The historic wing dams of the Sainte-Croix River highlighted in the preservation presentation


For immigrants who settled in the Sainte-Croix River region in the 19th century, the river and its tributaries were invaluable means of transportation: carrying millions of logs downstream and carrying settlers and their goods upstream.

Before the creation of the railroads, water was by far the best way to transport large amounts of people, equipment and logs over long distances. The first train did not reach Sainte-Croix until 1871, and it took decades to cover the area. Before the rails were laid, the only alternative to navigating the river was a strenuous land journey along footpaths and wagon trails.

The Holy Cross was the interstate highway of its time. As today, its maintenance has been paid for by the state and the federal government.

In an online presentation last month, three National Park Service historians recounted the story of wing dam construction and other river modifications built between 1875 and the 1930s on the St. Croix River between Taylors Falls and Stillwater by the US Army Corps of Engineers and local steamboat pilots and workers. The presentation was hosted by the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office and moderated by State Archaeologist David Mather.

Years of handling the river have been undertaken so that it can carry as many goods and passengers as possible. Not only are many structures still present today, but they still fulfill their intended function.

Historical diagrams of inland waterway improvement structures, courtesy of the National Park Service

Wing dams extend into the river from the banks, pushing the water toward the middle to create a narrower, faster, and deeper main channel that can carry more boats. Closure dams were constructed to prevent water from entering the side canals and backwaters, again to improve navigation in the main canal. In other places, the banks have been reinforced with stone to prevent erosion.

What once allowed countless paddle steamers to make their way along the river and keep the draves moving, now helps canoeists and kayakers run aground and has likely saved a few boat engines.

Over the past decade, the National Park Service has studied the structures and sought to understand their history. It has involved extensive research of the federal archives, the discovery of original hand-drawn maps and figures, journals and reports, and underwater forays by specialist archaeologists studying submerged historic sites.

In 2015, the Submerged Resources Center and the Midwest Archeological Center of the National Park Service collaborated with the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway to document the extensive improvements made by the United States Army Corps of Engineers along the St. Croix River.

From 1879 to 1900, the Corps constructed 3.6 miles of wing dams, closure dams, jetties, revetments and rip rap to regulate the river and make it a predictable trade route for steamboats. and draves. As part of this investigation, fifty historical water control features were identified and studied between Taylors Falls and Afton, Minnesota.

These existing features continue to be observable in the river today. To the untrained eye, they may appear to be natural islands, sandbanks, or rock piles. In reality, they are remnants of man-made infrastructure from the days when the river was a robust commercial artery. The study provides an opportunity to share this story with the public in the hope of making visitors appreciate the complexity of past and present human interactions with nature.

– MN State Historic Preservation Office

The whole study began with the park’s cultural historian, now retired Jean Schaeppi-Anderson, who began to think about the structures when she noticed them in another year of low water in 2007. In 2012, she enlisted a seasonal worker who was a graduate student. in history, Dan Ott, to conduct research. Ott is now the Cultural Resource Program Manager with the Mississippi National Riverway. His work led to the involvement of a national team of archaeologists from the National Park Service specializing in underwater work, led by David Conlin. The program is now under the responsibility of Jonathan Moore, Manager of the Cultural Resources Program at St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

Moore said during the question-and-answer session that the studies will most likely lead to the nomination of navigation projects for the National Register of Historic Places.

Historical diagrams and maps of works to improve river navigation, courtesy National park service

Some of the work included surveys around the Boom site near Stillwater, which is already a registered national historic monument. Presenters said the current designation focuses primarily on the clifftop region where buildings and support for the forest boom were located, but studying the river could help expand the designated area to include historical elements. in the river.

This summer, taking advantage of the low water, the Park Service called on companies specializing in underwater photography and mapping, to better document the existing structures.

A wing dam on its own can be a bit “underwhelming,” says Moore, as they were simple structures of stone and logs – but taken together they become charismatic. They’ve survived a century or more of freezing winters, spring thaws and hot summer sunshine, he says. One of the greatest threats to these human artifacts today is man himself. The parks service has already seen several places where people have removed rocks from historic structures, possibly without realizing their importance.

“Isn’t it great that 140 years, or 100 years later, [the structures] are still there to see and some of them influence the behavior of the river? Moore said in closing. “Please appreciate them and celebrate them, but please don’t hurt them or change them. “

Sainte-Croix 360 observed underwater archeology in 2015 and published two articles about it at the time:

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