Rise of the Fur Trade

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Centuries elapsed until white men appeared. Jacques de Noyons, a Frenchman, arrived in 1688, or thereabout, and is said to have set foot on the site of present-day Fort Frances, Ont. More explorers — French and British — followed and by 1800 Rainy Lake and Rainy River were witnessing heavy travel. Here was the main route of the fur trade, the voyageurs' highway that linked the Great Lakes with outposts in the remote interior. Both the Hudson's Bay Co. and its rival, North West Co., had trading posts in Fort Frances. The fur trade declined in the mid-1800's and voyageur travel came to a halt with the building of the Canadian Pacific. The transcontinental line reached Rat Portage (present-day Kenora, Ont.) in 1880, opening a new route for travel to and from the Koochiching area and other settlements along the boundary.

Steamboats appeared almost immediately to haul supplies and passengers from the Rat Portage railhead across Lake of the Woods and up the Rainy. The new all-water route was seasonal, expensive and not always reliable but it was an improvement. The nearest railhead for Koochiching settlers was still Tower, Minn., 100 miles away, and the route required a long, difficult portage between Lake Vermilion and Crane Lake.

Transportation for Koochiching pioneers received a major boost in 1901 with the building of the Canadian Northern Ry., which served Fort Frances enroute from Winnipeg to the Canadian lakehead. The new connection spurred settlement on both sides of the Rainy. Now for the first time there was all-rail access to the outside world, though it was a round-about haul for U.S. shippers and passengers. American settlers bringing in their household goods and livestock over the Canadian railway still faced the problem of getting their property across the Rainy, since there were no bridges. The Fort Frances-Koochiching ferry served passengers and carried small freight but heavy items remained a problem until International bridge was opened in 1912. Cattle, in some cases, were forced to swim.

From the beginning, settlers had felt certain that the vast waterpower of Koochiching Falls would eventually be harnessed, and by 1900 plans were taking shape under the leadership of Edward W. Backus and associates. Rainy River would soon be dammed and power houses on both sides of the boundary would supply energy for paper mills and other industries. By the turn of the century local boosters were envisioning a manufacturing metropolis with a population of at least 10,000.

Koochiching would need a railroad of its own to support the proposed development, an all-American line having direct connections with the Twin Cities, Chicago and other population centers. Residents waited 7 years for that railway, the Minnesota and International. It reached International Falls in 1907 and its arrival marked the beginning of a vast development based on the timber industry.

First White Settlers
The first white visitors saw this area from canoes on the waterways and were impressed by what met their eyes. It was a land of beauty with Rainy River drawing particular praise. John McKay, a Hudson's Bay Co. "servant" of the 18th century, wrote in his dairy: "This is one of the beautifullest rivers I ever saw in the country."

Trappers, cruisers and surveyors who came later found both scenery and a wealth of natural resources in the interior: Large stands of pine and an abundance of other tree species — black and white spruce, balsam, cedar, aspen and tamarack. The climate and soil also favored growth of a profusion of flowers and wild fruits — blueberries, high-and low-bush cranberries, pin cherries and plums. Nature's bounty in the early days included woodland caribou and elk. These, along with moose and deer, helped stock the larders of many a homestead family.

Measuring 60 miles north to south and 62 miles east to west, Koochiching has an area of 3,141 square miles — close to 2,000,000 acres. More than 3/4 of the area is classed as forest land, much of it under public ownership.

While most of the original white and Norway pine was cut in the first 3 decades of this century, other species continue to support a thriving forest products industry. Chief user of the forest harvest at present is Boise Cascade Corp. which operates large paper and fiberboard mills in International Falls and has a sawmill and wood chip facility at Big Falls. The firm is the largest employer and largest taxpayer in the county. It owns more than 300,000 acres of woodlands that are managed for a continuing yield.

Next: Geography of the Land