Iron Ranges of Minnesota, 1909

Grand Rapids: a transportation, logging, and recreation hub
The old Itasca County Courthouse was built in 1894 two blocks south of the current courthouse.

The old Itasca County Courthouse was built in 1894 two blocks south of the current courthouse.

Village of Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids, the judicial seat of Itasca County, is one of the most prosperous and progressive towns in northern Minnesota. It is the most important point on the Great Northern railroad between Cloquet and Bemidji, a distance of 140 miles, and has been for a third of a century the chief business center of an empire which exceed in extent any one of the New England states except Maine.

The location of the town marks the foot of a succession of cataracts extending for several miles in the Mississippi river and which caused it to become the head of steamboat navigation on the “Father of Waters.” The lumbermen who became interested in the great tracts of pine timber growing contiguous to the Mississippi river and its tributaries above this point found this the most convenient location to establish headquarters for their extensive logging operations. Although the manufacture of lumber was never undertaken here on a large scale, Grand Rapids was for many years the principal logging center of northern Minnesota whence supplies of timber were floated to the mills at Minneapolis and intermediate points.

Looking south toward the Grand Rapids business district, circa 1909.

Looking south toward the Grand Rapids business district, circa 1909.

A number of the most prominent lumbering concerns in the state made this the center of their logging operations for many years employing altogether thousands of woodsmen and teamsters and establishing camps at various points within a radius of 100 miles or more the supplies for which were toted from the main headquarters at Grand Rapids. Among these lumbering firms may be mentioned T. B. Walker, Price Bros., Itasca Lumber Company, Backus-Brooks Company, Bovey-De Laittre Lumber Company, Shevlin-Carpenter Company, H. C. Akeley Lumber Company, Powers-Simpson and Co., the Washburn and Pillsbury interests, besides many other large organizations and minor contracting concerns.

A prolific region

The natural resources of the country tributary to Grand Rapids are practically unlimited. Although for the most part the great stretches of forest have disappeared, the timber having been felled and floated away, yet the development of the country’s wealth has only just begun. It has long been known that the western end of the Mesaba range was rich in mineral deposits but this fact is just beginning to attract serious attention from practical mining men. Exploration of the territory immediately contiguous to Grand Rapids has been very active during the last year or two and many drills are still operating here. As a result of these investigations, numerous leases have been taken on property within a few miles of this town by some of the leading mining companies operating on the range and other leases are being persistently sought.

The Pokegama Hotel in Grand Rapids was built in 1894 by D. M. Gunn.

The Pokegama Hotel in Grand Rapids was built in 1894 by D. M. Gunn.

It is a significant fact that Grand Rapids was one of the first points on the Mesaba range to attract the attention of prospectors. Expeditions fitted out at this place located and partially developed the Holman, Diamond and Arcturus mines a few miles east of this place before any other developments of importance had taken place on the range. At that time, however, it was not believed to be practicable to concentrate the ores by washing away the sand with which they were impregnated and this circumstance, together with the lack of transportation to and from these mines, delayed their development for some years. It is now practically assured, however, that the whole district eastward from Pokegama Lake will be producing marketable ore within a very few years.

Breaking a log jam near Grand Rapids.

Breaking a log jam near Grand Rapids.

Splendid transportation facilities

Transportation by water, which was originally the sole dependence of this place, was supplemented in 1892 by the building of the Duluth and Winnipeg railroad (now a part of the Great Northern system) which supplies an outlet eastward to Duluth and the Twin Cities and westward directly to the Pacific coast and intermediate points. These advantages are still further augmented by the branch line which will be completed to Grand Rapids this season, giving direct communication with all the principal points on the range and it is practically certain that the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railroad will extend its line from Coleraine to Grand Rapids in the near future, thereby providing a second line of communication with other range points.

That these improvements will be of great benefit to Grand Rapids cannot be doubted. Other lines of railroad are being planned by different corporations all of which recognize this place as an objective point which must be taken into consideration and the wondrous developments which are certain to take place in this part of the state in the next few years cannot fail to contribute much toward the future greatness of Grand Rapids.

With the passing of its forests, the unmeasured wealth lying dormant in the soil of Itasca County is beginning to be realized. No more thrifty farms can be found throughout the length and breadth of Minnesota than exist within a few miles of Grand Rapids. Conspicuous among these is the North-East Experiment Farm, established several years since by the state. It comprises several hundred acres equipped with modern buildings and first-class farm implements in charge of Superintendent McGuire, a practical man, who conducts careful and scientific experiments in all branches of farming, horticulture, stock raising and dairying and has demonstrated that every branch of husbandry known to this latitude can be carried on here successfully. Many farmers in this vicinity have profited by the object lessons given at this experimental station which has been prolific of useful results.

Health and pleasure resorts

The lakes, springs, streams and cataracts which abound throughout Itasca County have long been famous magnets to attract the hunters and fishermen of this and other states, thousands of whom make annual pilgrimages of hundreds of miles to pursue their favorite sports in these wilds. The reputation of this region among seekers of health and recreation is being extended each season and brings hundreds of vacationists from distant cities. The advantages of this climate to people afflicted with lung troubles or malarial affections cannot be overestimated, and persons thus afflicted who come to spend a brief vacation often become permanent residents of northern Minnesota, finding the mythical severities of its winter climate equally bracing and salubrious.

A popular resort with citizens of Grand Rapids which is rapidly becoming famous with the people of more distant places is Lake Pokegama, a charming sheet of water only three miles from the town. Many cottages and camps dot the shore of this lake in summer and scores of pleasure launches skim its surface. The lake is a number of miles in extent and is connected with other bodies of water, permitting a cruise of several days amidst ever-changing scenery and bringing rest and pleasure for mind, body and nerves. Many other enchanting nooks may be reached by a few miles drive from Grand Rapids, and no brief vacation will suffice to visit all the points of interest in this vicinity.

Historical and reminiscent

The early annals of Grand Rapids are replete with the reminiscences of the pioneers who experienced many of the privations and adventures common to frontier life in the west. The strategic advantages of this place, as well as the possibilities in the way of future industrial development, were noted by explorers hunters and trappers who occasionally passed this way for two or three centuries before the place became the permanent abode of white men.

Warren Potter, an enterprising merchant of Aitkin, Minnesota, who still resides at that place, put up the first permanent building in 1871. Three years later, he opened a store or trading post which he conducted for more than 20 years. His stock of goods was brought from Aitkin either by steamboat or by keelboats poled up the river by his employees. His customers for many years were mostly Indians and woodsmen engaged in logging cruising through the adjacent forests.

Mr. Potter became one of the most influential citizens of the place and was active in promoting many needed improvements. He was a leading spirit in the organization of Itasca County and the establishment of the county seat at Grand Rapids. He was also active in securing legislation which permitted the fees from liquor licenses to be turned into the road and bridge fund. By this means funds were raised to build the first bridge over the Mississippi River at Grand Rapids and a road across the ravine leading to the court house. The first bridge across the Prairie River was also built by means of this fund.

A year or two after the opening of Mr. Potter’s store, a hotel was built by L. C. Seavey, which became a prominent landmark for many years. Other stores and hotels were erected within the next few years, and the place soon became the headquarters of numerous logging enterprises, that industry absorbing most of the attention of the inhabitants for many years.

The first school in the place was taught in the fall of 1887 by Miss Martha Maddy, but the first school house was not completed until two years later, the building having been subsequently removed to Cohasset. It is recorded that only two white children attended the first school, the balance of the scholars being either wholly or partly of Indian blood, a circumstance which caused many of the pioneers to look upon the introduction of a school as a superfluous innovation.

The first religious services in the embryo city were held by the Episcopalians, but occasional services were soon after commenced by Father Buh, the famous Catholic missionary in northern Minnesota. The first building erected expressly for the purpose of worship was put up by the Presbyterians in 1890. Municipal progress

With the opening of railroad communication between Grand Rapids and Duluth which occurred in 1892, the settlement began to take on the appearance of a modern village, but its commercial supremacy was disputed for a time by the village of La Prairie, which had been incorporated in 1890. This place was laid out two miles east of Grand Rapids at the mouth of the Prairie River, which there unites with the Mississippi, and was considered a very promising location by its promoters. A village government was maintained for several years and a population of 300 or more was claimed for the town at one time while La Prairie was the temporary terminus of the Duluth and Winnipeg Railroad, but the inevitable county seat fight was won by Grand Rapids, which soon after absorbed most of the population of its former rival and La Prairie became only a memory.

The village of Grand Rapids was incorporated in 1892 and, a few months later, the county seat was established at this place. A substantial courthouse of brick and stone provides commodious and comfortable quarters for the transaction of the official business of the county, and a substantial brick jail is located in the courthouse grounds.

The development of the village has been steady and permanent and guided by intelligence and civic wisdom. The present population comprises upwards of 3,000 people who are uniformly busy and contented. Municipal improvements have been planned and carried out as the progress of events seemed to demand. A municipal water system was established in 1893, and there are now seven miles of mains and four miles of sewers in the village. An electric light plant was installed by the village in 1901, and now has over 250 consumers. A modern system of street lighting is being installed and a number of blocks of granitoid concrete paving have been laid this season, in addition to which there are several miles of concrete walk. The stranger who visits Grand Rapids is at once impressed with the permanence and stability of the improvements.

The street improvements made this season will involve an expenditure of not less than $20,000, and further improvements are already planned for next season. The municipal government is in charge of the following officials: A. C. Bossard, president; Henry Hughes, E. N. Remer and Keo La Roux, trustees; W. C. Yancey, recorder.

Source (text and images): Iron Ranges of Minnesota, an illustrated supplement to the Virginia Enterprise published in 1909, provided by the Virginia Area Historical Society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.