companies eliminated over 4,000 square miles of White Pine, leaving behind stubble and brush that became tinder for fires that ravaged the northern St. Croix Basin. They dammed streams to float their logs to booms and mills. In the lower basin, the settlers continued the transformation by turning the cutovers and prairies into wheat fields and dairy farms. In the upper basin, the failure of agriculture, the growing stream of tourists to the area and a New Deal government looking to employ the jobless, reversed previous centuries of resource extraction. Under the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Government sent thousands of workers to replant failed farms with millions of trees, to restore, and to restock streams and rivers with the desired fish, and to build fire roads, lookout towers and scenic overlooks.

Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson experienced the varied history of the upper and lower St. Croix Valley when he tried to establish the whole St. Croix River as a National Wild and Scenic River. The poor soils and rugged terrain of the upper valley denied economic development, thus preserving the area's appearance as more natural. But opponents argued that the St. Croix below Taylors Falls was too urbanized. Nelson succeeded in getting only the upper St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers designated wild and scenic in 1968. Acknowledging development and increasing recreational uses of the lower St. Croix, Nelson worked with Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale and moderate Republicans to pass the Scenic Riverway Act of 1972. This compromise act partitioned the lower river into a federal scenic reach above Stillwater and recreational reach below.

For each story and historic context McMahon and Karamanski examine, there are related cultural resources: archeological remains, standing structures, and other portions of the historic fabric that represents the history of the region. Unfortunately, this publication does not allow for a detailed presentation of the individual sites McMahon and Karamanski identify in their historic resources study.

It is difficult to cover so much history or so many topics over such a long period. They quickly move from one topic to the next, without much depth of analysis. This is often the nature of works based on complex historic resources studies. Often, deeper understanding is lost in the effort to cover so much. Facts also can get garbled: for example, to state that the Corps of Engineers built locks and dams on the whole Mississippi River (p. 244) is simply wrong. The locks and dams run only from St. Louis to Minneapolis. But, even though it remains difficult to be all things to all people in such an all-encompassing saga, thoroughness and fact-checking must remain paramount. The overall weaving of the story cannot rely solely on either the information or the structure offered by the originating historic resource surveys.

Overall, however, McMahon and Karamanski provide a substantive introduction to the regions of the St. Croix Valley. They survey with broad strokes all that this environment has been to its many and varied peoples over the intervening centuries.

John O. Anfinson
National Park Service