Flashback Friday: Itasca became state park 128 years ago

The headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park. Photo: DNR Photo
The headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park.

April 19, 2019 11:17 AM

It was 128 years ago this week that Minnesota established its oldest official state park.

But the decision to so designate the area around Lake Itasca - where the headwaters of the Mississippi River are located - did not come without resistance.


While surveyor Jacob Brower - whose work in the region led him to push for its preservation - and a number of prominent citizens of the state backed the idea, opposition was offered from some in the timber industry and others.

At the time, very few such parks had been so designated at the national or state level. 

In the end, though, a bill proposed by State Sen. John Sanborn narrowly passed the legislature and was signed into law by then-Gov. William Merriam on April 20, 1891.

"The timber industry saw potential in the area," said Steve Penick, an archivist at the Stearns History Museum in St. Cloud, who researched and wrote an article about the park's creation for the Minnesota Historical Society.

"There was a building boom going on nationwide. And a lot of the white pine had already been taken out of Michigan and Wisconsin. Minnesota was sort of the next place up. And then you had the railroads, sawmills and all those supporting industries that had their eyes on the area.

"But on the other side, it was really the beginning of the progressive era. And preservation was starting to become a concept people were embracing. I think the fact that this spot had the headwaters of the Mississippi made preserving it even more important than if it had been some other location."

Even so, according to an account in the April 5, 1891 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune, Sanborn almost didn't make it to the floor in time to vote on his own bill.

"When the calendar was reached, Senator Sanborn's bill creating the Itasca state park came within an ace of defeat by an oversight," the newspaper reported. "Senator Sanborn's attention had been called to something else and the roll was being called and the farmers were voting against the measure before he found what was going on."

The paper went on to write that Sanborn "called attention to the fact that the most prominent and public spirited men of the state were behind the bill, and with withering sarcasm suggested that if it was the idea of the Senate that it was best to simply to live, (propagate), die and rot without regard to the past or future or any of the higher things in life, it would be a great plan to defeat the bill."

But the Senate did not defeat it. And Brower himself was named the park's first commissioner, lasting in the post from 1891-95.

"He did it pretty much for free," Penick said. "He had neither a salary nor a budget.

"He was kind of a renaissance man. He liked history. He liked writing. He was a surveyor and a lawyer. And he really fell in love with the Itasca area. He realized the importance of saving it."

As Sandra Lichter, a park naturalist at Itasca State Park, points out, Itasca was not technically the first state park in Minnesota.

But it is the oldest.

"We always say we're the oldest," she said. "Technically, there were a couple of places that were authorized to become state parks prior to Itasca, but they aren't state parks today."

And in the early days, the park still had to contend with logging.

"They didn't get all the land in one shot," Penick said. "At the beginning, the railroads and the lumber companies still had parcels inside. Even after the park opened, there was still logging going on.

"And it didn't always stay inside its parcels."

But logging was phased out in the years following World War I.

And an overnight lodge had already been opened at the park in 1905.

"More and more people started coming to the area and there had to be a place to put them," Lichter said.

Today, the park totals more than 32,000 acres and contains more than 100 lakes. And it draws more than 500,000 annual visitors.

"It's really one of the crown jewels of the state park system," Penick said. "It's certainly one of the most famous."

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Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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