St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Sunday, September 9, 2012

1854 St Paul to Superior via the St Croix River Valley

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine 1864 
(We follow the trip from St. Paul, to Little Canada, Wyoming, Sunrise, Wood River, Clam Falls, Yellow River, Namekagon, Gordon, and Bayfield--part of the Rambler's collection of very early accounts of the area).

BRIGHT shone the sun on a warm July afternoon when a cavalcade of carriages and baggage-wagons drove from the portico of the International Hotel at St. Paul, on a joarney across prairies and through forests to reach the far-famed Lake Superior. Kind friends assembled to bid farewell; the polite landlord handed the ladies to their seats; waiters and porters gathered to wish "good luck," nnd to wonder (no doubt) why people who could sleep on good beds, and " fare sumptuously every day," should choose to lie on the ground and eat from tin dishes with iron forks. But it was even so; and the hearts of the youthful members of the party beat high with hope and expectation of wild adventure and romance; and those of more mature age were in nowise daunted at the prospect, although heat, dust, mosquitoes, and hostile Indians had been held up before them in terror.

The conductor proposed that after driving six miles we should encamp for the night, thus gaining the first experience of camping out at a near point to the town, so that in case of any unforeseen deficiency he could send back and have the want supplied. Accordingly, on the shores of a beautiful little lake, and near a French settlement called Little Canada, the tents were pitched, a fire made, and the table-cloth spread on the grass, milk being purchased of a little French girl who hung around the encampment, enchanted with the gay laughter of the party and the unusual scene near their quiet and retired hamlet.

The bell of the little chapel tolled for vespers, reminding ns that we should strive "not for one moment to live the guests of such dread scenes without the springs of prayer o'erflowing all the Boul." There was something so exciting in lying down on the hard ground, with all the surroundings, that it was long before we could compose ourselves to sleep. Then suddenly came a burst of joyous merriment, proceeding from the lake, where the men who had charge of the horses, accompanied by Antoine, a foreign attendant of the party, had gone to wash off the dust of the day. Long and loud were the shouts, and above them all rang forth the toice of Antoine. The horses were near the sleepers, they, with the wagons, forming a sort of semicircle at the back of the tents.

In the early morning the ladies bathed in the lake ; and after a breakfast of fish caught from Bass Lake, one mile distant, we again moved forward. Bass Lake, which we next passed, is a beautiful sheet of water, adorned with lovely white lilies. The ground on one side rises to a height of forty feet, and the slope was covered with groups of cattle. A solitary man occupied a small house in the neighborhood.
From Bass Lake we moved on through the sandy road and across the prairie to Rice Lake, stopping to water at the log-cabin of a German, and thence proceeded to the town of Columbus. The heat was excessive, and the drought had been severe, making the sand in the roads very deep; but the horses were the only sufferers. All were impressed with the solitude of the scene. Hour after hour passed by, and not a human being nor a dwelling was visible. Indeed, during the whole journey of two hundred and ten miles we met only six wagons. Columbus, comprising only one house, was nevertheless laid out on paper for a large city, having streets eighty feet wide, with churches, schoolhouses, etc. So confined also were the limits of this house that we were obliged to eat the excellent dinner which the landlady provided in the kitchen, where glowed an ample fire not at all needed for our comfort, with the thermometer at 90°.

The landlord threw out some words of discouragement as to what was in store for us, and fears were entertained by the more enthusiastic of the party that the wiser heads might propose beating a retreat. The horses were fagged, and the heat and dust still continued to be excessive. But the hearts that composed the party were made of unyielding stuff. " Onward" had been their motto through life; and so when Wyoming—another large city, containing two houses was reached after a drive of eight miles, and a consultation was held, the most delicate of the Ladies boasted of Herculean strength, and the young gentlemen and ladies declared that, rather than yield to any thing so ignominious as a return to St. Paul, they would walk to Bayfield! So after deciding on driving to Sunrise the next Jay, we prepared ourselves to enjoy Mrs. Tombkr'a good fare, and the ladies were accommodated with a large sleeping-room and good beds, l:a\ing the gentlemen, in American fashion, to bleep on the floor in an ante-chamber.

Wyoming is on a dead level, and could not without too much poetical license be called "fair." But as the carriages passed through these vast solitudes, the mind was busy picturing the time, not far distant, when inhabitants should people these solitary places ; and when the lovely prairie flowers every where abounding should be transferred to well-arranged gardens, nnd the white pond-lilies covering the little lakes should grow in artificial ponds within the pleasure-grounds of Country seats.

And now, tho next morning—more hesitation, no abatement of dust, though the dew had made the night cool—there arose a question: Should we make for Prescott and take a Mississippi boat? But Sunrise seemed such a tempting name, and the " onward" feeling was so predominant, that, though the more delicate ones drooped a little with the heat (which through all these days was from 90° to 100° in the shade), the drive to Sunrise was decided on. The road, as heretofore, lay through deep sand —deeper because for nearly two months previous no rain had fallen—but lovely flowers abounded; and from the carriage where the young people were seated voices raised swelling notes to sing heart-stirring strains, and still were they urged on to sing again the old loved melodies.

On reaching Sunrise we found that the place did not correspond with its name. It proved to be a miserably small and unfinished village, where were stationed a company of soldiers to allay the fears of the inhabitants respecting the Indians. The terror which had been aroused by the massacres of the Sioux in Minnesota the previous antumn had reached thus far. On the .Sunrise River were a saw-mill and school-house. The water was clear and cold, and fine fish are sometimes taken there; but the fisherman of our party had no success. Deep black sand abounded in this place. We passed the night at Sunrise, the gentlemen sleeping in one of the tents, and the ladies in rooms where unplastered laths permitted free vision and ventilation.

After breakfast the next morning we left the village, and made our way to the ferry over the St. Croix River, which is the dividing line between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The ferryman was absent and the scow on the other side. But two of the active young teamsters swam the river and brought it over; and, after two or three hours' delay, the whole party crossed, together with an additional wagon to convey oats for the remainder of the journey. From what we had been told we expected, after leaving Sunrise, "to bowl along" over the ground. But, alas for human hopes, a new road had been laid, and for the first and last time we were jolted over several miles of stumps and stones and rough uneven ground. One carriage was in advance of the others, containing a gentleman, three ladies, and the driver, when suddenly a gust of wind arose and a strong smell of smoke and burning wood filled the air. The sky was overcast, and we felt that we were too far ahead of our party. So a halt was made ; some refreshment and rest revived our minds and bodies, and reassuring ourselves and our driver, who i feared a burning prairie ahead, a hail-storm, or hostile Indians, we waited trustingly till the others should come up. Soon were heard the cheerful voices of Billy and Tommy, two young wagoners, exulting over the capture of a tiny partridge. From the first encampment the young gentlemen supplied the party with wild pigeons, prairie hens, partridges, and ducks.

After meeting and exchanging mutual congratulations at the cool breeze which had arisen, all jogged merrily forward, hoping soon to find a spring of water. A spring there was, but so obscurely marked that the forward carriage passed it. There we met a mail-carrier in a one-horse wagon—quite an event—and we all stopped and spoke a few words to him, and then moved on again. Steadily we advanced till lo! at last a house, and a barn, and a lovely spring of water, and a river! Here it was determined we should pass the night, and we proceeded to make ourselves as comfortable as possible. The horses were refreshed with oats and water. One carriage was drawn by a pair of mules, remarkable for their instrumentality in saving between sixty and seventy persons from the late Sioux massacres. Good, stout little mules they were.

Our landlady at Wood River was an interesting woman, but seemed in feeble health. She was a "good shot," and said that it was necessary in winter, as the wolves came to her very door. A little Norwegian girl found a home in this family; and, with all her cares and weakness, the kind lady was teaching this child. Her open hook lay on the table. Oh, many a lesson can be learned in the lowly habitation of the poor! Too many, alas! despising these humble followers, forget our Saviour's words: '' Whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother." The little Norwegian Anna seemed anxious to do all in her power for us, and assisted the ladies in preparing their own simple meal. We were told that about two miles from Wood River is a Norwegian settlement of about forty families, possessing barely the necessaries of life, but very industrious and religious.

After a good night in our tents and a comfortable breakfast the next morning we took leave, enveloped in every available article of warmth, for the day was very cold. We drove on, passing the Keith Rapids; and, while the horses were being watered, conversed with and gave books to two or three Swedes—young men with fine faces, who seemed happy to receive a few words of kindness. At Wood River, while we were sitting around the table, a French Canadian and his son—a lad of twelve years— suddenly dropped in. They had walked thirty miles that day, and as our route was theirs we invited them to ride on one of our baggagewagons for the next day's journey.

We lunched at Clam River, where we met the first Indians ; and one of them having a canoe, the ladies were paddled up and down the river, seated in the bottom of the frail bark. Clam River is a tributary of the St. Croix. At the spot where the party paused the view was perfectly beautiful. It contained all the requisites for the picturesque—a cottage, a river, a bridge, undulating ground, a group of Indians, and a canoe. The owner of the house was a Virginian, his wife a Norwegian. They seemed much gratified with the little books given to the children, and received the party, ns did the few other families encountered on the road, as welcome guests, hanging around them, anxious to serve in some way. The young Indian who paddled the canoe for the ladies said that on the day before he had brought three barrels of flour from the Falls —a place seven miles distant. It showed that the canoe, although so light and airy in appearance, was in reality very strong.

Eight miles farther on we came to Yellow Lake. Here is a trading post, a house owned by a half-breed Indian, and two or three wigwams. The road during the afternoon lay along the banks of the Yellow River, which takes its rise in Yellow Lake; and the encampment for the night was at the junction of the Yellow and St. Croix rivers. Here, too, the site of ground chosen was beautiful. A good bridge spanned the river. A settlement had once been made here by a company from New York, and the frame of a mill was still standing. But they became discouraged and left the place, and the Indians destroyed all traces of their buildings. This spot had evidently been a famous Indian camping ground. The land rose gradually from the river to quite an elevation, and the gentle slope was covered with the bones of animals on which the red men had at various times feasted.

A short distance from where our encampment was made was a high knoll, on which were several Indian graves. A tall pole marked the place. Some of the graves were covered with an inclosure of birch bark and boards. The golden sunshine rested around and adorned these simple, lonely tombs of the poor children of the forest; and those who with such care had laid the sleepers in their silent beds- had moved on, probably never again to stand upon the spot where once they paused to lament their dead.

Back of our tents and very elevated was a formation of ground which one of the drivers said had been a fort, and beneath which it was thought many bodies were interred. A very heavy dew fell during the night, and breakfast would have passed off as but a melancholy affair had it not been for Antoine's excellent soup— such soup as only French cookery could have supplied. He had pronounced the poultry when first purchased as of " the time of Le General Washingtone;" nevertheless, he managed to set before the hungry travelers most admirable dishes therefrom. He was full of wonder "why" and "what for" his ladies came there; but as they were there he endeavored to turn all the discomforts into causes of merriment, ever ready with some droll remark to excite the laughter of the youthful members of the party. Handing the young ladies water—rather warm, sometimes not quite clean, and in a tin cup—on observing them drink it eagerly, he would remark, "Ah, it is much better than iced water in a silver pitcher."

Long the party lingered around this encampment, unwilling to leave such a beautiful spot. But the conductor was anxious to reach Nimakogan at noon; so once more the cavalcade took up the line of march. At noon we passed a stream, which the driver said abounded in trout; but as it was Sunday none of the party felt inclined to fish. Whortleberries were plentiful along the road-side, and we occasionally paused to refresh ourselves with a few of them. Tha ground here became more broken, but the road was good and the weather perfect.

Nimakogan, at the junction of the St. Croix and Nimakogan rivers, was a romantic spot. A good bridge crossed the river, where a short time ago was only a ferry-boat. We stopped at the house of a lumber merchant, and gathered together in a small but clean room for morning service. We invited the men around to join with ns in worshiping God, and a few accepted the invitation. The lessons for the day proclaimed the Lord God as the great "I Am;" and as the solemn petitions of the Liturgy arose we hoped that the hearts of these men, living far from all the means of grace, might be touched. After service we had dinner at the house. A young German waited on us with a sort of affectionate and earnest zeal. He was the cook of the establishment, and extremely neat and orderly in all his arrangements. He seemed pleased to receive a present of a Testament, and when asked if he would read it, replied, in a serious and decided tone, "I will." At two o'clock we left them,refreshed in body and mind.

After driving two miles, all became aware of a proximity to burning woods. Trees and grass in flames seemed to surround us. As we drove on the fire extended to the right and left. The conductor rushed ahead, knocking over one or two charred trees, one falling but a moment before the carriage reached the spot. While the conductor was running through the fire he picked up a young rabbit, which was bewildered by the smoke, and gave it to one of the young ladies. Poor Bunny! in spite of all the fostering care of its loving protector it lived only two days. Not one drop of mill: could be procured from Wood River to Bayfield. After passing the burning district we came to a country whero we saw numberless evergreens, occasionally many acres being overgrown with young pines and balsam-firs. Then, again, appeared a large district covered with half-burnt trees—charred trees still standing, others lying on the ground in wild confusion—no signs of vegetation to be seen. We passed numerous small lakes, many of them very beautiful, and some inviting camping grounds. But the conductor advised going as far as Antoine Gordon's, the usual stopping place.

At seven o'clock the weary horses drew up at this station. It was not very attractive in external appearance, having no inclosure in front, which was a barren sandy area. At the left of the house stood a garden, blighted by a heavy frost the night before (July 11), which killed all the corn. We found Mrs. Gordon anxious to accommodate us, and as the dew was falling heavily we thought it best to take shelter under her roof. So we spread our table-cloth in the kitchen, while she cooked in a shed adjoining. Her husband, a French half-breed, was absent. She was the daughter of an Englishman, and her mother—a squaw—lived in a wigwam on the plain in front of her daughter's house. Another wigwam was seen in the distance. Mrs. Gordon spoke English, French, and Chippewa fluently, and waited on all the party with much alacrity.

Leaving there at half past seven in the morning and driving twenty-two miles, we came to the loveliest spot that a wilderness could ever contain—a beautiful lake about six miles in circumference, in the centre of which arose an island covered with fine trees. The house stood feeing the lake, with a lawn gently sloping to the water's edge, where was a small dock and a little boat On either side of the house was a well-kept and well-arranged garden. The frost had not visited this place. A neat log barn was at a convenient distance from the house, and an ice repository occupied an accessible place near the lake. The forest, vocal with birds, formed a semicircle in the rear. As we entered the house, the neatly-ceiled walls, the Indian mats covering the floors, the vases filled with white pondlilies and other flowers, and the general aspect of two bedrooms adjoining the parlor, so delighted the party and appeared so much like civilization, that the ladies were clamorous in their requests to go no further that day. So after due consultation it was decided upon, as best for the tired people and somewhat jaded horses, to tarry a while at this tempting resting-place.

Those who wished to bathe soon plunged into the waters of Island Lake, and found it most refreshing to wash off the dust of the drive in the soft clear water. One of the young ladies '' pushed the light shallop from the shore," and well could she appear as " Lady of the Lake;" for, with her bright face beaming with happiness and in her picturesque woodland costume, she paddled the boat toward the Island. Oh ! when did dinner ever so gratify the taste of hungry wanderers as that prepared by Mrs. Taylor, aided and directed by Antoine!

After dinner the party separated—some to fish, others to shoot; some to read, and others to rest. One lady sat apart and sketched the scene. What | an oasis, what a paradise this lovely spot ap| peared! so replete with comforts, so neat and so inviting. At evening the hunters returned with I game, and the fishermen with fine perch and | bass; and we were regaled with a fine supper of nicely-cooked fish and duck. We took entire possession of Mrs. Taylor's house; all lay down and slept peacefully. Most reluctantly in the morning did we prepare to depart; and gladly would the kind landlord and landlady have detained us, for this solitary couple lived far from any human habitation, twenty-two miles being the distance to the nearest neighbor. No lady had visited the house in more than a year. But they made themselves happy by their industry and good management; thus securing for themselves every comfort of which their situation admitted. The mail-carrier passed through twice a week on foot. He was an Indian halfbreed, and carried his burden on his back with a strap around his forehead. We heard that he walked forty miles a day for two days consecutively.

After leaving Taylor's the train of wagons soon plunged into the woods, and here fur a whole day we drove through a splendid forest over an excellent road. The hearts of the travelers were lifted in adoration to the great Creator, as their eyes were raised to trace the height of those silent monarchs that for years had reigned in these vast solitudes. Beautiful ferns and a variety of lovely vines grew at the base of the trees and on the side of the road, and red wintergreen berries covered the fallen logs. All day long there seemed to be some new variety of the vegetable creation to cause wonder and admiration. Occasionally some of the party would alight and take long walks. Near a pretty little lake and under some of the majestic trees all were seated at noon for luncheon.

Two of the party walked on ahead, and becoming fatigued, seated themselves on a log at the edge of the wood. Suddenly two Indians made their appearance, and although Indians they could not conceal their astonishment at seeing a lady and gentleman quietly seated in that lonely spot. They asked, in broken English, where we were from and whither we were going ? On being told, they said: "You walk all the way ?" " No," we said ; " carriages behind and more people." They then spoke a few words together and vanished in the woods. On going further they were found standing at the door of a house, where dwelt a brother of Antoine Gordon's. This was twenty-two miles from Taylor's, and the last station before reaching Bayfield.

About sixteen miles from Gordon's we had our last encampment. It was cold, and four large camp-fires were made; and as different groups gathered around them, and night set in, the effect of the scene was beautiful, and furnished a good subject for a sketch, which was made. The beds that night were luxurious. All hands were busily at work gathering ferns and spreading them on the ground before the canvas was laid down. So we slopt grandly on that last night of " camping out."

How sad the thought that it was the last! So pleasant had been the journey, so charming had been the interchange of thought, so strongly had this sojourn in the wilderness bound the sympathetic hearts together, that as the end drew near all shrank from it and wished it might yet be postponed. But Bayficld would be reached at noon. So we ate our last breakfast in the wilderness; and when will fish and eggs be enjoyed with such a relish? When will those dear old woods again resound with so much gayety and mirth ?

Another pleasant drive of twenty-six miles over a wild hilly country, and lo! the white houses of little Bayfield, the blue waters of the lake in the distance, the old church at La Point.